Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised on the floor of the House that the women’s reservation bill will be enacted at the earliest. But I hope he will go about it in a democratic manner and not try to shove the existing reservation scheme down everyone’s throat, as the Congress, under pressure from the Left parties, tried to do. The bill in its present form is a classic example of the growing gap between pious promises and actual results of government policies and legislation in India. We need a thorough debate on the proposed legislation so that some glaring infirmities in the bill can be removed before it becomes law, especially since it requires an amendment to the Constitution.
The bill provides for reservation on a rotation basis through a lottery system, which means that two-thirds of the incumbent members will be forcibly unseated in every general election and those remaining will stay in limbo till the last moment. Such compulsory unseating violates the basic principle of democratic representation and is fair neither to men nor women. It jeopardises the possibility of effective planning to contest by nurturing a political constituency for both male and female candidates.
Second, women will be ghettoised and forced to fight elections only against other women. This will deny them the legitimacy of being mainstream politicians. Third, as male legislators will be forced to surrender their seats for a term to women, those who have worked to nurture their constituencies will likely insist that the seat be given to a woman from their family. Since a seat will be reserved once in 15 years, males pushed out of their constituency are likely to field female relatives or even proxy candidates as a stop-gap arrangement and women will not get the chance to cultivate deep roots in their constituency. This is how the biwi-beti-bahu brigade came to dominate our elected bodies, even at the panchayat and zila parishad levels where this rotation system has already been imposed. Finally, the bill is completely silent about women’s representation in the Rajya Sabha and legislative councils.
It is unfortunate that the UPA government did not consider more viable, alternative proposals. The alternative bill proposed by Manushi, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Lok Satta had received the endorsements of the Election Commission and several political parties. The alternative bill proposes that a law be enacted amending The Representation of the People Act, 1951, to make it mandatory for every recognised political party to nominate women candidates for election in at least one-third of the constituencies. If a recognised party fails to do this, for the shortfall of each woman candidate, two male candidates of the party shall lose the party symbol and affiliation and all recognition-related advantages. This bill has several advantages over the one tabled in Parliament.
First, parties will be free to field women candidates where they can offer a good fight rather than in pre-fixed lottery-based constituencies, where they may or may not have viable women candidates. Thus, there is flexibility and promotion of natural leadership. Second, women candidates will be contesting both against female and/or male candidates of rival parties. The democratic choice of voters will not be restricted to compulsorily electing only women in one-third constituencies while the other two-thirds are treated like male monopolies.
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Third, unlike the lottery system of reserved constituencies, where women’s presence is likely to get ossified at 33 per cent since there would be resistance to letting women contest from non-reserved constituencies, this model allows for far greater flexibility in the number and proportion of women being elected to legislatures. If women are candidates for one-third of all seats contested by each party, theoretically they could win a majority of seats, all on merit. Fourth, it obviates the need for a quota within a quota as is being demanded by certain OBC parties. Since the onus of fielding women candidates will be left to each party, those concerned about increased representation of backward class women can field as many as they think appropriate.
The rotational reservation scheme is likely to face endless delays and obstruction because it requires an amendment to the Constitution. Thereafter, it has to be ratified by at least half of the state legislatures. Given the overt and covert opposition to this bill within all parties, including the BJP, the bill will face endless hurdles along the way. In contrast, the alternative bill can be passed by a simple majority in the two Houses, since all it requires is an amendment to the Representation of the People Act.
However, whatever the form and shape of the women’s reservation law, we cannot overlook the tragedy inherent in the fact that 67 years after Independence, women need to seek the quota route to entry in politics. This acquires more poignancy because, when the Constitution was coming into force, most prominent women leaders refused to accept the principle of reservation as a route to political power. They did so in the belief that as in the Mahatma Gandhi-led freedom movement, they would be able to carve out a respectable space for themselves without being offered crutches. While in post-Independence India women have been successful in entering all other professions on the basis of merit, politics is one field where they have remained marginalised. This is because a polity where money and muscle power dominates doesn’t make space even for honest men, and is therefore intrinsically hostile to women as a group. Only those who can outperform or gang up with men in crime and corruption are likely to survive in the existing scheme of things. Modi understands better than anyone else that radical governance and electoral reforms are needed to cleanse our politics of crime and corruption. That alone will make politics women-friendly.
The writer is founder-editor, ‘Manushi’, and professor, CSDS, Delhi