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Women’s Bill: Text same,but different context promises smooth passage

The story of the journey of the Women’s Reservation Bill cannot be told through its political math. With the Bill set to come up for consideration in the Rajya Sabha tomorrow,the political calculators are out again.

Written by Vandita Mishra | New Delhi |
March 8, 2010 1:58:22 am

Nitish support,weak Lalu and Mulayam key factors

The story of the journey of the Women’s Reservation Bill cannot be told through its political math. With the Bill set to come up for consideration in the Rajya Sabha tomorrow,the political calculators are out again. But as before,those calculations may not be crucial.

In each of its three previous (aborted) Lok Sabha outings in 1996,1998,1999,the three formations that officially supported the Bill — the Congress,BJP and Left — emphatically outnumbered the three political forces that most violently opposed it — the RJD and JD(U) (subsumed in the Janata Dal,or as separate parties) and the SP.

In the 1996 Lok Sabha,the first three added up to 353 seats to the latter troika’s 63; the equation was 371 to 43 in the 1998 Lok Sabha; and it became 339 to 54 in the 1999 Lok Sabha. Though this time the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill,2008,was introduced in the Rajya Sabha,the equation in the Lok Sabha remains just as outrightly skewed in favour of the pro-camp: 344 to 47.

If the political numbers haven’t shifted dramatically,something else has. For one,none of the main outspoken opponents of the Bill is either part of the governing coalition or allied to it. This was not the case in either 1996,when the ruling United Front counted on Lalu Prasad,Mulayam Singh and Sharad Yadav,or in 1998 when Nitish Kumar,who had recorded his dissent to the Bill in the report of the Geeta Mukherjee-headed joint parliamentary committee in 1996,was railway minister in the Vajpayee government,or in 1999 when Sharad Yadav had also joined the ruling NDA.

Today Lalu and Mulayam support the UPA from outside,but their support is hardly crucial to the Congress in power. The subduing of both Yadavs,which happened primarily in their bastions of UP and Bihar,has come full circle in New Delhi.

For Sharad Yadav,the story has taken an even crueller turn perhaps. With his JD(U) colleague Nitish Kumar announcing his own U-turn on the Bill,Yadav is left to cope with a party that is internally divided.

From Yadav’s perspective,it is an acutely unfair tug of war: JD(U) MPs must choose between Yadav,titular head of an NDA that is a decidedly pale version of itself,and Nitish,the JD(U)’s only mass leader and chief minister in a crucial election year in Bihar.

But if the intensity of the opposition to the Bill has gone down rather dramatically,the reasons don’t have to do with merely the reduced political-electoral clout of the principal opponents of the measure. Nitish’s turnaround on the Bill shows that.

For Nitish,the rethink is perhaps part of a search for a new political idiom and constituency that has marked his tenure as chief minister of Bihar. Lacking the kind of committed caste base that was once — and,in some measure,still is — commanded by his rivals in Bihar,Nitish has tried to play the old caste game and also tread new ground.

As part of his search for new constituencies,he has made efforts to craft new mobilisations,including that of women. The reservation of 50 per cent of seats in panchayats for women in Bihar is part of the Nitish experiment.

Though Nitish’s attempt is driven by his specific compulsions in Bihar,it speaks of a wider change. Women are still not commonly seen to be a political-electoral constituency,but at the same time,for politicians who have exhausted the limits of the old kinds of identity politics and are in search of wider coalitions and newer mobilisations,the charge of being “anti-women” is not one that can be allowed to stick to the kurta anymore. Even those who once scoffed at the demands of political correctness can now do so only at their possible political peril.

While Nitish’s reversal has been dramatic,the DMK’s quieter reversal — it opposed the Bill in 1996 and has now pledged its support — attests to the same shift in a political culture in transition.

Of course,the new opening that the Bill has found in the polity is riddled with its own closures. Be it the old opposition to the Bill,or the newly consolidated support for it,the Women’s Reservation Bill itself remains a black box. While they swear their commitment to women’s reservation,supporters of the Bill refuse to discuss the efficacy of its specific modalities.

The battle for greater representation to women in our legislatures never really needed to be this hard fought — women’s representation has crossed 10 per cent for the first time in the 15th Lok Sabha; among the major states,women make up only 12 per cent of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly,10 per cent in Bihar,9 per cent in Gujarat,10 per cent in Haryana,4 per cent in Maharashtra,9 per cent in Tamil Nadu,6 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and 13 per cent in West Bengal.

But there has never been a debate in the House on whether rotational reservation,for instance,which will involve the unsettling of two-thirds of candidates in every election,is the best way to ensure greater representation of women leaders from the ground level. It remains to be seen whether that debate will be joined in the Rajya Sabha tomorrow.

Maya rules out support

LUCKNOW: On the eve of the presentation of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Parliament,Chief Minister Mayawati threw a spanner in the works on Sunday,putting forward her own demands to the Prime Minister.

Confirming the party stand,BSP’s national general secretary and Rajya Sabha member Satish Chandra Mishra told the mediapersons that the party will not support the Bill if it was tabled in the house in its present format.

“The floor management of the BSP will definitely be present in the House. We will take a decision after the Bill is tabled,” Mishra said. The party wanted “separate quota without disturbing the original quota for SC/ST”,he added.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,Chief Minister Mayawati demanded separate quotas for Dalit,religious minorities,backwards and the poor from the upper castes in the Bill. In addition,the existing reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Parliament and Assemblies must not be disturbed,she added.

In her letter,the BSP chief said she was in favour of reservation for women for their full participation in politics,but the proposed 33 per cent quota within the existing reservation for the SC/ST was wrong.

“Besides protecting the existing quota,my party demands separate reservation for women of the SC/ST communities within the proposed 33 per cent reservation for the women,” wrote Mayawati,who was earlier believed to be averse to siding with the SP,which is also opposing the Bill. Maintaining it was necessary to reserve seats for women of backward communities,religious minorities and the poor from the upper castes,she requested the PM to ensure the presentation of an amended Bill in Parliament.

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