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Let’s junk the hypocrisy

Believers in constitutional integrity must support SP,RJD,BSP,even if their tactics are wrong....

The drama surrounding the proposed reservation of seats for women in Parliament and in the state assemblies has taken an interesting turn. The supporters are parties which are otherwise always locked in opposition to one another. The Congress,the BJP and the Left are all supporters,although the enthusiasm of all their members is suspect. The SP,the RJD and the BSP are opponents and are very vociferous and obstructive about it. The mystery remains: are the supporters pro-women and are the opponents anti-feminist? Does this simplistic analysis say it all?

Far from it. Issues of franchise are always political. Parties may appear to be taking a progressive stance or a reactionary one. Quite simply,they support the position that would help them. The Congress,the BJP and the Left believe that the change will help them get more seats in Parliament,if not more votes. The opposing parties are legitimately concerned that if fundamental processes associated with the electoral exercise are changed dramatically at one stroke,then they could be losers. In 1909,when the British introduced the Minto-Morley reforms,they came up with the then novel idea of “separate electorates”. The principal beneficiaries were rich Muslims — mind you,not Muslims at large,but rich Muslims. No wonder,the super-rich Aga Khan himself led a deputation of similar “leaders” to ask the Viceroy for this concession. This is not to suggest that the Aga Khan and his friends did not make high-sounding arguments about protecting the rights of Indian Muslims. Political arguments are always couched in such rhetoric. Let us consider the possibility that Minto and Morley,instead of creating a separate Muslim electorate,had in fact created three Muslim electorates,one for the Ashraf,the Muslim aristocracy who claim descent from immigrants,one for the Ajlaf,who are generally considered to be the descendants of lower caste Hindus who converted to Islam,and one for the Arzal,who are assumed to be descended from Dalits who converted to Islam. If the subsequent elections had reflected three separate electorates,it would have been very difficult for the Muslim League to have come up with the slogan that an imagined homogenous form of Islam would be in “danger” in a Hindu majority India. Indian history could and would have taken a different course. When Ramsay MacDonald introduced the “communal award” which conferred separate electorates on the Dalits,Mahatma Gandhi went on a “fast unto death” to oppose this. While undoubtedly the Mahatma’s stance was prompted by his strong opposition to untouchability and his deep,sincere personal convictions,it should be noted that a joint electorate of all Hindus,including Dalits,was beneficial to the Congress Party. In the absence of a joint electorate,the Congress could not have had the oversized influence it had in the independence negotiations with the British. Again,history may have taken a different turn.

The SP,the RJD and the BSP are grass-roots political parties who have been beneficiaries of the present electoral system. To expect them to commit political hara-kiri by agreeing to the new bill is naïve. The fact of the matter is that whatever may be its claims about being inclusive,the Congress’s leadership has always been drawn from the upper castes. The same is the case with the BJP and strangely enough with the Left. The late Kanshi Ram used to point out that while the rank and file members of the communist parties were from lower castes,the Politburo was always dominated by members of upper caste origin. The political parties who draw their support from backward castes and Dalits are convinced that the entire women’s quota idea will help upper caste women candidates and hence reverse the trend of the last four decades where gradually the lower castes have been acquiring political power. Instead of moving from seats of power in the state capitals to power in Delhi,their political aspirations will get derailed. Is this fear justified? Why can these parties not put up women candidates and win? No one can predict the future. But there is a distinct possibility that upper caste women can use their female identity to appeal to women and transcend caste identities — a little bit like rich Muslim leaders of the Muslim League appealing to poor Muslims exclusively on a religious basis,bypassing class considerations.

Many have argued that the women’s movement in the United States has done a disservice to blacks. By combining issues of racial discrimination with issues of gender discrimination,the beneficiaries have been white women and this has been detrimental to the interests of African-Americans as a group. A similar probable consequence is at the root of the opposition by the SP,RJD and the BSP.

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From a strictly constitutional position,one can argue that a radical change in the electoral system would constitute an assault on a “basic feature” and would thus go against the celebrated Keshavanand Bharati judgment. We already have completely discriminatory laws,for instance,women pay less income tax than men. This absurd proposition seems to forget that it is income that is taxed and income does not have any gender. If the Congress-BJP-Left combine to push through this measure,I believe that the opponents will have a strong case to get it struck down by the Supreme Court. The present franchise system — no separate electorates,reservation for SCs and STs,nominated seats for Anglo-Indians,etc — did not come out casually or by accident. The Constituent Assembly discussed and debated these matters at length,and guess what,consensus was obtained. The Muslim members of the assembly supported the abolition of separate electorates. For the Congress-BJP-Left upper caste leadership to ram down a major constitutional change that can have implications similar to the Minto-Morley reforms,pretending to be women-friendly while actually improving their own electoral prospects,is a dubious measure. On this one,believers in constitutional rectitude must support the SP,the RJD and the BSP — even if their parliamentary tactics are too noisy for comfort!

The writer divides his time between Mumbai,Lonavla and Bangalore

jerry.rao@expressindia.com

First published on: 10-03-2010 at 01:26:06 am
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