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The Great Divide

The passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha is historic for many reasons....

Written by Meghnad Desai |
March 14, 2010 2:26:44 am

THE passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha is historic for many reasons. Once again,India has shown that while it began its life as a Democratic Republic rather late in the day,it has taken the fast track to fulfilling the aspiration of its citizens. It ensured Universal Adult Franchise right from the start while it took older democracies centuries to do so. It put affirmative action for SC/ST in the Constitution. Panchayati Raj came 45 years after Independence but brought along with it radical empowerment for women. And now the process of reservation for women at all levels of representative government has begun.

Whenever it comes to women’s empowerment,people start making obscure objections. Where will we find qualified women for MPs and MLAs,they ask? My answer is how come men are presumed to be qualified and women are not? If the standard of the men is any indicator,women should easily match,if not exceed the quality of legislators. Even progressive women think women should not receive special consideration and instead should win on merit. But then why should that not apply to men as well? Does anyone think men get to the top on merit alone and not due to the barriers they put up to competition from women? This is true not just in Parliament but even more so in boardrooms of top companies and even for winning Oscars for film direction,as we just found out.

Yet,the most important development in this debate has been the drawing of new dividing lines in the political arena. The sight of Arun Jaitley making a powerful speech in favour of the Bill followed soon by Brinda Karat was electrifying (despite the noises from undisciplined members of the Rajya Sabha). What their behaviour and the contrasting attitudes of the RJD,the SP,the BSP and even the Trinamool Congress showed was that in Indian politics there are a small number of national parties and a crowd of regional ones. The national parties—the Congress,the BJP,the CPM/CPI—despite their many differences,take a national or if you like,an all-India,view of the problems confronting the country. The Yadavs and Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee take a parochial view either in caste terms or in regional terms. The remaining parties,whether they were with or against the Bill,have also no vision of national interest,but will do whatever suits them for power and patronage purposes.

This is the core national coalition even if it is not formally in being. On all economic matters,it is these three formations who have to agree on any move and then consensus is guaranteed. It does not make for speed,but it does ensure continuity and consensus. On issues of inclusive development,there is a similar agreement across these national parties with only small differences in specific details. With the new dispensation at the BJP under Nitin Gadkari,there is a distinct move to the centre and a search for a broad appeal within the BJP. There is also an agreement about defence and the nuclear option. There is practically no anti-nuclear Left movement in India as compared to European countries.

There are differences,of course. Between the Congress and the BJP,they centre around the issue of Muslims within India and about the policy towards Pakistan. The BJP is still some distance from granting in a wholehearted fashion full citizenship to India’s 150 Muslims. The CPM/CPI disagrees with the Congress on its so-called anti-Imperialism (anti-US) stance. Anti-Imperialism is a must-have fashion accessory for the CPM and it wrecked itself on this issue during the US-India nuclear deal. Yet on internal matters such as the Naxalite movement,it is the Trinamool which is more out of gear than the CPM/CPI. That of course is because for Trinamool,and for the RJD,the SP and the BSP,all that matters is not the nation but the next State election in ‘their’ state which matters.

Political parties are free in a democracy to be narrow-minded if they wish. But among the national parties,there should be a recognition that the peace and prosperity of India rely upon their implicit co-operation. The Women’s Bill has shown the way forward.

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