Kill Bill, for men’s and women’s sake
Amid riotous scenes, India’s upper house passed a controversial legislation to reserve a third of seats in federal and state legislatures for women. The constitutional amendment “one that changes the scope of India’s Constitution” is likely to scrape through the powerful lower house, too. Despite overreaching itself, the government of the day will probably survive.
In principle, empowering women is the way to go. Yet this triumph is a zero-sum game. One participant’s gains can come only from another’s equivalent losses. It seeks to pay Paul by robbing Peter.
This bill is deeply flawed because collateral damages have not been addressed. Since it will be a zero-sum game, it will have a direct bearing on representations of minority communities, backward castes and marginalized women themselves. The Bill is anti-minority, anti-backwards, and both anti-women and anti-men.
In a largely risk-averse political system, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi can take the credit for pulling out a Bill that previous governments “including those run by her own party” had abandoned, and for driving it past dissenters whom she may in future need.
Imposing a 33 per cent quota seems momentous in a country where female foetuses are aborted, wives spanked and women are paid less than a third the male average in unorganized jobs. In reality, the quota can add to the sort of disequilibrium current legislatures are made of.
Even setting aside the fact that some male MPs will naturally have to step down for women, the proposed law fundamentally changes the basic nature of India’s electoral representation.
With a 15-year shelf-life, 33 per cent of the seats will be blocked in rotation and will be done in a way that a seat shall be reserved once in three back-to-back elections. The revolving quota is the Bill’s most serious flaw.
Two-thirds of candidates, men and women, will be unseated every time and one-thirds will have no chance of being re-elected from the same seat. This one-third will be left wondering if they will get to retain their seats, depending on the outcome of the lottery.
On the whole, it will set off largescale churning “every single time” that will make elections farcical. Electors will vote in, rather than vote out incompetent representatives. With frequently changing representatives, what would voters go by in deciding whom to elect?
The role of past performance in deciding a candidate’s fate will be further lessened, thereby blunting the only weapon the common man has. Constituencies will cease to matter for candidates. The veterans and more guile among candidates will resettle themselves, pushing out less iconic politicians.
Accountability will suffer because a candidate will less likely go to the same voter every time. The voters’ powers to rate a candidate’s performance will diminish, paving the way for a greater role of money in deciding electoral outcomes.
A “sense of belonging” is part and parcel of Indian politics. Constituencies are nursed by politicians who invest time, efforts and money into the place they hope to get elected from.
Can we have compelling women leaders if they do not have strong permanent political bases? The current Bill is paternalistic; it seeks to make rolling-stone politicians of women, or “one-time players”, to use women activist Madhu Kishwar’ words.
Several women’s rights organisations have highlighted these fault lines. NGO Manushi advocates an alternative Bill, requiring political parties to reserve nominations (tickets) for women, not seats. Feminist fundamentalists, however, in their zeal, have failed to appreciate the serious weaknesses hidden in the proposed amendment.
Though it will not exactly result in separate electorates, the women’s reservation Bill, in spirit, moves towards that direction. But proponents of the Bill deny such a possibility. Separate electorates, theoretically, are those where electors and the elected belong to the same community, sex or caste.
The Constituent Assembly “which served as India’s first Parliament until it framed the Constitution” had overturned separate electorates granted by the British government to minorities, especially Muslims and Sikhs.,
Framers of the Constitution opted to keep the highest elected institution free from preferential treatment, preferring the “first past the post system”over proportional representation, save for time-bound reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to enable them to overcome disadvantages.
The Constituent Assembly initially included minority safeguards in its Report on Minority Rights adopted in August 1947 and in the Draft Constitution’s Part XIV. However, subsequent nationalist arguments “situated in the immediate past history of Partition” paved the way for a reversal of minority safeguards.
The principal arguments against it were that such rights were based on caste and religion, and religion-based separate electorates had been the immediate trigger for Partition. With the Muslim League and the Sikh Panthic Party in disarray, Muslim and Sikh acquiescence on reversing minority safeguards was ultimately secured.
The reversal was done by a close vote in the Constituent Assembly Advisory Committee meeting, but key Muslim leaders, including Congress leader Maulana Azad, abstained. (R. Retzlaff points out in “The Problem of Communal Minorities in the Drafting of the Indian Constitution” that the Constitution would have included political safeguards for religious minorities had framing been completed during the initial timetable fixed for it. Also see Rochana Bajpai’s Minority Rights in Indian Constitution, Working Paper 30).
If the women’s Bill is passed in its current form, then a clear case emerges for compensatory minority safeguards to be reactivated, not separate electorates but reserved seats.
In fact, parties like Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party and Muslim organizations have demanded a quota-within-quota in women’s reservation.
Muslim representation in the federal legislature is dwindling: from 48 in 1985, it is 29 at present. In all 15 Lok Sabha elections, only 14 Muslim women have been elected. Kerala has two Muslim federal lawmakers, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have 1 each. States such as Mahrashtra, Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan have none..
The women’s reservation Bill is based on the presumption of homogeneity in the status of women. Homogeneity is a stupid idea when applied to assess communities horizontally. Not all women, like Muslims, are equally disadvantaged or privileged.
Since privileged groups are always in a better position to leverage concessions, the proposed amendment will help privileged women gain at the expense of less-privileged ones. Though ideally, the highest elected forum should be able to be free from all reservations, a quota that specifically addresses maginalised women would have been pragmatic.
The Congress, at his stage, clearly has not thought of the jigsaw puzzle that awaits it. It is simply basking in the glory of a political stunt. The BJP has eyes set on inroads through upper-caste women. The Leftâ€™s euphoria matches Abdullahâ€™s in this Urdu proverb: begaani shaadi me Abdullah diwana (Abdullah is rejoicing at an uninvited wedding).