Friday, March 19, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Kill Bill Vol 2010 (Opinion)


Kill Bill Vol 2010

The Women's Reservation Bill suddenly seems to have become a weapon to
put all the Mandal parties in their place


THERE HAVE been two layers of opposition to the proposal to reserve
33.3 percent of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats for women. The first is
more visible and audible. It represents the fear of Hindi heartland
chieftains — specifically Mulayam and Lalu Yadav — that they could
lose ground in their pocket boroughs. Bringing up a series of red
herrings — quotas within quotas, subquotas for OBC women, for Dalit
women, for Muslim women; quotas for Muslims per se — coining such
crude slogans as "jung aur jihad", they have become the disagreeable
opposition to the Women's Reservation Bill.

When the Bill was moved in the Rajya Sabha, the broader middle class
mood was shaped not by the intrinsic value or goodness of the proposed
legislation but by the quality of the opposition to it. In a sense, it
was a replay of the Shah Rukh Khan-Shiv Sena battle. Hostility to the
Sena forced even Shah Rukh agnostics to stand up for him. This is
precisely what the Yadavs did to the Women's Reservation Bill.

The fundamental argument is this. Parliament represents the supreme
consciousness and collective wisdom of a democratic society.
Reservation in a national legislature, and restricting competition in
the contest to win a place in that legislature, is decidedly different
from quotas for traditionally deprived sections in the job market or
from affirmative action during college admissions. In a sense, it
seeks to carve up that magical and indivisible attribute: popular

There is a line of separation between Parliament and even other
representative bodies. Indeed, reservations and quotas for women — and
OBC, MBCs, and of course SCs and STs — at the panchayat level can be
lived with. A panchayat member, a municipal corporator and even an MLA
are, at the end of the day, service providers. They attend to their
constituents, sort out healthcare and water problems and monitor the
delivery of public goods.

In India, this is often what MPs too are called upon to do. Yet, this
is not how it should be and, hopefully, not how it always will be.
Someday, when Indian democracy matures, the Lok Sabha will shrug off
the extras and restore itself to its core mandate: deliberative
legislation and providing crucial inputs to policy making. That is
what distinguishes parliament from any other institution in a

Historically, there have been several instances in several countries
of exclusion of particular groups from the process of entering the
national legislature. In its earliest days, the chance to vote and to
win votes in the US was limited to propertied white males. Yet, the
chipping away at this restriction, the expansion of human freedom to
ensure equal access to every corner of the supreme law-making body of
the land was the ideal that drove democratic endeavour.

This is where the women's reservation amendment comes into conflict
with the philosophy, though not quite the letter and legality, of the
Constitution. Far from aspiring to a society that would be so
egalitarian that even SC and ST seats in the Lok Sabha would be free
to all, it constricts further, and institutionalises segregation —
strong word, but appropriate — for all times to come.

Yet, let's face it, other than a handful of pernickety folk, nobody's
really exercised on these lines. Why? To some degree this is because
nobody wants to appear politically incorrect. Even so, there are two
other reasons, more solid ones.

First, even those who acknowledge the 33.3 percent quota is a bad idea
concede the suggested alternatives would probably not have been
feasible in the Indian context.

Talk of two-member constituencies or increasing the strength of the
House was unworkable. Indians didn't really want a 700-strong Lok
Sabha and an incremental VIP population down the line in the states.

Leaving the quota to parties would seem fair in a neat two-party
democracy — such as, say, Australia — where both parties contest about
all seats. In India it would have meant the Samajwadi Party nominating
men for all of Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats and women for all of West
Bengal's 42 seats (where the party counts for nothing) and pretending
it had fulfilled its one-third commitment.

Suggestions that parties be forced to nominate women candidates for a
third of the seats where they won the most votes — above a defined
benchmark of perhaps 20 percent — or that individual states be allowed
to put in place an OBC sub-quota as per the OBC population in the
state were deemed too complicated and open to political misuse.

Second, perhaps erroneously, middle class opinion is confusing support
for the Women's Reservation Bill with a craving for the strengthening
of national parties. Consider the context. Twice previously the Bill
was thwarted by OBC strongmen. On the first occasion they were running
the United Front government (1996); the next time was when they held
the veto on the NDA government (1999). This was in the 1990s, when
both the Congress and the BJP were defensive on the OBC-isation of the
polity and in awe of the energies of Mandalisation.

TODAY, THE situation is markedly different. In 2009, the Yadavs were
trounced in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Their intermediate caste comrades
in the south — HD Deve Gowda in Karnataka and N Chandrababu Naidu in
Andhra Pradesh — were also marginalised. The sun is setting on Mandal
and on a certain type of muscleflexing, blackmail-centric regional
politics. The Women's Reservation Bill suddenly seems to have become a
weapon to put the Mandal parties in their place.

Yet, it would be foolhardy to believe that rough-andready OBC men are
going to be replaced by "sensitive" and "good-natured" upper caste
women. It is more likely that the first lot of seats that are reserved
will see a deluge of family candidates: wives, daughters and sisters.
In some cases — Sonia and Rahul Gandhi; Maneka and Varun Gandhi —
neighbouring seats may be exchanged every 10 years.

Having said that, it is also likely that of the 181 women who enter
the Lok Sabha, there will a 30-40 strong bunch who will be worthy
women in their own right and constitute good parliamentarians.
However, will a few good women justify the 33.3 percent quota? For
some people, the answer must always be "No".


From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 11, Dated March 20, 2010


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