Monday, March 15, 2010

[ZESTCaste] One-third done (Pratap Bhanu Mehta)

One-third done
Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Posted online: Tuesday , Mar 09, 2010 at 0132 hrs
The Women's Reservation Bill is a powerful normative signal about the
desirability of the empowerment of women. It comes against the
backdrop of profound social change. Women have, by the dint of their
capabilities and efforts, torn down so many barriers. Even in
politics, at the top echelons, there is a striking story to be told.
Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Brinda Karat
hold top leadership positions in five of the most consequential
political parties. The president of India, speaker of the Lok Sabha,
the foreign secretary are all testament to the fact that the normative
barriers to women assuming leadership roles have mostly dissipated;
gender ratios in higher education are also telling an encouraging
story. But there are spheres where old boys' networks remain
operative: law and bureaucracy perhaps the most prominent. But
modernity has also unleashed an appalling contradictory dynamic:
declining sex ratio, continuing nutrition discrimination and
increasing violence against women. This bill is a moment in that
larger history.
But while the bill's normative intent is laudable, there is reason to
be a trifle disappointed over the short shrift serious constitutional
and institutional issues have got in the debates. The political debate
has largely been structured around the discourse of power: displacing
one set of power holders with another and the resistance this process
unleashes. Other opponents of the bill, particularly OBC-based
parties, have expressed worries about other marginalised
constituencies this bill might disempower. But several important
institutional issues have not received political articulation.

The first is simply this. India's electoral system is now becoming an
incoherent patchwork of contradictory principles. We are trying to get
"proportional" outcomes from a first-past-the-post system. If we
genuinely believe that proportional representation based on ascriptive
characteristics like caste and gender are the litmus tests of
political legitimacy, then it would have been wiser to state it
explicitly and design an electoral system (through perhaps a list
system) accordingly. A territorial-based system had its own normative
integrity, which we have now given up on.

The second issue is the normative questions the rotation of
constituencies raise. The rotation principle is a peculiar one in a
democracy because it produces democracy without democratic
accountability. You don't, as an individual, now seek the verdict of
those whom you claimed to serve. Even the rightly heralded
reservations at panchayat level have generated this problem, producing
both an accountability deficit and a weakening of an institution as a

The third issue is a normative one. We know that in terms of how power
operates in society the idea that we are free and equal as individuals
is a fiction. All kinds of hierarchies of gender, caste and class
characterise the operations of power, and in a healthy polity these
need to be redressed. Affirmative action is often necessary in this
context. But Indian politics has been dangerously close to enshrining
other normative propositions that are dangerous for democracy. The
first is the equation of identity with reason, where the assumption is
policies track the identities of those who promulgate them. This is
often true as a matter of fact, but legitimating it into an organising
principle is detrimental to the idea of public reason. It needs to be
asked whether it befits a free society to restrict the choice of
candidates available to particular constituencies based on particular
identity. While it could be argued that de facto this choice is
restricted for a whole host of reasons anyway, there is still a great
deal of difference between a de facto reality and a dejure acceptance
of a principle that it should be restricted.

While the critique of the SP and RJD does not carry much weight,
underlying it is a kernel of truth. The question raised by their
critique is this. Let us accept that constituencies need to be
empowered through reservations. What classifications are appropriate
for designing quotas? Why not sub-classifications? Why not minorities?
Why not more representation for the poor, who seem most disadvantaged
in our electoral system? Of course these very parties closed off just
these questions when it came to OBC reservations. They themselves
exemplified what they are now alleging: that the classifications that
are used by the state in quotas are, barring the case of SC/ STs,
rarely classifications to empower the weak. They get enacted because
they are classifications that favour the strong, or newly emerging,
not the downtrodden. Other groups will be demanding quotas as well,
and our normative basis for saying no to any quota demand is
diminishing. So the enactment of quotas has this ambiguous status: it
is as much an exercise in power as it is a sign of justice.

Finally, there are several practical issues. The first is this. As we
have seen with other quotas, representation does not translate into
empowerment. This is for several reasons. In India, normative
acceptance has seldom been a problem; the problem has been the gap
between normative acceptance and the ability to implement. Partly it
has to do with sticky dynamics of power. We know for instance that
reserved constituencies for SC/ STs produced weak representation
because they by definition became dependent on the decisive votes of
others. Strong SC representation emerged post-political mobilisation,
not post-reservation. It is an interesting question, the degree to
which reservation de-radicalised demands for justice rather than push
them further. But in India reservation also brings to closure a deeper
question: that of ethical responsibilities. Quotas are our justice on
the cheap; as happened with SCs, once we gave them, we absolved
ourselves of larger and more difficult ethical questions about
discrimination and so forth. Formal representational equality makes it
politically harder, not easier, to articulate the case for substantive

There were also several alternatives, from well thought out voluntary
proposals, to proposals for list systems, to multi-member
constituencies that might have mitigated some of the institutional
concerns. The fact that they did not find political space is another
sign than we do not often want to match ends and means.

But the time for all this has past. Quotas will certainly open up the
political system in expected and unexpected ways, although their
political effects are indeterminate. Indian democracy has improvised
solutions, even if they are messy and ad hoc, and this bill is better
than many other ad hoc improvisations. But while we celebrate this
desirable normative leap we are about to take, we should just wonder,
whether we are celebrating it because we take justice seriously, or
because we don't take it seriously enough.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


Get all ZESTCaste mails sent out in a span of 24 hours in a single mail. Subscribe to the daily digest version by sending a blank mail to, OR, if you have a Yahoo! Id, change your settings at

On this list you can share caste news, discuss caste issues and network with like-minded anti-caste people from across India and the world. Just write to

If you got this mail as a forward, subscribe to ZESTCaste by sending a blank mail to OR, if you have a Yahoo! ID, by visiting

Also have a look at our sister list, ZESTMedia:! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
(Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive