What should have been a proud day for Indian women and men became instead a day of shame for the government and, by extension, the country.
The disruption of parliamentary proceedings on Monday over the issue of women's reservation is an indictment of not just the misogynous legislators concerned but of the ruling Congress party as well, whose lack of political judgment, if not half-hearted commitment to the cause of women's empowerment, stood exposed.
In politics, there is a time for caution, hesitation and even cold feet but that time is before a particular course of action is chosen. Once a decision is taken, however, a wobble can prove fatal.
For better or worse, the Congress leadership decided earlier this year that it would do what no party or government had dared to do so far: pilot the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women one-third of all seats in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies through the thicket of male chauvinist opposition that has successfully blocked this historic initiative for more than a decade.
Notice of the government's general intent was served in President Pratibha Devisingh Patil's address to Parliament last month. And at some point during the past 10 days — perhaps as a strategy to deal with the flak generated by the oil price hike in the budget — the Congress decided the time to press ahead with this historic decision was now. A meeting of the Business Advisory Committee of Parliament was held and word was put out that a strategy for getting the bill passed in the face of any disruption had been worked out.
As a serious political party with more than 125 years of experience behind it, one can only presume the Congress took this decision knowing full well the associated risks and opportunities.
It knew, for example, that it would have the support of not just its partners in the United Progressive Alliance but also the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Left and a number of smaller parties like the AIADMK. Getting the required two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament was, therefore, never an issue. It also knew that the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal would behave appallingly and violate every norm of parliamentary behaviour in their effort to postpone and derail the constitutional amendment. They had done it once earlier and would do it again. Finally, the Congress surely knew that the SP and the RJD — whose outside support to the UPA gives the coalition a comfortable buffer in the Lok Sabha — would withdraw their support should the government press ahead with the women's bill. Party managers presumably understood the consequences of this withdrawal as well: that the UPA would be reduced to a wafer-thin majority and would have to be on its toes during the debate on the Finance Bill, especially with the BJP and the Left threatening to move cut motions.
If despite these considerable risks, the Congress high command decided to go ahead with the Women's Bill, it did so for a very good reason. Unlike signature accomplishments like the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act during UPA-I, the achievements of UPA-II so far are rather thin on the ground. Reservation for women could potentially do for the Congress today what the employment guarantee or loan waiver scheme for farmers did for it the last time. The party leadership, therefore, was ready to gamble on the Women's Bill, knowing that the strategic payoff from its passage would greatly outweigh the tactical headache its floor managers would have to suffer in order to get the budget approved by Parliament later in the session.
Thus on March 8, the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, the stage was set for the Congress to strengthen its electoral hand and for India to make history. But what should have been a glorious day for the women and men of the country turned into a day of ignominy and shame for the nation. A handful of MPs were allowed repeatedly to disrupt the functioning of the Rajya Sabha, forcing frequent adjournments. And, in the end, the vote, which had been slated for 6 pm got postponed. There is now talk of an all-party meeting to be chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but all of this sounds depressingly familiar. Previous ‘all-party' confabulations on the subject, as during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, always ended with a tiresome lament about the “lack of consensus” and the need for further consultations. If the Congress wobble continues, the March 9 meeting could well go the same way.
What is truly shocking about the Congress' failure to pilot the bill through as expected is the rationalisation that “forcing through a vote” or “not having a debate” would somehow have been undemocratic. It is one thing for the disruptors to make such a claim but when members of government give the same logic, one can only question their understanding of what democracy and deliberation actually mean. Parliament is the forum for debate and every piece of legislation, including the Women's Bill, must be thoroughly discussed. But discussion must follow rules.
The physical assault on the Rajya Sabha chairperson, Hamid Ansari, was intended to ensure that discussion never took place. If it was serious about democracy and women's empowerment, the government should have sought the use of the prescribed machinery for dealing with such disruption — eviction of the offending MPs by house marshals after due warning by the Chair — so that discussion could take place. At the time of voting, the evicted MPs could have been given another chance to come back to the house and vote, but with the clear understanding that marshals would be summoned again should they enter the well of the House or turn violent again. Sadly, none of this was done. There was no discussion and no vote. Instead of the Ayes having it, the ‘Hai-Hais' prevailed.
One wonders whether such disruptive tactics would be tolerated by a government or ruling party for any other issue. Will the Congress meekly submit if a handful of MPs behave the same way when, say, the proposed Nuclear Liability Bill is introduced? Or a constitutional amendment on some other issue? Unlikely. The fact is that the male-dominated political class as a whole has tolerated such disruptions for a decade because it concerns the empowerment of women and will lead to a direct reduction in its own power and privilege.
If it is serious about women's reservation in legislatures, there is a very, very narrow window for the Congress to make amends. That window will shut in a day or so. If the women's bill is not voted upon on Tuesday or Wednesday, its opponents will seize the initiative and matters will be postponed for another year or two at least. Already, the same sterile discussions have started on television about why there should be no reservation, about how ‘undemocratic' it will be that male MPs can no longer ‘nurse' their constituencies since seats would be allocated randomly into the women's pool.
If it is the fear of numbers in the Lok Sabha that stays the party's hands, Dr. Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi should steel themselves for four years of doing nothing. Having tasted easy blood, the SP-RJD, or some other combination of “allies”, will hold the government hostage to personal and sectional interests, paralysing decision-making. Instead of living in fear till the next elections, the party should have faith in its original gamble. For, in doing right by the women of India, it will also be doing right by itself.