Opinion » Columns » Siddharth Varadarajan

Updated: March 9, 2010 11:48 IST

To hesitate now will be fatal for Congress

Siddharth Varadarajan
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Activists of a pro-women organisation celebrate International Women's Day in New Delhi on Monday. Voting on the Women’s Reservation Bill has been deferred for a day after the MPs who oppose the Bill created an uproar in both Houses of Parliament.
Activists of a pro-women organisation celebrate International Women's Day in New Delhi on Monday. Voting on the Women’s Reservation Bill has been deferred for a day after the MPs who oppose the Bill created an uproar in both Houses of Parliament.

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.

At last the bill is passed. But the disruption was welcome as we could get an inkling of political parties, press and media. This issue has several opposing facets. Reservation in any form reduces good democracy to limited-democracy. The present reservation for women also brings advantages and disadvantages of reservation. Looks reservations are a guiding principle of democracy. Whether it will empower women or dilute democracy will be seen in future.

from:  sridhara
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 23:30 IST

I am completely in favor of the bill.Till now there haven't been true and complete justice done to the women who were the victims of men in one form or the other. Women will understand their needs better than us and we can hope new policies and strict laws would be passed aganist those who indulge in cruel acts.

from:  kalyana viswakanth
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 19:17 IST

Well when Mr. Azam was attacked in the Maharashtra assembly by some MNS MLAs it was portrayed as the attack on democracy by Mr Mulayam singh. Now when the same person is using all his allies and party members to attack Mr Ansari in RS to show his anger, then one can easily conclude how much self-centric the definition of democracy is for some one like him.
Talking about the woman's quota bill, the government should go ahead with this historic decision and shouldn't back off.The people showing disrespect to parliamentary structure should be dealt with a firm hand if they are not prepared for a healthy debate.

from:  Mukesh
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 16:18 IST

I think Congress doesn't have enough political determination to make the bill passed. Even before introducing the bill in Parliament they might be aware of the stand of various political parties in this issue. Opposition parties like BJP,CPI(M).AIADMK had whole-heartedly supported the bill. If the government was truly concerned about getting the bill passed, they could have mobilised the other political parties having similar stand. Instead they haven't taken any political parties in to trust. This shows the political immaturity of the oldest political party of our country. Now it would be easy for the Congress party to blame on other political parties opposing the bill, for not getting the bill passed. At this point I strongly feel that the male MPs in Congress party are also not supporting the bill whole-heartedly.

Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 14:40 IST

The manner in which the MPs of SP,RJD etc behaved was atrocious. They do not know as to what is democracy. The incidents on the 8th of March showed that there is no democracy.

from:  S N IYER
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 14:29 IST

The furore made by some MPs in Parliament is totally undemocratic and the government should have taken a proper stand to keep these anti democratic MPs away from the proceedings. But first I don't understand the need for passing a bill which favours a particular gender of the society. As an Indian I don't want male MP or a female MP, I want an MP who is well mannered and work towards the growth of the country. Instead of passing the Women's Bill the government should think of passing a bill which will monitor the activity of all the MPs(like their behaviour in Parliament or the work they have done for their constituency after becoming MP) and give reward or fine them according to there work.

from:  Syed Faiz
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 14:28 IST

I am surprised with the stand everyone has taken. Passing the bill is not a great empowerment you do to women's cause but you are damaging the basic crux of the word democracy. If I find something wrong in my constituency, I cannot get into the politics and do something to the society because I am prevented to stand from there due to my gender. What kind of equal right is that. Women who are fighting for it should sit back and consider the world around them, their acceptance in the society has improved for last 20 years. It is due to their own self will and competence are they at a position where they are and not due to pittance from society. No one gains anything from pittance.!

And finally please stop this stereotyped argument that any one who is against the bill is a male chauvinist.

from:  Vivekanand
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 14:23 IST

The bill is actually an eye wash. Another propaganda played by Congress that it has been doing since years. Reservation after reservation (SCs, STs, OBCs, Muslims....) the list is end less. Wherever congress sees its vote bank, it creates a reservation there.
The actual question is "Are only some particular caste/creed/gender responsible for the development of the nation?" I feel there should be no quota. Whoever is the befitting candidate, he/she should get a chance without questioning about his/her back ground.

from:  Ayusman
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 13:36 IST

MPs from the Cow Belt have once again proved their mettle. Long live Indian democracy, three cheers for women empowerment!

from:  Rajesh
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 13:36 IST

Even though I don't believe this bill is actually going to change anything, I was not so surprised how the Congress handled this issue. They knew exactly who would support and oppose the bill and still they can't get it done. I don't know what they do in their "brain-storming aka core-committee" sessions.
The Congress party in India reminds me of the Democrats in USA. They don't have the courage to fight for what they want and just like the Democrats they can always blame someone else for their failures/incompetence. This is true in their governance also.
The Congress may eventually succeed in passing the bill, but it has already shown to the people of India how seriously they take reform and governance.

from:  Kiran
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 13:04 IST

It is not correct to call all legislators, who opposed the bill in an obnoxious manner, misogynist. The writer's ire should have been directed at half-hearted Congress party. Its own considerable number of members within the party opposed the Bill.

from:  ashok saha
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 12:48 IST

It is shocking and sad to see that across the length and breadth of the media no one has taken a stand opposing this bill.

History has shown us that affirmative action in India has only led to driving out talent in search of a fairer and better life, a la 'The American Dream'. Today, no independent youth stands a chance to be successful in public life unless they are backed by a political party and driven by narrow-minded, caste-based ideology. Do we really need to queer the pitch further and shorten the list of candidates?

I am disappointed in the stand you've taken, Mr. Varadarajan.

from:  Neil
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 09:58 IST

The Congress-led government allowed a handful of MPs to "repeatedly disrupt the functioning of the Rajya Sabha forcing frequent adjournments" because the parties to which these MPs belonged can bring down the government when the Finanance Bill comes up for voting. A government propped up by political parties who are not in the government cannot have its way always. The travails of the government stems from the failure of the Congress to win by itself or with its UPA partners even a simple majority in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009. The media wrongly played up the election results as a great victory for the Congress and the UPA and the hype has clouded the governments thinking on matters of political importance.

from:  K.Vijayakumar
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 07:26 IST

This is an excellent piece of opinion. I was really offended with your opposition to the nuclear deal as I was a strong supporter. But you ARE a great journalist- please keep up all the good work.

from:  Mitra
Posted on: Mar 9, 2010 at 00:58 IST
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