Kalpana Sharma

The Other Half: Thank you, Mulayam Singh Yadav

Women who support the Women's Reservation Bill are cursing the “Yadav troika” for their opposition. But I would like to thank one of them, Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav. He is the only one of his brethren who has had the courage to say what he really thinks.

According to a report in this paper (“Mulayam Singh fears male representation will dwindle”, The Hindu, March 15, 2010), Mr. Yadav said that he fears that once this law comes into effect, in little over a decade, the Parliament might well be occupied almost entirely by women. This could happen if successful women candidates refuse to vacate the seats from which they won even after they are dereserved. And if they win in every succeeding election, their numbers, combined with the one third from the reserved seats, could very well unseat the majority of male members of Parliament!

Thank you, Mr. Yadav for being so upfront compared to your other colleagues who prefer to couch their opposition by pleading for the rights of Muslim, Dalit and OBC women to a share of the political cake.

Feeling threatened?

So male politicians fear that if they give an inch, women will take a mile. Politicians at the Panchayat level, who thought women could possibly pose no danger at the lowest tier of government, have already realised this. Even before some states enhanced the percentage of reserved seats to 50 per cent, women had begun to exceed one-third seats by contesting and winning from general seats. If this repeats in Parliament and Assemblies, the gender balance would change, or so fear some men.

Of course, the issue is not just one of gender balance. The 108th Constitutional Amendment, or the Women's Reservation Bill, is an important piece of legislation not just because it is a tool to help more women get elected but because it changes the ways in which the system has functioned so far.

Unlike Mulayam, no one will say that they fear that women will some day outnumber the men. No one will openly oppose giving women a share of seats. That would not be politically correct. Yet it is evident that while power sharing at the panchayat and nagarpalika level can be tolerated because these bodies implement laws and policies, it takes on another dimension when it comes to Parliament and Assemblies where laws and policies are made. Relinquishing a share of power in these bodies is not such a simple proposition.

So we have watched with some horror and a great deal of fascination as grown men and women scream and shout at each other over a law that has been cooking for 14 years. The consequence of all this public airing of passionate opposition is that the government has chosen to tread more carefully before it takes the Bill forward to the Lok Sabha and thereafter to the Assemblies. It is clear that there is a very long way to go before this Bill becomes the law, if ever, and the pitfalls are not small ditches — they are huge, yawning craters.

Whatever one feels about this Bill, it is astounding that it always raises such strong emotions. There are many laws in this country that are far from perfect. Many of them have been amended in the course of time. Some have been made stronger. Others have had provisions clarified, the rules made more implementable. But this is the one law where everyone seems afraid if it is even introduced.

I have written on this issue several times and must admit that my views have also changed. Just last June I wrote a piece critical of the rotation principle as it is implemented in panchayats because it leads to men fielding their wives or female relatives from seats they had contested and then reclaiming them once they are dereserved. I have also concurred that merely having more women in legislative bodies does not automatically lead to an improvement in the quality of governance.

Yet, should not a law that has been discussed in committees and outside and on which there appears to be some kind of consensus amongst the majority of political parties, at least be tried out? Why should politicians threaten to “do or die” rather than allow the Bill to go through? Is it really such a threat to Indian democracy? And are those opposing it exemplars of the best of Indian democracy?

No threat to democracy

Apart from the “Yadav troika”, there are many other men and women who object in particular to the mechanism of rotation of seats to be reserved for women. They argue that this will undermine democracy, as it will not allow MPs to “nurture” their constituencies. But has anyone counted how many MPs actually nurtured their constituencies? And if they do, how many such constituencies are now the personal fiefdoms of particular politicians who will not permit anyone, but their kin, to contest from them? Do the vast majority of politicians always get the constituencies of their choice during elections? Or do only those who are powerful and have the clout to insist that they will only contest from their “nurtured” constituency? Why has nurturing constituencies — that exists only sporadically on the ground — become such an important component of Indian democracy and that too only when another system has been suggested?

The rotation system might not be ideal but it is one possible way. What is the harm in giving it a try for a limited period? If those opposing it are really concerned about the democratic principle, perhaps they should push for a provision that gives voters the right to recall elected representatives who are not doing their job. That would introduce far greater accountability than allowing the same individual to contest from a particular constituency for successive elections just because he or she has “nurtured” it.

By demanding a share of seats in elected bodies, women are not saying they are better than men — although some do believe that. They are not saying that all women are equal. They are not claiming that they will make better politicians than men. And they are not asserting that an increase in numbers in Parliament and state assemblies will change the reality for the majority of women in this country.

Try something different?

All they are saying is that the prevailing patriarchal system in this country blocks the path of the majority of women to elected office. Even though all political parties mouth rhetoric about women's empowerment, they have somehow not managed to increase the number of women they get elected to Parliament or assemblies. So perhaps it is time to think of a way of changing this. And one way is the Women's Reservation Bill. That is all. Is this so unreasonable?

The last word has not been said yet on this jinxed Bill. Take a deep breath, and wait for the next episode.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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