It is parliamentary tokenism at its most farcical. The absurdist rituals being endlessly repeated over the women’s bill undermine the very premises on which this long battle is being fought. First, the obscene travesty of parliamentary conduct and procedure during every consideration of the women’s bill is nothing but democracy turned upside down. Second, the entire range of attitudes to the issue of women’s reservation for Lok Sabha and assembly seats — from chauvinistic resistance to paternalistic condescension — ends up showing profound disrespect to women, and to the achievements of the women’s movement in India. As a result, the debate over the bill never really manages to engage with the larger implications of the idea of reservations itself, its pros and cons in relation to the proper empowerment of the marginalized within the polity. The entire issue gets deflected, quite mindlessly, into a political game, at best deviously placatory and at worst, brutishly obstructive. The problem remains double-edged. The bill is either a strategic and compelling sop, or a way of ensuring that the playing field is never level.
This time too the sequence of events has been entirely predictable. In March, the prime minister used the tokenism already inherent in the celebration of International Women’s Day to declare his chivalrous impatience with the chaos of disagreements in which the bill has been mired for years. But this made no difference at all. Reservation leads to a sort of infinite regress, and the parties already entrenched in the electoral politics of placation begin to demand reservations within reservation. Not only women, but within that category sub-quotas must cater to the minorities, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and the other backward classes. When all this comes to some sort of a head in Parliament, the hooliganism endemic to that particular institution of democracy conveniently takes over. The most powerful among those who are technically “for” the bill routinely throw their hands up in despair and outrage, and that is where the matter invariably ends. The benevolent patriarchs lose out to the belligerent ones, and the deferral game is beautifully kept up. This time too it was not possible even to bring the matter up to the stage of a discussion in Parliament, giving the prime minister a very good reason to finally wash his hands of it. It is, of course, technically up to the speaker to make another attempt at achieving some sort of consensus regarding the bill. But when a proper vote is being repeatedly stalled in spite of sizeable support for the bill, then the genuineness of intention on either side of the divide cannot but be open to a radical doubt.