| To find a voice
During the sordid drama enacted on the women’s reservation bill in the recently concluded parliamentary session, there were occasions when the language used by some honourable members of parliament was so vile that the comments had to be expunged from the records. But the members were not made to apologize. Presumably, insulting women is not something that overly upsets those who are running Parliament today. The demand by women for a share of power and in decision-making processes enrages those who believe that women’s place is in the home, preferably in the kitchen and in any case, always subordinate.
The struggle on the women’s reservation bill has been as much a challenge to dominant social and cultural stereotypes about women as it has been about the questioning of existing gender imbalances in political power. Prejudiced and jaundiced opinions of how families would be disrupted if women came into politics, how dangerous it could be for public morality, how political standards would be lowered by the entry of amateurs have often been aired both inside and outside Parliament. Not having gained much support for these retrograde arguments the opponents of the bill now claim that they are not against reservations per se, but are against the bill as it is currently framed.
Going by the announcement made by the speaker in Parliament when he postponed the discussion and vote on the bill, the search has moved from consensus on the issue to “unanimity”, a clear enough indication of the government’s intentions. The speaker has now called a meeting of all political parties on June 16 “to further explore the possibility of finding out unanimity in the matter”.
The legal requirements to amend the Constitution do not require unanimity of views but a two thirds majority of those present in the house. The women’s reservation bill commands such a majority and therefore there is already a consensus of support on the bill. Perhaps for the first time ever, a prime minister had the written support of the main opposition parties in the matter of a controversial bill. Both Sonia Gandhi and Somnath Chatterjee had in letters to the prime minister assured their parties’ help for the passage of the bill. The claims of the opponents of the bill that in their hearts none of the MPs want the bill are immaterial, even if true. The issue is one of votes not one of hearts and MPs are bound to vote according to the party whip, in this case in support of the bill.
Thus the June 16 meeting convened by the speaker is clearly not to build a consensus but to weaken, if not destroy, the consensus that already exists. The effort is to bring pressure on the Congress and the left to change their stand in support of the present bill, to enable the government to quietly bury the bill while maintaining the high moral ground of sympathy to the issue. The government wants to replace the bill, for which women all over India have been in struggle for the last decade, with tokenism that little benefits women.
Among the alternatives suggested is that of reservations in party lists of candidates instead of reservations of seats. In fact, it is no alternative at all since it does not have as its aim the guarantee of a minimum number of women in the decision-making bodies. The numbers of women in party lists would increase but not the required number of women in Parliament and the state assemblies.
In the approximately 25 countries that have constitutional or electoral law requirements for a quota for women in party lists, the system of elections is based entirely or substantially on the proportional representation system unlike the system in India. In such a system, a party decides on a list of candidates and, linking it to the percentage of votes polled by that party after crossing a minimum threshold, the names on the lists in descending order are considered elected. However even this has been found to be inadequate to increase women’s representation because parties often put the women’s quota candidates at the lower end of the list. So it is not enough just to have a quota for women on the party list but to put in place legal guarantees that women’s names are kept in equal numbers as men in the upper end of the list.
Another interesting experience is from South Africa that also has a proportional representational system. The major party, the African National Congress, voluntarily decided on a 30 per cent quota for women in its list of candidates. This influenced other parties, who also put up more women. Women demanded that the names of women candidates be put in equal number on the upper end of the list. Today women constitute almost 30 per cent of the South African parliament.
Going by the global experience, if women’s quotas in party lists are to be a viable method of increasing women’s representation in elected bodies in India, we will require a complete overhaul of the electoral system in India and a switch to the proportional representation system and a guarantee of women alternating with male candidates in the preferential order of party lists.
Anybody with a minimum knowledge of how party tickets are distributed knows that there is a very strong pro-incumbency factor within parties. Few parties would risk inner party upheavals by removing sitting MPs or members of the legislative assembly and replacing them with women, certainly not to the extent of 33 per cent. It is more likely that difficult or unwanted seats would be farmed out to women to meet the quota requirement. There is a suggestion to have the state as the unit for Lok Sabha elections and the district for a unit in assembly elections. India does not have a two-party system. Parties have uneven strengths within states and even within districts, thus such a clause would not prevent unwinnable seats being given to women. Moreover, the compulsion of seat adjustment between different parties in this era of coalition politics makes such a suggestion simply impractical.
The opponents of the present bill are particularly incensed at the provision for rotation of seats. Many countries and parties have a fixed tenure for elected positions. This is much more democratic than having a system where individuals can monopolize positions of power for decades. In a huge country like India rotation will help bring to the fore a large bank of talent and human resources. Rotation of seats will also ensure that women all over India will have the opportunity to benefit from the reservations. During the discussions in the parliamentary select committee when the bill was first mooted, women’s organizations were open to the suggestion that the rotation of seats should take place after two terms, that is 10 years instead of five years. However, once it was declared that women’s reservations would exist only for a limited period of 15 years, the two term rotation proposal was automatically given up.
The proponents of reservation in party lists claim that this method will address the vexed issue of other backward classes reservations within women’s reservations being demanded by some parties. This is not correct. Just as parties will decide the names of women candidates if reservations for women are made in party lists so also will they decide which woman is to replace a male candidate if his seat is reserved for women. At present, due to struggles against upper caste hegemony, OBC men form the single largest caste group in the Lok Sabha. If some of those seats are reserved for women, the caste composition is not likely to change but the gender composition will change and the only difference will be that an OBC female candidate will replace the OBC male.
These are some of the reasons why the proposal to shift ground from reserved seats to reservations in party lists is considered a dilution and a diversion by most women’s organizations. The main focus at present should be on the role of the government. The June 16 meeting should be an occasion to reiterate support to the bill. It is not the bill that is flawed but democratic processes and the lack of morality in those who rule India.