The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In response to the debate on the womenís reservation bill, Brinda Karat has pointed out that party-wise reservation works better under the system of proportional representation. This would entail changes in the existing electoral system. In making her recommendation, Karat overlooks the case of Britain which like India has the first-past-the-post system, and yet the Labour Party was able to increase the number of women members of parliament from 21 to 37 per cent in 1992. In 1997, female membership increased by 23 per cent. This was made possible because the party, at its 1992 conference, introduced an all-women shortlist for a section of the key marginal seats and in seats where sitting Labour MPs were retiring. Led by Tony Blair, Labour was able to reduce the difference between the number of men and women voting for it in the 1997 elections. This was made possible by incorporating new and popular issues like environment and womenís participation and accepting traditional Conservative concerns of freedom and the private space. In India, no political party has taken a similar initiative and pushed for womenís reservation on the grounds of gender parity and justice.

Though the left, along with the Congress, had lent support to the bill, ironically, both the Communist Party of Inddia and Communist Party of India (Marxist) ó which were among the first to speak of womenís equality in all walks of life as early as 1967 ó have done very little in the last four decades about womenís representation. In fact, the leftís record in fielding women candidates till date has been very poor. Since 1984 till date, the CPI and CPI(M) together have fielded less than 10 women candidates in the general elections. Karat herself took note of the poor representation of women in 1998 at the 16th congress of the CPI(M), and opted out of the newly elected central committee in protest.

Historically, the track record of the communists in comparison to social democrats on the question of womenís emancipation and empowerment has been both theoretically and practically inadequate. Communist tokenism was limited to granting equal political rights to women without considering additional measures that would create socio-economic equality. They retained the traditional idea of a patriarchal family and, therefore, did not attempt to revamp the sexual division of labour. Theoretically, they attacked private families as economically wasteful and morally degrading, replacing it with communal households, but never conceived of menís share in domestic responsibilities. The state was strongly in favour of the view of the woman as mother and worker. In spite of formal rights and privileges, high levels of education and access to independent earnings, Soviet women were seen as resources for production and reproduction.

The Soviet constitution guaranteed equal rights to women and men. Women secured the right to vote and contest elections in 1917. In 1918, the central committee of the Soviet communist party created the Zhenotdel (womenís sections) at the level of the local party organization. Its aim was to attract women to political work, parties and trade unions. However, in 1920, only seven per cent of the members were women, with none in the central committee. In 1924, this increased to 10 per cent and in the Thirties to 13 per cent. At the local level, women constituted one per cent of peopleís deputies in 1922, increasing to 10 per cent in 1926 and 27 per cent in 1934. Though women were included in the political organizations, their role was marginal and ceremonial. As late as 1989, womenís representation in the national legislature was only 15 per cent.

In the early years of the Soviet system, there were efforts to transform the patriarchal culture. As the head of the commissariat for social welfare, Aleksandra Kollantai demanded laws that would establish legal and political equality of women. Kollantaiís proposals found support from Inessa Armand and V.I. Leninís wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia. The latter also favoured birth control and the right of abortion.

It was Kollantai who brought in the womanís question to prominent focus in the debates within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in the 1890s. She demanded equal pay for equal work, female enfranchisement, public financing of child bearing and rearing, abolition on all laws that subordinated women to men, the right of women to be elected to all institutions of self-government on the basis of direct equal and secret vote, protection to female worker, forbidding night work, overtime and other conditions that were hazardous to women and their children, female factory inspectors, maternity leave for eight weeks before and after childbirth and free medical care during pregnancy. However, Vera Zasulich and Lenin opposed these on the grounds that it was divisive. The RSDLP eventually adopted these proposals in 1903.

However, when Joseph Stalin assumed power in 1924, he put womenís issues on the backburner. He personally did not believe in equality for women and considered their rightful place to be within their families and homes. The Zhenotdels, the right to divorce and the right of abortion were abolished. Attitude towards women became utilitarian, regarding them as resources for the more important task of industrializing the society. Nikita Khrushchev de-Stalinized society and the Communist Party. In 1956, only 19.7 per cent party members and 4.1 per cent central committee members were women. There was no woman in the politburo or (until 1957) in the council of ministers. Leonid Brezhnevís era revived the utilitarian approach of the Stalin period. Womenís political participation remained traditional and ambivalent. Their absence in the political scene was attributed to the double burden they bore as working mothers. The party never tried easing this burden.

In contrast, the social democratic approach to the womanís question is pragmatic and non-doctrinaire. Its tone was set by August Bebelís Woman and Socialism. Since the 1880s, the social democratic movement in Europe has tried to include workersí wives, women workers as well as middle-class women. Without forsaking the goal of socialism, Bebel emphasized the need to occupational, juridical and political equality to women to confront their dual oppression as wives and as workers. The goal of class and gender equality, according to him, could be realized through parliamentarism rather than revolution.

After World War II, the social democrats demonstrated greater realism and became co-architects of the welfare state in western Europe. The social democratic parties established quotas for women. In the Scandinavian countries, quotas enabled womenís representation to cross the 30 per cent threshold mark. A comparative assessment proves that the social democratic perception of women as full and equal citizens has enabled their parties to develop a healthy attitude towards womenís issues. The Communists, on the other hand, have a mechanical-utilitarian approach that ensured only formal but not substantive equality.

The problem of womenís representation still eludes a solution based on consensus because of the absence of a social democratic party in India. In this context what we should remember is that the Gandhian Congress was organized on the lines of European social democratic parties enabling a large section of Indian women to participate in the freedom movement. In the absence of such a commitment, it is difficult to foresee mere changes in the electoral system as proposed by Karat bringing about the desired change in the composition of Parliament and legislative assemblies.

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