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For democratic representation in legislatures

Laura Keenan

Once again, parliamentarians have the opportunity to enhance women’s representation. They should pass the Women’s Reservation Bill in the next session of Parliament.

After 12 years of the Women’s Reservation Bill lying in limbo, it was finally introduced in the Rajya Sabha during the last day of the budget session, 2008. As it is a Constitutional Amendment Bill, it must now acquire a two-thirds majority to be passed in Parliament.

Under the terms of the Bill, a total of 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies will be reserved for women, with one-third of those seats already earmarked for SC/ST candidates allocated to SC/ST women. Rather than confining women to esoteric movements, this will allow their necessary integration into structural politics and strengthen democratic representation in the legislatures.

The arguments are relatively clear-cut, and yet there must be few pieces of legislation that have generated so much controversy. Years before the inception of the Constitution, Sarojini Naidu affirmed that reservation would actively hamper the cause of women’s liberation: “Let [women] feel that what they are today is only because they deserved it and not because they were given any special treatment.” The other much cited historical objection to the quota system is Nehru’s argument: reservation for any caste, clan or sex is undemocratic and leads to “inefficiency and second-rate standards.”

These interpretations of the function of reservation ignore a very fundamental distinction between discrimination and affirmative action. In short, the first is differential treatment of equals, whereas affirmative action is an attempt to do justice and redress the entrenched privilege that has created inequality. Can it really be stated that the eight per cent figure of female representation in the Lok Sabha reflects an accurate picture of the proportion of sufficiently meritorious or — in Nehru’s terms — “efficient” women, even after 60 years of universal suffrage?

More accurately, the absolute numbers of women present in Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies reveal that women are still unable to participate alongside men as equals, not because they are “undeserving”, but because differential treatment on the basis of sex is deeply engrained in the political system. At the current rate of progress, it has been estimated that gender parity will not be achieved in the national Parliament until the turn of the 22nd century. As such, there is an immediate need for differentiation which tackles injustice so as to enable a route to cultural de-differentiation, that is, a levelling of the current imbalances in the power dynamic.

In regard to the contention that reservation is undemocratic, it must be stated that parties already select candidates who will stand in a given constituency and they will continue to do so upon the enactment of the Bill — that is, it has never been a completely free choice by the electorate. It is also permitted under the Constitution: Article 15 (3) empowers the state to make “special provisions,” legislative or otherwise, to secure women’s socio-political advancement, and Indian case law has interpreted the Equal Protection provisions to allow for affirmative action for women from as far back as 1925.

At present, of course, the greatest and most discussed impediment to the passing of the Bill is the insistence from certain political lobbies on a “quota within a quota” for Muslim women and women of the Other Backward Classes (OBC). Without these provisions, it is feared that elected women will represent only the interests of the socio-political elite. Reportedly, this anxiety has led to a rise in discussions between party leaders who aspire to a “compromise” of just 20 to 25 per cent seats for women without any OBC sub-quota.

The opinion of the 1996 Joint Select Committee was that sub-reservation for OBC and Muslim women is not legally permissible until a separate constitutional amendment establishes a general quota, with the implication that this should remain outside the scope of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Interestingly, neither Mulayam Singh nor any other leader has brought a proposal for reservation for the OBC or other minorities to be debated and discussed in Parliament. Aside from the technical details, however, there is an inherent flaw in the basic logic of the OBC lobby, i.e. why it is automatically assumed that OBCs will be less well represented upon the implementation of women’s reservation. To quote a former judge of the Delhi High Court, Justice Rajinder Sachar: “There are about 200 OBC candidates in the Lok Sabha… It is not their public service, but merely the caste configuration that has preferred them. Similar results will follow even after the reservation for women.”

There are significant dangers in compartmentalising the issue of women’s empowerment in this manner. The National Commission for Women has noted that quotas are one of the few issues to unite women in Parliament across party lines — often because they have experienced the systemic discrimination that exists ubiquitously across political parties, across social classes and across community divisions. Ultimately, well over a third of the members of the Lok Sabha are from OBC backgrounds, but just 44 seats (eight per cent) are held by women. In this context, the push for a reduction in the number of reserved seats should be cause for real concern. Global experiences have demonstrated that restricting women’s presence to a point below critical mass (one-third) can inspire little lasting change in existing dynamics and leaves elected women increasingly vulnerable to stigmatisation. Ironically, the cap would also further heighten restrictions on access for women of lower socio-economic status.

There have been many other concerns, both about the prudency of reservation as a concept and the proposed methods of implementation. It has been claimed that elected women will invariably be “proxy women”, acting under direction from husbands, family members or party officials — as if male politicians in electoral politics are autonomous of political leadership, networks and party connections for their (re)nomination. Then it has been asserted that the democratic system will be reduced to a system of chaos and distortions through the rotation of reserved seats, as if politicians will refuse to work for the public good if they do not have absolute guaranteed certainty of standing again — despite the fact that this in essence is the nature of democratic elections. Ultimately, upon election a woman will have to perform her duties, attend Parliament, and attend events like any male member: this cannot be done by any non-elected agent in her place. She will have to think for herself, and, if a Bill is to be passed in a non-discriminatory form, then policymakers will have to believe that she is capable of doing so.

And here we arrive at the most pressing criticism of the Bill: to what extent will women be truly integrated into politics through the suggested system? Without supporting measures, examples from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and many non-Asian countries reveal that 15 years may not be long enough to rectify centuries of historical damage. This is not to say that reservation does not work, but that it cannot exist in isolation: it constitutes a necessary but not sufficient reform.

Once women are inside Parliament, significant will and commitment will need to be invested to ensure meaningful participation, including translation of engagement within all internal decision making bodies, committees and advisory boards. It will also be necessary to integrate women into party politics. The advantage of the quota system is that it forces the nominating bodies, especially the political parties, to engage in an active recruitment process, and in so doing they should be forced to address impediments to women’s participation. If it is required, however, it will be possible to freeze rotation of seats for two consecutive terms, thereby providing elected women with more time to establish the stable networks that will allow re-nomination.

Finally, it is important to understand that political equality inside the governing institutions can only exist in duality with the promotion and protection of women’s rights on the ground. For sustainable change, increased political participation must thereby feed into and emerge from wider redistribution of socio-economic resources, with a continuous assessment of how rights, resources and opportunities are distributed, accessed and sustained. Only with this depth of commitment will there be any possibility of achieving lasting change within a 15-year time frame.

Once again, parliamentarians have the opportunity to enhance women’s representation, strengthen democratic governance and enable access to decision-making bodies for Indian women. For these reasons, it is essential that the Bill gets passed in the next session of Parliament, with the political will for its implementation during and after the 2009 general election.

(The author is a senior researcher at the Centre for Legislative Research and Advocacy (CLRA), New Delhi. CLRA is the hosting organisation of the Parliamentarians’ Group on the Millennium Development Goals, chaired by Supriya Sule, MP.)

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