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No bill, no will

KALPANA SHARMA

In the final analysis, there is no guarantee that an increase in women's representation in politics will make a difference to the status of women.

AFP

IF in tiny Wales they can do it, why not in India? The difference is not just of size, but also of intent and determination.

The Welsh assembly has achieved what even progressive Sweden has failed to do: parity between the number of men and women elected to it. In the recently elected 60-member Welsh Assembly, there are exactly 30 women and 30 men.

The formula that led to this extraordinary parity might not be replicable. But it is worth examining in the light of the amazing spectacle in India of a Bill on women's representation in Parliament that refuses to pass.

The Welsh story is interesting and instructive. Like India, Wales too has women who believe that efforts have to be made to increase the representation of women in the political system. Until 1997, only four Welsh women had ever been elected as members of Parliament. Yet in six years, there has been a dramatic change.

The Welsh women in politics and outside, who were campaigning for greater representation were not entirely convinced by the system adopted by the Labour Party in the 1997 elections. Here, through a system of all-women short lists, 120 women were elected to Parliament. The Welsh women argued that this might not be the most stable or sustainable system. Instead, they came up with the idea of "twinning". The party pairs two constituencies and ensures that one fields a woman and the other a man. But the allocation of the constituencies between the male and female candidates is left to the local wing of the party. Needless to say, what sounds like a reasonable idea met with stiff resistance. Why should men, who felt they had a God-given right to fight the elections, give away this space to women? Clearly, Welsh men are not very different from their Indian counterparts. But in the end the proposal was voted through by an extremely narrow margin in the Welsh Labour Party's annual conference in 1997.

In 1999, in the first election since the formation of the Welsh Assembly, 42 per cent of Labour party members were women. Since then other parties have followed Labour's example. In the latest elections, half the Liberal Democrats and half the Plaid Cymru members are women. And in the Labour Party, which is in power, the majority of elected members are women — 19 women and 11 men. Not surprisingly, there are also more women in the cabinet — five out of nine. Commentators have said that this development is all the more extraordinary given the deeply patriarchal nature of Welsh society where although many women have worked behind the scenes in politics, they have not managed to break through the party system.

Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, Katherine Rake from the Fawcett Society that has campaigned for greater representation for women in politics, had to this to say about the Welsh experience: "You can transform the political landscape if you're committed to introducing positive measures. In Wales it has become an accepted part of the political process. Because it was a new system, they started with a clean slate. They wanted it to be modern and representative, and part of that is getting women on board. The key here is the fact that the Welsh Assembly was new, the consequence of devolution in the United Kingdom. It was therefore easier to introduce such a measure in that body. But the Welsh Assembly also has only limited powers. Thus, some people have surmised, that such a measure can work there because the stakes are not so high. To have this replicated in Westminster would be a far more difficult task.

In India, too, bringing about such a change in Parliament is proving virtually impossible. As in Wales, reservation at the panchayat level went through because it was a new system being introduced and panchayats have limited powers. Thus handing over one-third of the seats to women was not considered all that crucial. But even in this system, if reservation had not been introduced at the outset and only thought of later, one is certain that there would have been resistance. Even today, despite reservation, the women who get elected to the panchayats do not have the easiest of times dealing with their male counterparts.

The drama being enacted in Parliament over the women's reservation bill has exposed all political parties. Even though the ruling coalition has made several attempts to table the bill, they just do not have the conviction to push it through. Why is there such a desire for consensus on this one bill? Because the ruling group itself is deeply divided and if the Bill is put to the vote, these fissures will become all the more evident.

It is also obvious that a bill promoting power sharing cannot pass because men do not want to share that power. Regardless of what shape the bill finally takes, I personally doubt if it will get through unless the government takes the risk of putting it to the vote. It can, if it wants, ram it through Parliament given the current combination of numbers. But with a general election looming on the horizon, the ruling group will not risk division in its ranks. And thus, even though the Prime Minister has asked the agitated and agitating women to wait until the monsoon — as if the rains will cool tempers and allow reason to return — this pitiful drama will continue to be restaged until the term of this Parliament ends. And then a whole new ball game will begin.

In the final analysis, whether women's representation in politics increases through quotas, or some other measure, there is no guarantee that this in itself will make a difference to the status of women in the country. Everyone knows that. Yet, there is a greater chance of mainstreaming women's concerns if there are more women in positions of power from where these concerns can be addressed.

Email: ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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