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Rethinking on democracy

ANIL DHARKER

'Another strong argument for reservation is that ours is an unequal society where traditional male-domination often takes violent forms.'

RAJEEV BHATT

National interest would best be served by having the best candidates, irrespective of caste, creed or gender.

WHEN you think about it, the two most important pieces of legislation now being introduced in Parliament are anti-democratic. But Indian democracy is such a strange creature, that these anti-democratic measures may actually be good for Indian democracy.

The more contentious of the two is the Women's Reservation Bill, which decrees a one-third reservation of parliamentary seats for women. Such has been the opposition to this particular piece of legislation that it has united a whole lot of MPs (all of them male) behind a common, un-official front whose MPs are being dubbed MCPs Of course there are male chauvinists in the group; perhaps a majority of them. But does the pejorative epithet not dismiss a real concern, which is that reservations, per se, are bad? The arguments in favour of the bill are clear enough: women, who make up nearly 50 per cent of our population, are grossly under-represented in Parliament. For example, there are 48 women in the current Lok Sabha. That's less than 10 per cent of the total number.

But India isn't unique in this: even highly developed Western democracies like England and the United States have a small minority of women, both in government and in parliament. The significant difference is that the women representatives there are as articulate and assertive as the men (something which many of our women MPs are not). More important, the male MPs are — by and large — more liberal than our representatives, and can thus be expected to fight for women's issues, something which many of our MPs certainly won't do. Besides which their representatives are answerable (and responsive) to which an educated and demanding electorate, which ours are not.

Another strong argument for reservation is that ours is an unequal society where traditional male-domination often takes violent forms. And since MPs from poorer states often have the same entrenched traditional background and a deeply conservative outlook, they are hardly in a position to redress women's problems.

The arguments against reservations are equally strong. To start with, should there be any reservations at all in something as important as the national parliament? At present, there are reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes, but there has been clamour for reserving constituencies for "Backward Classes", "Women Workers", "Women from Backward Classes" and so on.

Some of these may be loony ideas, floated only to stall the Women's Reservations Bill, but other may find a lot of support given the caste composition of many parliamentary constituencies. Would reservation on a widespread scale serve the national interest? Most clearly not: national interest would best be served by having the best possible candidates in the field, irrespective of caste, creed or gender.

The other argument against women's reservation is that there just aren't enough women in public life to fill up a sudden jump in the number of seats. I will correct that: there are very many competent women in public life, but are there enough who want to be in full-time politics? The calibre of a lot of the present 48 MPs makes you wonder about that.

A third argument against women's reservation lies in these names: Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Rabri Devi. Add to that list Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister who shut down our democracy for two years (and whose maternal instincts made her completely blind to the strong-arm tactics of her son Sanjay), and you have a pretty frightening prospect ahead.

Is there a solution? The process needs to start from the grass roots, with political parties making a very conscious effort to induct women into their rank and file. Since the Congress party is led by a woman, it's in a unique position to set an example. Reservations should also be strictly imposed in panchayat and other local self-government bodies: this is where they would make an immediate impact on society, and they would lead to more and more women gaining political experience from the starting point.

The other bill has had virtually no opposition. That's probably because all parties know that in this era of coalition politics, defections hurt them all. And all parties know that the 1985 Anti-Defection law had one serious flaw. Which was that it discriminated between a "split" and "defection", so that an individual defection would attract disqualification, whereas a split consisting of one-third members of a party becomes legitimate. In other words, to use current cynical jargon, "Retail" defections were penalised while "Whole-sale" defections were allowed.

As it happens, banning defections would be considered undemocratic anywhere in the world because it makes individual dissent or a vote of conscience untenable, giving party whips complete control over its MPs. But our democracy has hardly thrown up any conscientious objectors. Besides which most MPs get elected because of the party they belong to rather than any individual merit, so they should be beholden to the party anyway.

The last piece of legislation in this connection, the one, which would limit the size of ministries at the Centre and the State, is also an infringement of the rights of the head of the government. Surely only he should decide how many ministers he needs to carry out the duties of his elected government. But such has been the abuse of this right that a limit on the members has become necessary. Yet the cap proposed (10 per cent) is so high that it means nothing. By this limitation, the Union Council of ministers should be 10 per cent of the combined strength of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. That would make the allowed number of ministers 79. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's jumbo cabinet has 77. That ceiling needs a rethink, pronto.

What also needs a rethink is where our democracy is headed. Because such has been our abuse of it that we actually are pleased that it is being curbed!

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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