Turn the Tide
Women's reservation can radically change the character and essence of Indian politics and civil society for all times to come. Backed by Rahul Gandhi, that is Sonia Gandhi's trump card, for both the party and a soulless UPA regime
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Over the last many years, 10, Janpath, the official residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has been witness to many celebrations. Every time the choreography is similar: men and women dance to the beats of the nagaras or drums and there is a customary bursting of crackers. On the day when the Women's Reservation Bill was passed in Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010, the ecstatic women were not dancing to anyone's tune. They were lighting crackers and boisterously cheering Sonia Gandhi for ramming the bill on a reluctant government and some of the opposition parties. This time men were not participants, but mute spectators.
The Women's Reservation Bill, which was dramatically passed in the Rajya Sabha after initial dithering by the government, is going to change the way politics is conducted in the country. It will not only reorder the composition of Parliament, but also of the political parties.
More women entering Parliament and political process would temper a criminalised masculinity that has been relentlessly subverting democracy and disenfranchising the weak and dispossessed. In other words, women's reservation with warts and all is an extremely radical and revolutionary bill that gives precedence to politics over the business of running the government.
Sources claiming proximity to the Congress president claim that Sonia Gandhi was so adamant about the passage of the bill that she was willing to go for broke if there was a dissonance within her party. Advice that rushing the bill could undermine the stability of the government was brushed aside. In other words, she was willing to forsake her government if the bill was not passed. It was then that the government relented and got down to serious floor management in Rajya Sabha.
What is not visible now is how Sonia Gandhi's direct action will impact the quality and content of the Manmohan Singh-led government that clearly seems to be struggling on governance and foreign policy issues.
This bill, though, has pulled national politics out of the existing comfort zone of caste and pocket boroughs and placed it in a zone of uncertainty where not many have a clue about how it will play out. It will hurt, for starters, those heavyweight politicians who considered their constituencies as their personal fiefdom to pass them on to their progenies once their spirit and flesh went flaccid.
For starters, many parliamentarians have little clarity whether the government would rush through the bill or let it stay there for some more years till elections come close. Hardnews learns that the Congress president is very keen that the women's reservation bill should get passed in the present budget session of Parliament. "What is the purpose of dragging it beyond this session when both the Congress and the principal opposition parties are backing it? If Congress dilly-dallies then BJP will not only criticise the party, it will also take credit for it," says a Congress minister. "It is better that the matter is sorted out now so that we have four years to ascertain what life holds for us after the term of the present Parliament ends," he said.
According to this Congress minister, once the Lok Sabha clears it, the states, too, would endorse it in a matter of few months as "bulk of the states is controlled by parties that favour the bill. There will be no delay at all".
The miasma of uncertainty that has descended on politicians from all parties is getting aggravated by the provision in the bill that suggests rotation of parliamentary seats reserved for women after every five years. Many politicians feel that their days in politics are numbered. Many of these reservations held by politicians are being articulated by leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav, who claim that this bill will be destructive for national politics till different quotas representing OBCs and Muslims are also created in the 33 per cent reserved space.
Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav has been also highlighting the rotation aspect of the bill and how it could eliminate men altogether from Parliament. He is exaggerating, but political correctness within Congress and BJP has been preventing a decent debate on an issue that impacts Indian politics so substantially.
The Yadav leadership is trying to rouse their OBC and Muslim support base against the bill. They feel that if it is allowed to go through then it could mean a death knell for their OBC politics. The reason for their disquiet is that once the seats are allocated to women -- not on caste lines -- then it could slice through the structures of electoral politics. "The Yadav leadership of the north understands the implications of women quota's politics better than the leadership of Dravidian parties. Once the seats are distributed for women in southern states too, the mix of caste and regional chauvinism that had been sustaining them all these years would also suffer," said a senior politician.
According to him, 180 seats in a house of 543 is a substantial number and it "would be women who would be calling the shots and not caste or region".
A question has been raised about why Sonia Gandhi rushed through this bill, when the next Parliament elections would take place only in 2014. Besides, her genuine commitment to this issue, one of the reasons proffered by Congress insiders is that both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been working on a grand vision to rejuvenate and revive the party in the country so that it can come to power on its own. In fact, Rahul Gandhi has been insistent that they would not have alliances in those states where traditionally they have shared power. He is of the belief that the interest of the country can be best served if the Congress has a full majority and it is not weighed down by regional and casteist forces.
Despite a remarkable performance in the last general elections, the Gandhis have had to suffer the arrogance and insolence of some regional bosses. Although Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Rajshekhar Reddy may have died in a plane crash, the central leadership, for long, did not have a clue about how they should rein him in. After his death, his son displayed a kind of impudence that became extremely embarrassing for the central leadership. Only after the central government announced its intent to create a separate state of Telangana, and new circumstances -- at times violent - changed the scenario, it spawned that Reddy's son could be tamed. The central leadership, or Gandhis to be precise, would not want a shameful repetition of such a rebellion in the party.
From this standpoint, the women's bill remarkably serves a number of purposes for Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. It reiterates the primacy of the party over the government. The bill helps in tethering the criminal warlords who have been controlling politics in different parts of the country. It might also be a solution for controlling unfettered money power that was at display in the last elections. More importantly, it could strike a body blow to the politics of OBCs that had contributed in ushering coalition politics in the country.
Most significantly, women's quota in Parliament may bring in a new constituency of voters to the party whose choice had been tied to that of their men. Furthermore, the empowering impact of reservation could unleash new forces that could give greater meaning to social development programmes.
By this action, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi also hope to shake up the stasis that has gripped the Manmohan Singh government. Since the time the UPA returned to power, the government has shown lack of purpose and dynamism. Most of the ministers in Singh's government give an impression of endless drift. The only voice that emerges out of the establishment is the rate of growth of the economy. Everyday it changes from 7.5 to 8.5 percent and so on.
These growth rates represent a mindless bluster at a time when the Congress party's aam admi or common man is reeling under double digit food inflation. Life is expected to get worse as the government levies new imposts on fuel. In Delhi, ordinary citizens, badly hit by inflation and steep hike in prices of essential commodities, are getting further hammered by new taxes levied to square time and cost overruns on the corruption-racked Commonwealth Games.
Similarly, there are colossal corruption scandals that are undermining the credibility of many ministers in the UPA government. The telecom ministry is just one of them. In the area of food procurement, bizarre stories float around on why sugar prices spiked to Rs 50 per kg. What really caused disquiet is that Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar seemed on the side of those who were raking in windfall profits due to high sugar prices.
Congress may have made perfunctory noises, but the leadership did not show the courage to jettison a non-performing minister for reasons of stability of the government. The safety first attitude of the government of Manmohan Singh has allowed many scamsters to have their way.
The women's quota, when it plays, would change many things including the way governments respond on key economic issues. A women's perspective from the ground would give precedence to microeconomics rather than the obsession with macroeconomic variables. It might bring in greater sensitivity to key issues of social development that somehow do not get as much importance as the acquisition of weapon systems, nuclear deals, corporate mergers, etc.
Women's reservation in Indian politics has the potential to transform Indian politics. That is, if it is not allowed to be hijacked by the women of the ruling elite.