Byline by M J Akbar: Danger Ahead: From aam aadmi to khaas aurat?
In an odd swing of fortunes, the first legislative round of the Women’s Reservation Bill has left the victors just a little shaken and the defeated mightily stirred. This was not what the script said. With all the heavyweights on the side of gender-bias correction, including the heaviest weight of all, media, the contest was meant to end in an easy victory against a set of ragbag antediluvians.
It is true that after the Rajya Sabha vote the score sheet reads Mrs Sonia Sushma Brinda Goliath 1, Mr Yadav Khan David 0. But it is the Goliath camp that has become apprehensive about its prospects in the compulsory return match in the Lok Sabha, while David is now polishing his sling with some relish. A confident Mrs Goliath was expected to organise a quick return fixture on the assumption that the David team was in disarray, but that is not how it has turned out, and a decision has been put in abeyance.
This is not to suggest that Mrs Goliath has lost nerve, or is in danger of losing the match. But it is indisputable that sudden gaps have opened up in what was thought to be formidable defense, while the giant strikers are wondering if their numerical superiority has become politically counter-productive. The triumphant self-congratulation with which they began the match and which continued till the passage of the 108th Amendment to the Constitution, has slipped into a deepening sense of unease. This is because the smiles in Delhi are not quite matched by sentiments on the ground, particularly in North India. Politicians opposed to the Bill represent the more deprived sections of Indian society: Dalits, Backward Classes and Muslims. The Government that claims to represent the interests of the aam aadmi (common man) is clearly worried that it might end up as the voice of the khaas aurat (special woman).
At the heart of the wrangle lies a pertinent question: is this reservation for some women, or is it for all women? Neither men nor women are a homogenous group, nor does gender represent political identity. If women were to vote for women per se, then the present Lok Sabha would be flooded with women MPs, since every second voter is a woman. The reason why parties do not select more women candidates has nothing to do with bias; it is because women have collateral disadvantages in electoral politics that makes it more difficult for them to defeat male nominees. This is a rational justification for increasing their presence in the House through reservation. But if reservation is necessary to reduce the imbalance between men and women, then, by the same logic, it is also essential to reduce the imbalance between women and women. Wealth, caste and faith are decisive elements of this internal imbalance, and reservations within reservations make sense. Those who argue that faith-based reservations are not permitted by the Constitution forget that this is a Constitutional amendment, and not an ordinary Bill. If you can amend the Constitution for one reason, you can amend it for a second as well.
A disproportionate Lok Sabha will eventually become a dysfunctional Lok Sabha, so corrections are essential. Some corrections are easy, as for instance in the rather self-defeating proposal to create a system of rotation in every general election. This would, in effect, make two-thirds of the Lok Sabha one-term MPs, destroying the compact between MP and voter by eliminating accountability. But rotation can be easily spaced out, as in the case of reserved seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
There are more pernicious realities about the parliamentary system hidden in the woodwork. The most dangerous is that the Indian Parliament has become the preserve of the super-rich.
The National Election Watch has unearthed extremely interesting statistics. There are 59 women in the current Lok Sabha. (This is almost twice the number of Muslims. The graph of the last six decades, incidentally, is also revealing: the number of women MPs is rising, while the number of Muslims has declined sharply. But that is not a comparison relevant to this column.) Forty of 59 women MPs, or 68%, have personal assets over Rs 1 cr. The percentage of super-rich among male MPs (57%) is not very different. Wealth is still primarily a male asset, and the percentage of wealthy women will come down with greater representation.
Throw in another factor, that virtually everyone hides wealth, and the percentage of gender-neutral super-rich becomes much higher. Parliament, in other words, has become an elitist club. It is virtually impossible for a person without substantial means to contest an election seriously, given the costs of a campaign. A candidate has to be either a leader or extremely lucky if his or her party meets even a quarter of real costs.
Why is no one demanding reservations for those around or below the poverty line, who constitute perhaps 40% of India? Why not replace caste-based reservations with poverty-based reservations?
That would be a true revolution.