Good Intentions cannot justify bad delivery
By M J Akbar
Enthusiasm is no substitute for clarity. The flaws in the Women’s Reservation Bill are not in the laudable intention but in the clogged delivery. The desire to be politically correct has overtaken the imperative to be politically sensible. Method and order, the favourite weapons of Hercule Poirot, might be usefully employed in analysis.
Why do women need reservation? Taken purely as a demographic identity, they constitute the most powerful force in electoral politics. Every second voter is a woman. If she were motivated purely by gender, the majority of MPs would already be women. Theory, alas, tends to have a cool, or even antagonistic, relationship with real life.
The basis on which a candidate is chosen, by any party, can be described in a single, if ungainly, word: winnability. The two most powerful women politicians in the country are in charge of Congress in Delhi; both, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mrs Sheila Dikshit, are also known for their secularism. They chose only one woman candidate out of seven, and not a single Muslim. Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were offered as nominees, but their names were withdrawn when their “winnability” became doubtful. This is how politics is conducted. This is why the idea of women’s reservation gained momentum, because the “winnability” factor is neutralized when all legitimate candidates are women.
But women do not constitute a homogenous group, and all women are not equal. Just as men have the advantage over women in what should be a gender-neutral election to the Lok Sabha, some women have an in-built advantage over others, owing to caste or faith, or socio-economic factors. The logic that provides reservations for women also sustains the argument for sub-reservations. The principle is the same.
Empowerment must be the right of all women, not just some women. The argument that parties can always select candidates from a particular caste or faith, rather than do so under legal compulsion, does not hold. In the last six decades, no one has prevented the Congress or BJP from filling half their list with women, but they have not done so. Without sub-reservations, distributive justice will be trumped by “winnability” in women’s seats. Since this is a Constitutional amendment, rather than a simple Bill, provisions can be introduced to protect the legislation from being struck down in court.
A second structural flaw could further erode the already ebbing credibility of our parliamentary system.
The life-blood of our democracy is a covenant, a pact between elector and elected that the quid pro quo for the vote is service to the constituency. The quality of that service is an important (but not the only) factor in an MP’s re-election. This is the one big check that keeps a MP on some sort of practical leash.
The 108th Amendment envisages a rotational method of reservation that would make two-thirds of the Lok Sabha, or about 360 members, one-term MPs: 181 that will get reserved in an election, and the 181 male seats that will get reserved for women in the following election. Both categories, therefore, become one-term MPs. A woman MP can, of course, seek re-election by remaining in what will become a non-reserved seat, but that will be a rare exception.
Two-thirds of the Lok Sabha, therefore, will have no political incentive to serve its constituents. This, given prevailing levels of public morality, is a license to satisfy personal interests for the length of the term to MP and minister. The cynical response is that this hardly matters since MPs have become irrelevant to national development or even to their constituency’s welfare. If that is the level of degeneration, then we should abandon first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy and find another definition of democracy. Perhaps we can adopt a dual system in which two-thirds of MPs are elected on the basis of lists prepared by the party leaders, enabling them to send their chosen favourites to the House in direct proportion to the percentage of votes they have received.
The relationship between MP and voter can, thereby, be officially abandoned. This should make party bosses delirious.
The irony is that such flaws can be easily corrected, with some time and thought. Both have been absent from the process. The pro-reservation lobbies have employed hustle topped off by self-congratulation; those opposed think that explosions constitute an argument.
The former worked through cheerleaders in the media; the latter played to galleries beyond the media, and did so effectively. The Congress began to waver when the message from the second horizon began to permeate back to Delhi. The government was indifferent to the threat from political parties, but it could not remain immune to a threat from the voter. Empowerment of women is powerful and necessary objective, but the route map should be navigated with care.
Appeared in The Times of India - March 14, 2010