Calling The Gender Bluff


Quota for women in legislature will unleash new social dynamics, even if it doesn’t immediately resolve gender inequality

Kavita Krishnan CPI (ML-Liberation) Leader

AFTER BEING passed in the Rajya Sabha, the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) yet again seems to have hit an impasse, with its future uncertain.


Sisters in arms A moment of camaraderie among women across the political divide
Photo: AP

To understand the politics of the Women’s Bill, it is necessary to go beyond the rhetorical postures adopted by the political camps supporting and opposing it. The events following the passing of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha suggest that there is more to the politics of the WRB than meets the eye. The Congress milked maximum mileage for the Rajya Sabha having passed the Bill — but is now once again talking of ‘consensus’ on the issue (the very same catch phrase which was used to stall it for the past 14 years). UPA allies Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar have expressed sympathy with the Bill’s opponents; the BJP too is now claiming an ‘open mind’ on the WRB; and various formulae to dilute the 33 percent reservation provision are doing the rounds.

If the commitment of the Congress and the BJP on enacting the WRB is suspect, how much substance can there be in the arguments of those opposed to it? Does the women’s quota indeed represent a threat to political representation of oppressed and backward castes?

In the first place, we must note that provision has already been made in the Bill for 33 percent quota for women within the existing 22 percent SC/ST quota. Even if the Bill is passed in its present form, it will ensure at least 40 SC/ST women MPs in Parliament (much more than present Lok Sabha’s 17).

Muslims are indeed severely under-represented in Parliament and most Assemblies. While the quota-within-quota for Muslim women can be considered sympathetically, the politically motivated attempts to pit the question of women’s representation against that of minority representation are not only baseless, but in fact mischievous.

The question of quota-within-quota for OBC women is complicated by the fact that there is no existing OBC quota at any level in representative institutions. Even in Bihar, where the state government headed by Sharad Yadav’s JD(U) has instituted 50 percent quota for women in panchayats, there is a quota-withinquota for women from SC/STs and Most Backward Castes (MBCs), not for OBCs as such.

Without the aid of reservation, OBC representation in Assemblies and Parliament has increased to form a sizeable contingent, proportional with their representation in the population. That is why the demand for an OBC quota has never arisen, unless in context of the WRB. Opponents of the Bill have argued that privileged upper caste women will steal a march over deprived OBC women, and that is how the Congress and BJP hope to reverse the post- Mandal OBC assertion in politics. Experience does not provide much basis for such fears: in the 14th Lok Sabha, of the 50 women MPs, 30 percent (15) were of the OBC category. In other words, once given a chance, the performance of OBC women in electoral politics seems to match those of OBC men, since politics is not a personality contest, and it is the position of candidate and party in the social balance of forces, rather than individual privilege alone, that is the main consideration in candidate selection, as well as in electoral victory.

Doubts About Limits Of Parliamentary Politics Cannot Be Grounds Against Parliament’s Democratisation

Notwithstanding the above arguments and evidence, the question of quota for OBC women within the women’s quota should not become a pretext for stalling the Bill, and no objection need be raised to the incorporation of such a quota as long as the 33 percent provision is not diluted.

Closer examination, however, suggests that the anti-Bill camp has no principled stand on the question of the quotawithin- quota for oppressed castes and minorities. Mulayam Singh has made it clear that he is against women’s reservation per se — even with quota-within-quota for OBC and Muslim women — and has instead shifted the goalposts with the suggestion of a party-wise quota of 20 percent tickets to women candidates. Nitish Kumar has meanwhile chosen to strategically extend support for the Bill in its present form — even as his party colleague Sharad Yadav continues his strident rhetoric against it. The opportunistic shifts in stance by these leaders even on the ‘quota-within-quota’ question suggests that genuine concern for political representation of OBC women is not what is driving their opposition to the Bill.

THE DEBATE over the WRB has seen a spate of sexist rhetoric against women’s political representation: witness Laloo Yadav’s proud boast that “India is a maledominated country” and wives, including his own would vote in keeping with husbands’ diktats, or the spectre conjured up by Mulayam of a Parliament that will be emptied of men within 15 years. This misogynistic bluster is not an elemental male rant: it has a calculated political purpose. In the bid to counter the Congress’ ascendancy and consolidate the support of certain social sections, a plank of patriarchal rhetoric against the Women’s Bill is a handy tool.

It has been argued that the Bill presents no ‘tangible benefits’ for women and society. A century ago, the socialist women’s movement in Europe and America had no illusions about the ‘benefits’ of bourgeois parliamentary politics, but they nevertheless made universal adult suffrage a key demand of the International Women’s Day protests. Scepticism about the limits of parliamentary politics cannot be grounds to argue against democratisation of parliamentary institutions.

The Women’s Bill is not and should not be expected to be a panacea for women’s ills. India is a shameful bottom or near-bottom in the Global Gender Gap Index when it comes to sex ratio at birth, and women’s economic participation and health and survival. Vijayaraje Scindia of the BJP valorised sati; Sonia Gandhi is silent on atrocities by khap panchayats in Congress-ruled Haryana; Sushma Swaraj likewise on the attacks on women’s freedom by Sangh outfits. Greater representation in Parliament and Assemblies will not necessarily resolve gender inequalities, since women leaders in Parliament cannot be counted upon to challenge economic and social structures that subordinate women. That task will still fall to the women’s movement. But the WRB will undoubtedly open up space for greater political participation for the mass of women. The emergence of a larger pool of women as active participants in the political process is bound to unleash a new social dynamics.

The progressive women’s movement that has been the true pioneer of the Women’s Bill can call the bluff of the ‘pro- Women’s Bill’ camp as well as the ‘social justice’ camp. The question of quota-within-quota for OBCs and minorities should not be allowed to become an excuse for stalling the Bill. Specific provisions for quota-within-quota for these sections can be incorporated into the Bill, but the principle of 33 percent quota for women must not be truncated or diluted, and the Bill must not be indefinitely delayed on any pretext.

Kavita Krishnan is also a National Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA)


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