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Sonia has sent a powerful message to Indian women

March 12, 2010 22:30 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi appears to be playing for larger -- and long term -- stakes and the move to provide reservation to women is not bereft of political calculations, writes Neerja Chowdhury

The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha last week was not just a historic first step towards ensuring the long-denied one-third representation to women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, it was also a milestone in Congress President Sonia Gandhi's journey as a political leader.

As a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has ruled India for decades, Sonia's stewardship of the 125-year-old Indian National Congress had kept the party united. Now, with her determined push to get the women's bill passed, in the teeth of opposition from within every party, including her own, the normally cautious Sonia has emerged as a leader capable of taking risks and tough decisions.

Indians respect renunciation. Her foreign origins ceased to be an issue when she declined the offer to become prime minister in 2004, and instead nominated Dr Manmohan Singh. Again in 2009, despite a resurgent Congress winning 206 seats in the Lok Sabha -- she or her son Rahul Gandhi could have taken over the country's premiership -- she retained Dr Singh as the country's chief executive.

Just as they revere sacrifice, Indians also look up to strong leaders, and whatever be the twists and turns of the politics that lies ahead of her, and even before the bill has become law, Sonia has sent a powerful message to Indian women.

There is little doubt that the bill faces a long haul. It remains to be passed by the Lok Sabha and more than half the state assemblies, before it is sent for President's assent and then to the delimitation commission for the identification of the 33 per cent seats, which will first get reserved, in what is going to be rotational arrangement.

A large number of male MPs within every party are opposed to it. The reason, if the truth be told, is that they fear the axe may fall on their seat, and it will fall by turn on every seat during the course of 15 years for which reservations will last. Some have used the need for a "quota within the quota" for OBC and Muslim women to oppose the bill, though there is nothing to stop parties from giving these women tickets in the reserved constituencies.

Sonia decided to go ahead despite the risk of the UPA being reduced to a wafer thin majority in the Lok Sabha, given the threat of withdrawal of support by Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Lalu Yadav and the opposition by the Bahujan Samaj Party.

There was every indication of the Congress managers dithering and getting cold feet on day one when the bill was moved in the upper house. But Sonia held firm and decided to press ahead, irrespective of consequences.

Theoretically, numbers should not pose a problem for the government in the Lok Sabha for the passage of this bill, given the support promised by the BJP, the Left parties, and many regional outfits, even if the SP, RJD and BSP do not play ball, which they will not, and even if ally Mamata Banerji's Trinamool Congress abstains, as it did in the Rajya Sabha.

But the Congress will now have to mobilise independents and other regional groupings to be in a comfortable position. The finance bill is likely to be passed, for no one wants to bring on an election. But given the high feelings running on the issue of a separate Telengana, and restive Congress MPs from there threatening to resign, the coming months will call for a high order of political management and statecraft by Congress leaders.

Sonia's main area of concern will be the Muslim reaction to the women's bill, at a time when the minorities have been gravitating back to the Congress, and their support is critical for the revival of the party in the Gangetic belt. It is the fear of an adverse Muslim reaction, which made Mamata do a U-turn, supporting it enthusiastically in the Cabinet and abstaining in the Rajya Sabha vote.

Muslim MPs have expressed the fear that their seats in the Lok Sabha might shrink further since their womenfolk may not be in a position to take advantage of reservation.

Sonia appears to be playing for larger -- and long term -- stakes and the move is not bereft of political calculations. With 2014 being billed as Rahul's election, the Congress seems to be moving towards creating a new umbrella alliance of the middle class/upper castes, minorities and Dalits.

And just as the party is targeting the youth in an increasingly young country, so also it sees women as an important support base.

The move may also go to strengthen her hands and those of Rahul. The arrangement to reserve seats by rotation will also go to strengthen the parties -- and therefore those who lead them -- as opposed to the individual candidates, some of whom are larger than their parties.

Women have not been a vote bank in the past, though they have voted in large numbers on certain issues, as they did for the Congress after Indira Gandhi's assassination, or during the Ram movement in Uttar Pradesh for the construction of a temple in Ayodhya, or for anti-liquor policy in Andhra Pradesh during the late NT Rama Rao's tenure.

But in the last decade, women in professions, media, NGOs and in politics have emerged as a powerful pressure group in favour of the bill. It goes without saying that the greater the opposition to the bill, the more it is likely to become an electoral issue and capture women's imagination, not just in the metros but also in small towns, where an aspirational revolution is already taking place.

There is also a huge change occurring at the village and district levels with 1.2 million women now taking executive decisions in the three tier system of panchayats, thanks to one third reservation given them in local bodies in 1992. It is pool of women getting ready to play a larger role in politics.

It was resistance to the decision to implement Mandal Commission's recommendations, which made job reservations for the OBCs such an emotive mobilisational tool during and after V P Singh's premiership, throwing up a slew of OBC chief ministers in the north, like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Uma Bharati, Kalyan Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Narendra Modi and Ashok Gehlot.

The women's bill will make for a more competitive politics at the constituency level. Women know they have only five years to make their mark, many will work very hard to prove their worth and serve their constituencies, so that they can be elected again from there when it becomes unreserved. This will put additional pressure on their male competitors to nurse the constituency.

It goes without saying that Sonia's decision to go ahead will lead to a realignment of political forces at the ground as also in Parliament and state assemblies. If the bill goes through, it will not only bring 181 women into the Lok Sabha, and that itself will have its own dynamics, Indian politics as we have known it may not remain the same. It will also bring about sweeping social changes, legitimising women's role in the public domain.

Neerja Chowdhury is a senior New Delhi-based journalist.
Neerja Chowdhury