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Why the women's bill is fatally flawed

March 25, 2010 19:17 IST
Giving women an increased share in the legislatures may be a good idea but it would have been better had the Manmohan Singh ministry applied a little more thought before placing the bill in Parliament, feels T V R Shenoy.

'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.'

That English adage pretty much sums up what I think of the women's reservation bill that the Congress brought to Parliament, and had passed by the Rajya Sabha. I won't argue with the principle of the thing but I sincerely believe that the actual mechanics of the legislation as it stands are deeply flawed.

Let me start by pointing out that to argue with the principle of the bill is both futile and is to open up a whole can of worms. It is futile because the leadership of the three major parties in Parliament -- the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Communist Party of India-Marxist -- seem committed to the bill. (I stress 'leadership' because I have no idea how the rank and file actually think.) And to argue that reservation for women shall do little for the distaff half in general raises questions about the principle of quotas per se -- and I am not sure our political system can bear the stress of that today. (I remember the havoc wrought by the Mandal agitation in 1990 all too clearly.)

Finally, may I say that some of the men in Parliament have done themselves no favours? At this point, I dare say there is a weary feeling of 'At least women simply cannot be any worse than some of these men! Give them a chance!'.

So why then do I say that the current legislation is flawed? Simply put, it cuts at the root of democracy -- representative governance.

The bill moved by the Manmohan Singh ministry proposes that the seats reserved for women shall be moved from one Lok Sabha to the next, so that every constituency shall have elected a woman as its MP over the course of 15 years. (That bit about 15 years is not necessarily true; India saw the general election of 1996 followed by a second in 1998 and then yet a third in 1999.)

I am not quite clear how this shall operate in smaller states like Sikkim that elect only a single representative; will the constituency be reserved for women candidates in every third general election? And will the Election Commission use a lottery system to decide which constituencies will be the first to be reserved?

These are minor problems. The major stumbling block is that the proposed bill takes an axe to the link between the voters and their representative.

Assume that you have an utterly unsatisfactory representative. Up to now he must have been a trifle less lazy -- or less dishonest -- because of the fear that he would not be re-elected. But tell him that he need not go through the trouble of fighting for election from that seat and you remove even that last (admittedly feeble) moral restraint.

Now, look at it from the perspective of the woman who has just been elected to the Lok Sabha or a Vidhan Sabha. No matter how excellent a job she does it is unlikely -- almost impossible -- that she will be given a second shot from the same constituency. The pressure from male colleagues upon the (largely male-dominated) party leaderships will be simply too great -- and she will be told to make way for a man.

If you doubt that, may I point out that every party has done a horrid job of giving tickets to women? That, after all, is why men currently make up almost 89 percent of the total membership of the current Lok Sabha though women candidates in general have a better winning percentage.

Some have suggested that instead of earmarking specific constituencies the law should compel all parties to give a third of their tickets to women. This is a classic diversionary tactic.

Take, for example, the CPI-M. It is chiefly concerned with three states -- West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura -- 64 Parliamentary seats in all. The party could put up women everywhere but in those -- leaving the field free for male comrades where it stands a realistic chance of victory. Actually, putting up candidates in just Gujarat (26 seats) and Delhi (7 seats) would free up all those in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura!

Or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam could put up 40 men in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry yet get around that by getting no fewer than 80 women to stand from giant Uttar Pradesh -- and then argue that no fewer than two-thirds of its candidates were women!

(Some may be naive enough to believe that parties would never break the spirit of the law while scrupulously observing the letter. Yet exactly how honestly has every party upheld the spirit of the anti-defection law in the quarter of a century since it was passed?)

Many of these arguments -- floating constituencies, party lists, and so forth -- were thrown up when representation for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were being discussed five decades ago.

They were rejected precisely because back then everyone realised the folly of breaking the link between voters and representatives in each election -- as also the numbers game that cynical parties might play.

If India is going to have a women's representation act for its elected legislatures, let it be as little flawed as possible -- one that does not break the concept of representative democracy and that gives a woman lawmaker the chance to prove just how well she can nurture a constituency.

Giving women an increased share in legislatures may be a good idea but it would have been better had the Manmohan Singh ministry applied a little more thought before placing the bill in Parliament.

T V R Shenoy