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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

Rajya Sabha Creates History


Friday 19 March 2010, by SC


For all the opposition from a vocal and recalcitrant minority within Parliament and certain sections of informed opinion outside, the passage of the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha on March 9 by a landslide (186-1)—after the vociferous opponents seeking to hold the Upper House to ransom with their unprecedented actions (setting a record of sorts in unruly behaviour within the precincts of the Council of States) had been evicted and the BSP members also walked out—was indeed a momentous development as the legislation ensures 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, something that promises to change the political landscape of the nation as a whole. The solid phalanx of support from the Congress-BJP-Left members, a rare spectacle, easily helped the adoption of the legislation—popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill—thereby creating history in India’s parliamentary politics after a long and arduous 14-year-old battle. Needless to say, this is a major stride towards guaranteeing genuine empowerment for women across the country even if the critics continue to voice their manifold misgivings and apprehensions regarding such an eventuality on the ground that the really disadvantaged women belonging to the backward classes and minorities would not get access to the law-making institutions.

It would have been befitting had the Bill been passed a day earlier, that is, on March 8 this year marking the centenary of the International Women’s Day. In fact Congress President Sonia Gandhi, one of the two moving spirits behind the Bill (the other being the late CPI leader, prominent figure in the women’s movement and distinguished MP, Geeta Mukherjee, who headed the Joint Select Committee of Parliament that finalised the legislation following threadbase discussions and debate), was keen to do so but her endeavours came to naught due to the determined move by the minority segment to block the Bill at any cost. It was the opponents’ adamant attitude which helped to steel the resolve of the Congress leadership in general and the party President in particular to get the legislation moved and adopted after a debate in the Rajya Sabha the following day with Sonia being able to realise that her failure on this score would severely dent her image, prestige and authority in the party and the Congress members too comprehending how much such a defeat would cost the party in terms of its popularity. It was further most striking to find both the BJP and the Left, at times implacable adversaries of the Congress, offering full cooperation with the Treasury Benches to get the Bill cleared without undue objection or delay after they had cogently explained the reasons behind their backing of the legislation. As a matter of fact the positive significance of the final outcome cannot be overemphasised. As they say, all’s well that ends well.

While lauding the passage of the Bill in the Upper House one must in the same breath unreservedly decry and denounce the shocking and shameful activities of the RJD, JD(U) and SP elders inside the House. As a consequence of their patently unparliamentary behaviour the dignity of the Rajya Sabha was considerably lowered and democratic values were severely undermined. Eventually the Rajya Sabha Chairman was left with no option but to suspend the concerned members and direct the marshals to forcibly evict them from the House. This registered a new low in our parliamentary politics and the earlier this sordid chapter is forgotten the better would it be for all of us.

At the same time one should not gloss over the critics’ views of the legislation. There is one opinion, articulated in the media, that the kind of reservation visualised in the Bill would allow the country’s political space to be dominated by the biwi-beti brigade on the one side and the women who have an inherent advantage over their disadvantaged sisters, belonging to the backward classes and minorities, on the other. Hence the demand for ‘quota within quota’ for the backwards and minorities within the seats reserved for women. Moreover, with two-thirds of the legislators being uprooted in every election due to the principle of rotation of seats, there will be little incentive for women representatives to nurture and be accountable to their constituencies —runs another argument. A third argument is against the upper caste leadership of the Congress-BJP-Left that they have by supporting this legislation tried to improve their own electoral prospects whereas the members of the SP, JD(U) and RJD as also the BSP would be at the receiving end which is why they are voicing their protests.

However, the counter-arguments cannot also be brushed aside. The question of political nepotism being a much wider issue it cannot possibly be linked only to the Women’s Reservation Bill. In the light of the present experience in terms of the number of members in the SC/ST or OBC categories, there are clear indicators that their number will definitely rise after the Bill is enacted. Simultaneously steps would have to be taken to increase Muslim representation, both in the general category as well as the category reserved for women. It is also noteworthy that Sonia Gandhi herself has clarified that there is nothing in the legislation preventing parties from nominating more backward and Muslim candidates after the Bill becomes an Act. As regards the argument of lack of incentives for women to nurse their constituencies as they would either withdraw from the contest or move to other constituencies in the next election, the counter-viewpoint that this kind of uprooting could in effect force parties to become more responsible and responsive to people’s urges while discouraging personal fiefdoms is quite valid and cannot be rejected offhand. On the question of whether the legislation would help the Congress, BJP and the Left to the detriment of the electoral interests of the SP, JD(U) and RJD as well as BSP, that is purely within the realm of speculation.

It needs to be underlined that the successes registered in the women’s active and enhanced participation in panchayats through reservation has helped the parties to support the legislation covering Parliament and State Assemblies. The case of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar is a pointer in this regard. He was initially opposed to the Bill but his experience of the women in panchayats in his State went a long way in altering his attitude towards it.

Nevertheless, the UPA Government has decided to once again discuss in detail all issues relating to the Bill before its introduction in the Lok Sabha. Perhaps this is intended to remove the apprehensions of not only members of parties like the RJD, SP, JD(U) and BSP but also of such UPA allies as Mamata Banerjee’s TMC (which too has articulated similar misgivings). That means the government is prepared to walk, even at this late stage, the extra mile to secure a consensus on the question of women’s reservation. It is this democratic approach of the government which is of utmost importance in the current context and holds promise of evolving the requisite unanimity behind this path-breaking social reform manifest of the Bill’s passage in the Rajya Sabha.

March 11 S.C.

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