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Mainstream Vol. XLVI No 26

Innovative Measures for Inclusive Women’s Reservation

Sunday 15 June 2008, by Iqbal A Ansari


Reservation for women in Parliament and Assemblies derives legitimacy from the norms of inclusive democracy, and from the human rights norms requiring institutions to be gender sensitive. But these very norms would also like the Indian legislative bodies to reflect the diversity based on religious and ethnic minorities. Similarly the constitutional promise of social justice to weaker sections requires their political empowerment in terms of their share in legislatures.

The apprehensions expressed at the initial stage of the introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill, about the chances of existing under-representation of backward castes and minorities getting worse by provision of gender as the sole basis of reservation, should not, therefore, be dismissed. Their concerns are as genuine as concern for increasing representation of women. To make the proposition more just and more inclusive, what is, therefore, required is to explore innovative electoral devices, which may harmonise all these concerns, along with the long felt desire to increase the number of seats in the legislatures.

All these issues can be satisfactorily addressed by making provision for additional uncontested seats for the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, out of which seats will be allotted to best women losers from among recognised under-represented groups, say OBCs, MBCs and religious minorities, according to a formula, guidelines for which will have been laid down, keeping in view the objective of reflection of full diversity.

Let us work it out for the Lok Sabha 2009. Let the maximum number of uncontested compensatory seats be 100. After the results of elections for 543 seats have been announced, the Election Commission will prepare a list of all the best women losers. Let us presume that fifty women get elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009 (the present number is 45). Now best women losers from among OBCs, MBCs, Muslims and other underrepresented minorities, if any, will be allotted seats by the Election Commission. While allotting seats to Muslim women, care will be taken to make OBC and Dalit Muslim women get their due share. The claim of fair regional representation will also receive due recognition within each category.

This exercise will result in having about 150 socially diverse women members in a Lok Sabha of 643 members, which at this stage may be deemed to be a fair share of women of India.

Such a scheme will set in motion an electoral process that will be accommodative of the concerns of women, class-caste and communities—as disadvantaged groups. Political parties will tend to set up socially diverse women candidates, including those from among Muslims and MBC as have chances of at least figuring high in the list of best losers, and not just for record to flaunt their secular credentials.

Superficial reading of the scheme may give rise to the criticism of introducing in the electoral system an indirect method of election of members by allotment, to counter which it must be kept in mind that all the best losers will have undergone the same electoral process as the directly elected ones. Their membership will owe to no authority or body other than the Election Commission and the provisions of the People’s Representation Act. The only difference will be that they will be beneficiaries of an affirmative action programme which in the process will sacrifice the interests of those getting higher number of votes, just because of their not belonging to disadvantaged under-represented gender, class-caste or community. That is what happens in every affirmative action programme. It is not being introduced in the system for the first time. If there is a national consensus to make India an inclusive democracy having a socially diverse composition of Central and State legislatures, this is the most reliable model to attain that objective as it addresses the issue not only of women as women but the other equally valid concern of social diversity and increases the representation of under-represented groups, like Muslims, who have suffered deprivation because of the majoritarian electoral system.

It has also the advantage of substantially increasing the membership of Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, without the Delimitation Commission restarting the work of reconstituting the constituencies.

Even if the scheme proposed by the Election Commission of making the political parties reserve 33 per cent nomination of candidates for women, gets implemented under law, the parties may not necessarily nominate women candidates in their strong winnable constituencies, fulfilling just a formal requirement. But after adopting the scheme of compensatory allotment of seats to the best women losers, political parties are bound to take the candidature of women belonging to all social group more seriously. The concerned communities will also get more involved in the electoral process.

FOR Muslims, whose total community representation in all previous Lok Sabhas has been about 52 per cent of their population and 50 per cent in the State Assemblies (with periodic and regional variations) among whom women’s share has been negligible, getting a fair share of Muslim women elected to the Lok Sabhas and State Assemblies may not only politically empower the community but also set in motion a process of much awaited social change. Similar desirable social change may be effected in the case of OBCs and MBCs too, as is happening at the panchayat level.

Those who are not favourably disposed to any special provision, howsoever indirect, for women from minorities (like Muslim women) must keep in view the solemn assurance given to the minorities in the Constituent Assembly, to ensure their fair share in legislatures when the provision for population-based quota of seats under the joint electorate, adopted in August 1947, was being scrapped in May 1949. The justification for abolishing the fixed quota was sought in the political psychology of ‘divisiveness’ associated with the word ‘reservation’ (especially for Muslims) after partition. However, it needs to be noted that none of the Congress stalwarts like Nehru, Patel and Pant questioned the right of Muslims and other minorities to their due share in legislatures in the name of secularism. Rather, every leader gave to the minorities the assurance of not only fair but generous treatment. Nehru was graceful enough to call it “an act of faith above all for the majority community because they will have to show after this that they can behave to others in a generous, fair and just way. Let us live upto that faith.” However, this rhetoric did not get translated into reality. A persistent pattern of under-representation of Muslims in legislatures has been noted both by the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution and by the Sachar Committee. And both of them have recommended measures for enhancement of their political empowerment. In this regard the Sachar Committee makes the following observation:

Over the last sixty years minorities have scarcely occupied adequate public spaces. The participation of Muslims in nearly all political spaces is low which can have an adverse impact on the Indian society and polity in the long run. The marginalised either have inadequate numbers that come in the way of making their presence felt in the normal course of governance or they are not politically empowered. Given the power of numbers in a democratic polity, based on universal franchise, minorities in India lack effective agency and political importance. They do not have the necessary influence or the opportunity to either change or even influence events which enables their meaningful and active participation in the development process. Therefore, there is a strong case to put mechanisms in place that enable them to engage in democratic processes at various levels of polity and governance.

It would appear that the proposed formula simultaneously addresses the issues of social diversity among women, and that of minority under-re-presentation without making a provision for certain fixed percentage of sub-quota. Let this innovative scheme be given a trial.

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