Political Empowerment Of Women
By Prof K Nageshwar
02 March, 2010
India Current Affairs / The Verdict
The Union Cabinet has approved the much- delayed Women’s Reservation Bill providing 33 per cent reservation to women in Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. The Bill is likely to come in this session of Parliament. A delegation of Joint Parliament Committee on Women Empowerment had met President Pratibha Devisingh Patil and urged her to direct the Government to hold the discussion on the Bill on 8th March in Parliament to mark the International Women’s Day centenary celebrations. The controversial Bill has been delayed for past 12 years as many of the opposition parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Janata Dal (United) had been demanding a sub-quota for OBC women. Unfortunately developed countries and fast developing countries have low women representation in their respective legislatures.
In the most powerful and most advanced nation of the world the United States , women constitute only 17 per cent of legislature .The scientifically advanced nation like Japan can not at least claim to be at the top in providing women due share in political power . In the world’s largest democracy of the world, India, women’s representation continues to oscillate around a scanty 10 per cent. But in a country like Mozambique, a nation ravaged and pillaged by unending civil war and unabated famine like conditions, women constitute more than 30 per cent of the legislature. In South Africa too, the country which was under brutal racist regime, women has more than 30 per cent representation. These international experiences reveal that industrial development, economic prosperity and scientific progress do not automatically lead to political empowerment of women.
Against this background, India has seen a consistent struggle for a constitutional amendment to reserve one third of seats for women in parliament and state legislatures. The fourteenth Lok Sabha has also completed its tenure without adopting the historical constitutional amendment. The Common Minimum Programme of United Progressive Alliance government has also promised enactment of legislation to reserve one third of seats to women. The mockery over women’s reservation has once again started. It is rather surprising that in the parliamentary history of India women’s reservation bill is the only bill that failed to become an act despite a clear parliamentary majority for it. The flimsy reasons given by the successive governments reveal the lack of political will. The successive governments have been arguing that this bill could not be enacted due to lack of political consensus. No where it is written in the constitution or in the law that a bill can be enacted only if there is a political consensus. In fact, many Acts were made despite strongest opposition to them in parliament. The controversial POTA Act, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority Act, the Patent Amendment Act, etc are only few examples. Why should the rule of political consensus be applicable to women’s reservation bill? Though the political parties are publicly expressing support to the bill, there is a strong resistance within the major political parties. The patriarchal political value system is the only hindrance in achieving political empowerment of women. Let’s first look at the major arguments against the bill.
What difference does it make if more number of women is in Parliament or state Legislatures? Will it alter the nature of governance? This question can be countered in two ways. First, democracy is the most representative form of political organization the human civilization has heralded so far. There is no meaning of democracy when women who constitute nearly half of the population, have only eight percent representation. Due representation for women shall deepen the democratic process. Second, several studies have revealed that women in general are more responsive to issues of human development. According to the UNDP Human Development Report, India ranks 127 among 177 countries. Women suffer more than men due to lack of education, health, hygiene, sanitation, drinking water, nutrition etc. As a result, women are generally more concerned about these issues. Greater representation for women shall ensure a shift in the focus of development agenda towards human development and social development.
Women’s reservations will help those coming from influential political families. The ordinary women folk cannot avail this facility. This argument is partly true. But one should keep in mind the simple truth that law alone cannot change the society. But a conducive legislative atmosphere is essential for a progressive social change. It is true that influential people would utilize these reservations at the beginning. But in due course political leadership will emerge .This is also the experience with scheduled caste and scheduled tribe reservations. At the initial stage landlords have fielded their henchmen and enjoyed power by proxy. But the things have changed substantially over a period of time. If we closely look at Indian politics, we would notice two discernible trends. First, women who have entered politics might have used their family background at the beginning. But during the course of their political career they have emerged as political leaders on their own. Indira Gandhi was a shining example of such a trend. Her critics also accept that she was a leader with great political skills. In fact there are women political leaders who have grown in their political career without any influential family background. Uma Bharati, Mamata Banerjee are examples of such a trend. Therefore it is wrong to oppose women’s reservations on the ground that it will lead to deedhi, beebhi, bethi syndrome (sister, wife or daughters of influential political leaders getting benefited by these reservations).
The most important reason for stalling this bill is on the ground that these reservations would alter the social composition of parliament and legislatures. Some political parties like RJD and SP are opposing the bill in its present form that it would benefit upper caste women. As a result, the composition of backward castes, minorities would be adversely affected. Such a possibility can not be ruled out. However, opposing on this ground is uncalled for. No law is final. Every law is evolved over a period of time. Women as social category suffer discrimination cutting across caste, class, religion in our society. We can begin with women’s reservations and in case the experience reveals that upper caste women are getting disproportionately higher share, the law can be suitably amended. In fact, the backward castes (OBC’s) constitute nearly one fourth of Indian parliament. This is a result of social churning process underway in Indian polity and society. In Indian politics, caste is an important criteria for selection of candidates. If a particular constituency is reserved for women, a backward caste woman shall replace a backward caste man as a candidate.
In view of these objections, several alternate measures are being suggested. The most important among them is to amend the Proportional Representation Act to mandate every political party to field women in at least one third of the constituencies. This seems to be an intelligent solution. But a closer scrutiny of the proposal reveals its true character. If this proposal is implemented as an alternative, political parties driven by patriarchal values, would field women in the constituencies they know they would loose in all probability. As a result, there will be one third of women contestants, but not one third of women in parliament and legislatures. But an amendment is suggested to prevent such a misuse. According to this amendment, every political party has to field women in at least in one third of seats in every state in parliamentary elections. Similarly, every political party has to field women candidates in at least one third of seats in every district in case of assembly elections. But, this amendment is not a complete solution to the possibility of misuse. Every political party can easily identify weaker seats and field women in those seats. It is in fact difficult to implement such a proposal in the era of coalitions, as all political parties do not contest all the seats. Yet another alternative being suggested is that there shall be dual membership in one third of seats. Apart from a general member, in these one third seats, there will be a women member too. But this is not political empowerment of women as women’s status will be mere titular in nature. The real power would be wielded by the general member only.
Some of the other alternate proposals are as follows:
Instead of one third, we can begin with 10 or 15 percent and subsequently increase it. Those who propose this alternative are questioning whether there is any sanctity for demanding one third. But such a proposal would defeat the aspirations of women’s movement. There may not be any arithmetical sanctity for the demand, but reserving one third of seats would mean a substantial increase from the present level of representation and shall be relatively proportionate to the women’s share in the population. Any attempt to dilute this proportion is absolutely undemocratic. The other proposals are also equally undemocratic. For instance, yet another proposal is to keep the present strength untouched and create one third supernumerary seats and reserve them for women. But anyone who knows arithmetic would understand that this would not be one third. But it will be much less than that. In fact all such alternatives are a result of lack of political will on the part of our political party system as a whole. The often quoted argument for not fielding sufficient number of women candidates is the winnability factor. This argument lacks conviction given the fact that women constitute around 12 per cent of Rajya Sabha seats .The low level of women’s representation in the Rajya Sabha provide an ample reflection of abysmal lack of commitment of our political system to the goal of political empowerment of women.
Therefore, the only alternative is to implement the commitment to enact women’s reservation bill. The act can be amended accordingly based on the experiences. In several countries of the world including that of advanced nations too, women have to struggle to get even voting right. But in India women got the right to vote as democratic India granted universal adult franchise with the dawn of independence itself. Let the Indian democracy create history once again by providing women the constitutional guarantee to adequate political representation.
Dr K Nageshwar is currently Member of Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council and professor in the Department of Journalism, Osmania University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org