I give only one cheer for the Women’s Reservation Bill, not two and certainly not three. Of all the reservations we have devised to transform society, this will transform the least. Still, it may do some marginal good, so let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Critics have highlighted many flaws of the Bill. Rotating constituencies mean women cannot nurse a constituency. Reservations do not extend to the Rajya Sabha, creating a Parliamentary anomaly. There is no female sub-quota within existing quotas. Reservations could mean more upper-caste women MPs at the expense of backward castes. Some analysts say that instead of trying to impose quotas—which are forms of proportional representation—on our first-past-the-post electoral system, we should move electorally to a proportional representation system as in Germany. But the biggest flaw lies elsewhere.
Women suffer a thousand forms of discrimination. Foeticide, infanticide and dowry deaths constitute a triple whammy of murder. Girls that survive are discriminated against (compared with sons) in food, health, education and choice of livelihood. Adult women suffer physical abuse and rape. Female workers are paid less than males. India has among the highest rates of female anaemia and maternal mortality in the world. Women fear physical attack if they travel beyond village limits to a clinic, and their husbands don’t want to lose a day’s wages by accompanying them.
Will this change with more women in the legislatures? Very little. The Constitution and a multitude of laws already provide for gender equality. Unfortunately, grassroots society spurns that concept. The problem lies in the attitude of society, not of legislators, who already constitute an enlightened upper crust. Without social acceptance, rules and laws on gender equality are difficult to implement. Having more females in legislatures will do little to change the grassroots reality.
Reservations for 60 years for dalits and tribals have failed to end discrimination. They have merely created a creamy layer of the formerly unprivileged, leaving others barely better off.
Many critics denounce the creamy layer phenomenon, yet poor dalits, tribals and backward castes are all for it. Obviously a creamy layer is less satisfactory than cream throughout. Yet a creamy layer greatly improves the access of ordinary dalits and tribals to facilities and justice that in theory should be enjoyed by all, but in practice are enjoyed mainly by those within the most influential networks. Historically, the upper castes controlled these networks. Reservations have now given other groups entry points into the networks, and they love it.
There is a trickle-down effect from the creamy layer to ordinary dalits, tribals and backward castes. Common justice demands that this should be a flood, not a trickle. Yet a trickle is better than nothing. Hence we see ever more demands for reservations and quotas, since give a little power to the disempowered, and can gradually transform semi-feudal values.
However, of the many deprivations caused by semi-feudalism, discrimination against female politicians is the least important. Indeed, semi-feudalism sanctifies the dynastic principle, which can give women enormous advantages over males in politics.
Sonia Gandhi and Indira Gandhi did not battle male discrimination to get to the top. Rather, the death of their husband/father made them heads of a dynasty, giving them an unassailable advantage over rival males in the Congress Party.
For the same dynastic reason, Bangladeshi politics is dominated by the two begums, Khalida and Hasina, both widows of former Presidents. Benazir Bhutto got to the top in Pakistan because she was the daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In Sri Lanka, Srimavo Bandaranaike got to the top as widow of Solomon Bandaranaike, and her daughter Chandrika succeeded her in classical dynastic fashion. Even mistresses can rise to the top—witness Jayaliltha and Mayawati.
So, in a semi-feudal society, being a woman can be a passport to the top. Such women are not representative of the female masses, yet can dominate politics. Lalu Yadav says, rightly, that the wives, daughters and nieces of top politicians may grab most of the reserved female constituencies. But, having seven daughters, he himself is well placed.
Female seat reservations can transform society far more in panchayats than in Parliament. Gender animus is deeply entrenched in the villages, and female empowerment there can have an impact, notwithstanding the new phenomenon of sarpanch-patis. But in state capitals and New Delhi, political women are already substantially empowered, and hugely advantaged in dynasties.
To transforming society, we need social activists at the grassroots. We need administrators, police and judges who will implement existing laws on gender justice. Reserving legislative seats for women will help only marginally.