After 14 contentious years, the Women’s Reservation Bill is about to become law. Of course it will be a rough passage littered with whips, marshals and inflamed testosterone, but sometimes the unlikeliest of movements begins to look as if it was predestined. The Bill now enjoys an enabling environment — in these 14 years, reservation in panchayati raj institutions has been seen to work and urban women have become very visible in professional and public life. But what makes it unstoppable is the commitment of a government that is backing an ethical idea at the risk of its political future. I cordially hate dynastic politics, but I must say that Sonia Gandhi is doing something substantial to redeem it.
Politically, the Congress is unprepared for the revolution it has set in motion. There are only four women in the Congress Working Committee, one-third of the representation of women in the BJP’s national executive. In fact the BJP, the most conservative party, is miles ahead of the most progressive, the CPI(M), though Prakash Karat believes that more women legislators will make for more sensitive politics. Such as not hounding party members to suicide, perhaps. But the only woman in the Politburo is his wife Brinda Karat. And in their cups, their colleagues complain, she should have resigned long ago to prevent a conflict of interest, since an apex decision-making body should not have related people who may vote as a bloc.
Now, we will have reservations for women in the highest such body in the land, the Lok Sabha. But please, let’s not expect the moon. Women are people, the same as men. They are not kumaris and mother goddesses who can heal the sores and cankers of Indian politics with the magical touch of the eternal feminine. What they can do is to mature our politics by bringing a different set of concerns to it, as they have done in the panchayats.
Legislators who obeyed the party whip in the Rajya Sabha are privately agitated about the effects of the Bill on their political fortunes in the next election. One appreciates their concern, as carefully nurtured constituencies are about to be handed over to amateurs. This has happened once before, when seats were reserved for candidates from the scheduled tribes and castes. That shock to the system has been absorbed. But I remain a little uncomfortable about reservation in the highest offices — what next, reservation in the PMO and Rashtrapati Bhavan where, by the way, tokenism has already taken root? I would have preferred to see reservation at the local level throwing up women politicians with a demonstrated capability to assume the highest offices.
This could have been possible if genuine equal opportunity was secured in village-level elections. If wives, mothers and daughters had been prevented from standing in as dummies for their menfolk, more women of real ability would have risen to the surface. And if the national parties could briefly overcome their sexism, some of them could have even got tickets. If that had happened, perhaps there would have been no need for the Women’s Reservation Bill. Or for the top-down social and political revolution that we are witnessing as gender activism is forced upon the highest legislature.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.
The views expressed by the author are personal.