The passion with which senior leaders like Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav opposed the idea of giving over 33 per cent of seats in Parliament to women would have been justified if they had led the way in increasing women’s participation in a more democratic manner. But the arguments that we have seen from many in the BJP and others opposed to the idea of reservations hardly disguises the fact that there is a more fundamental resistance to the idea of women coming into the political field.
We agree that a fight for political space should be gender-neutral. If the political process in India had been more equitable, we would have seen many more women in the political sphere. But without exception, a powerful male bastion in every political party has opposed the very concept of sharing political power with women. When decision-making affects everyone equally, it is necessary to have as wide a pool of opinion as possible. And this includes that of women. The argument that those women coming into politics are and will invariably be proxies of a patriarchal system does not hold water. The concept of proxies in our system is again gender-neutral. If political parties had genuinely believed in a free-and-fair competition, they would have picked the best man or woman for the seat. But so far, we have seen that all parties have plumped for the best man wherever possible. Even those parties that have been the champions of women’s rights like the Left seem to suffer a sudden amnesia about gender when it comes to ticket distribution.
So then it would be a reasonable assumption that the real issue is that of power and the need to hold on to it at all cost. With the panchayati raj system having done fairly well, several worthy women candidates with political experience and visibility can certainly be found to contest seats. That would take care of the so-called winnability factor. Politics should not be treated as a sacrosanct arena. It should function on the premise, as in a corporate, that the most qualified should get first preference. It should be shorn of all the rhetoric, emotion and possessiveness that we see today. We see a lot of talk about the need for political reform. It must begin with inner party reform where the first step should be to eliminate gender prejudices. But the current debate suggests that this will be a long time coming.