Former Prime Minster Atal Behari Vajpayee once described reservations as a “crutch”, temporary at best, that should not be mistaken for a foot. The government on Thursday cleared the decks for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, giving its approval to earmark 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. The Bill, which has been hanging fire for 15 years now, will finally be tabled on Monday — rather ceremonially, on the centenary of the International Women’s Day. But if passed, it will be a major step back for women’s political empowerment, if only for presuming that aspiring women legislators in this day and age need Mr Vajpayee’s proverbial crutch.
This is not to say that affirmative action for women in India is not required. On the contrary, equitable representation in all fields including politics must be made at all levels. It’s the method of cordoning off seats for women for the purpose of higher representation that we find retrogressive and harmful for the cause of providing equal opportunities for women. Reservation of seats in panchayats has indeed seen increased participation of women in local self-government. This is primarily because women needed that push and the obstacles at the grassroots level removed to edge past the patriarchal stronghold of village politics. But to hitch this model wholesale to central and state legislatures smacks of tokenism, a move that is bound to put women legislators into a neat little corner, highlighting the perceived difference in their abilities rather than bringing them into the general fold. One doesn’t even need to elaborate the manner in which women’s reservation can become a free-for-all political gimmick.
There are ways other than creating reservations to ensure a more gender-neutral political landscape — starting with an increased participation of women at all levels in the party organisation, and a more equitable distribution of party tickets based on performance and ability.
The Congress fielded 43 women in the 2009 general elections, a mere 10 per cent of its total force, while the BJP gave ticket to 44 women. All this might suggest that an artificially created quota system is the answer to balance things out. What it will do instead is undervalue those women who genuinely make the grade not because they are women, but because they deserve to be representing the country due to their abilities and their abilities alone.