The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, elevates Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi to a league of her own and guarantees her a defining place for posterity.
There is perhaps no parallel in modern political history anywhere in the world of a rank outsider potentially leaving such a profound impact on a rancorous and vast Indian democracy. Either by design or default Gandhi seems to have perfected the craft of socially transformational legislating. Although the other two examples of that philosophy, namely the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, are not necessarily a result of her personal convictions alone, her supporters can bracket them with the Women's Reservation Bill to reasonably illustrate her strong social empowerment instincts.
What gives Gandhi the thrust and credibility when she pushes this agenda is that despite heading India's most machination-ridden political party, she has managed to keep herself above the fray. That has as much to do with her non-Indian background as her intrinsically, if somewhat deceptively, low-key style of functioning.
While at one level the passage of the bill is a matter of personal triumph, in a broader sense it is a splendid tribute to India's democratic polity. Whatever may be their motivations, including perhaps political expediency, it is an undeniable fact that the bill was passed by the overwhelmingly male dominated Rajya Sabha. From all indications it is likely to be passed by the 543-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of the people, which has barely ten percent women members. The male Members of Parliament have indeed put their vote where their mouth is.
It is rare in India's politics that two parties on either end of the political spectrum, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist bloc, and the one in the centre, namely the Congress, so sanguinely support a piece of legislation because they all see benefits down the road.
For Gandhi personally, since May 21, 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, the women's bill is an extraordinary topping off of a nearly two-decade-long political life. Those who were monitoring the behind-the-scene drama then knew how hard she was being pursued by senior Congress leaders to take over the party within hours of the assassination. At that stage not just the party presidency but even potentially the position of prime minister was hers for the taking had she wanted them. Instead she waited seven more years before even becoming a primary member of the party which she went on to take over in 1998.
The trajectory of her growth since then has been unmatched in so much as it highlights the metamorphosis of a deeply sceptical and diffident public figure into a strongly anchored political force. It is not clear whether she has been working to a carefully calibrated plan in pushing pieces of legislation which are individually and together fundamentally altering politics and governance in India. However, there is a discernible pattern in them suggesting how she would like to chronicled by political historians.
It is anybody's guess whether once enacted the women's reservation bill will work in a manner that Gandhi and others may have visualized from the standpoint of empowering women. However, for now the very fact that India, sitting in the midst of a neighborhood full of political basket cases, is attempting something this transformational is in itself extraordinary.