Women must choose merit over reservations
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress take great pride in pointing out to the electorate how they are like chalk and cheese, with totally different views on just about every issue. But clearly, the Women’s Reservation Bill is an exception. Both have vigorously talked about how they will implement the bill almost on the spot when elected to office in a short while. As far as bills hanging fire go, this one surely takes the cake, the plate and the trimmings. It has been in the works for over 20 years and is no closer to implementation, with only the Rajya Sabha assenting to it so far.
The decent thing to do for all political parties is to give up the pretence and just ask women to compete on their own steam. The draft bill held out the promise of 33% reservation in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha with the reserved seat being rotated. It was meant to be in force for a period of 15 years by which time it was believed women would have got the leg up that they needed.
Time and again, the Bill was introduced only to fall by the wayside and there is nothing to suggest that, whoever comes to power in May will get it through this time. The arguments against it are ingenious. Some politicians, male of course, argue that this will only benefit the female relatives of powerful male Members of Parliament. Fair enough, it probably would and, even without any reservation, relatives get a foot in the door much easier and faster. Yet another smart deflecting ploy is to say that this bill is not enough, the quota must be for 50% to reflect the percentage of women who need affirmative action. The main parties have also always argued that coalition compulsions prevented them so far from pushing the bill through.
The truth is that there is no great momentum for this bill from politicians of either gender. And honestly, in a society governed by merit, there should not be. The 30% reservation at the panchayat level should be enough to create that trickle up effect, pushing meritorious women who have earned their spurs in public life to the next level. That it has not is a reflection on both political indifference to this issue and the fact that women are not organised enough to speak up and push for greater political representation.
It is not a priority, and will not be so. This is evident from the fact that apart from expressing support, powerful women in political parties have never really thrown their weight behind this bill. Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and the late J Jayalalithaa could easily have implemented this reservation when giving out party tickets, but they did not, demonstrating again that this sort of affirmative action based on gender has few takers.
Rather than perpetuating the myth that the bill will soon be passed and a gender equitable political order will come about, it is better to aim much lower and push for political parties to at least chose some worthy candidates from the panchayati raj system and get them elected to state assemblies. It may not be an unqualified success but with the backing of the party, some of the women candidates are bound to win. From there it could move to the next level, the Lok Sabha. It would be a gradual process, but the results would be far more lasting and meritorious than just handing out seats. As things stand, there are far too many extraneous considerations in giving out tickets ranging from caste to dynastic considerations. Why add gender to the mix?
When the new Lok Sabha comes in, nothing will have changed on the bill. It will be taken out and aired once in a while and put away. But the illusion that there is great political will to promote women’s rights will be perpetuated. I think women who are now coming into their own in many professions could do without this tokenism at best and condescension at worst. The difficult and more painful route to empowerment is far better, more enduring and more equitable. The bill will continue to be a conversation piece and that is what it should remain as.