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The quota cop-out

The Women’s Reservation Bill is an illuminating example of how politicians can promote a deserving cause in the most unfortunate way, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2010 23:01 IST

The Women’s Reservation Bill is an illuminating example of how politicians can promote a deserving cause in the most unfortunate way. In Mahatma Gandhi’s terms, where the means are more important than the end, this is particularly damning.

No sensible person can deny that India must have more women MPs. The country’s present tally of 10 per cent in the Lok Sabha is embarrassing. Our neighbours fare far better with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal at 17, 19 and 33 per cent respectively. Little Rwanda actually has 56 per cent.

The question is: how should India boost the tally? The Bill does so by reserving 33 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha. But is this the best way? I would say no for three reasons.

First, as a principle, reservations cause offence because they amount to discrimination. India accepts that the scheduled castes and tribes (SC/ST), given their special history, deserve reservations. No such consensus exists for women.

Second, on top of 22.5 per cent for SC/ST, 33 per cent for women (although some of it would overlap) would push up total reservations in the Lok Sabha to around 48 per cent. It means non-SC/ST men (78 per cent of the male population) can only contest 52 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats! Is this acceptable in a democracy?

Third, the way these 33 per cent seats are to be reserved will undermine the key relationship in a parliamentary democracy between an MP and his/her constituency. This is because they are reserved for only one out of a set of three elections. Clearly, therefore, the winning women MPs will have limited incentive to nurture their constituencies. Indeed, this could also apply to the MPs they replace. That’s possibly 66 per cent of the Lok Sabha!

These problems would persist regardless of whether quotas are implemented for women as a whole or in sub-divisions reflecting different castes and minority groups. They vitiate this Bill.

There are, however, other ways of boosting the number of women MPs. They aren’t perfect, but their infirmities may not be as many or as serious.

You could, for instance, create additional seats and reserve them for women. This would still annoy those who don’t like reservations but will avoid the damaging rotation of seats. Or you could create dual-member constituencies where the new MP is a woman. This would still involve reservations and rotation but will increase the number of constituencies. Neither alternative would displace men.

But perhaps the best way is to emulate Tony Blair. In 1997 he increased the number of women candidates fielded by the Labour party, ensuring that over 100 were elected. In our case the Representation of People’s Act could be amended, requiring parties to field a minimum percentage of women candidates.

To ensure political parties don’t circumvent the spirit of this requirement by choosing women for unwinnable seats — e.g. the Samajwadi Party fulfilling the law by fielding women from Tamil Nadu, where they stand no chance of winning — the amendment could say that the percentage has to be implemented state-wise.

No doubt it would take time for parties to fully implement this, both in spirit and in fact, but, ultimately, because parties field candidates to win, the number of elected women would shoot up.

Now that Pranab Mukherjee has (belatedly) said the government is willing to consider amendments and, if necessary, send the Bill back to the Rajya Sabha, why not start afresh with new improved proposals for increasing women MPs?

The views expressed by the author are personal.