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Women's Reservation Bill and the BJP Drama

Kumudini Pati

It was not only a volte-face but also the most blatant breach of trust that women voters suffered as the Women’s Reservation Bill was put to humiliation and defeat in the parliament. After a short period of virtual tug-of-war between the Primeminister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Lok Sabha speaker Balyogi now on who is going to ‘bell the cat’, it seems that the 84th Constitutional Amendment Bill providing for reservation for women in the Parliament and assem-blies has finally been shelved. It was rather crude the way the whole thing was staged. Firstly, the Vajpayee government has put women’s empowerment through 33% reservation for women on the national agenda most prominently. Secondly, both the P.M. and the parliamentary affairs minister Madan Lal Khurana shouted themselves hoarse trying to convince one and all that they would see the Bill through in the Budget session itself, Sushma Swaraj echoed the official statement. Not only this, the P.M. kept almost all the women and their representatives completely in the dark about what strategy would be adopted to contain the severe opposition on the OBC question, which would obviously be the main hurdle in getting the bill passed. The P.M’s hurriedly convening an all-party meet to achieve a consensus was also just a drama which had to be staged so as to throw the ball in the opposition court, which the BJP finally succeeded in doing!

Had it ever occurred to the P.M. to consult any of the main opposition parties, nay, even the ex-defence minister Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, when the question of nuclear tests was on the agenda? Has any bill ever been so crudely prevented from being however anti-people may it contents have been? Or, even going by numbers in the Parliament, (which is often a self-defeating exercise!) the Cong(I) and the BJP had issued whips and the Left had always stood with the Bill. Almost all of the women MP’s were also very much in favour of the Bill, their unity on this issue even cutting across party lines. Women’s organisations including the NGOs came out openly in favour of the Bill, and except for two of its allies, the Samata and the AIADMK the other parties in the BJP’s ruling coalition had formally accepted the content of the Bill. This was enough for the BJP to have placed it firmly and put to vote, since consulta-tions, discussions and debates had already been conducted several times since the Devegowda regime.

Mr. Mulayam of the SJP, had right from the start been consist-ent in his pro-OBC stand and there has been no doubt that the RJD would also come out in opposition to the Bill. It has not been so much for a concern for the OBC women as because of the very crisis of identity that these two parties are facing in their respective states that has forced them to oppose the Bill. And more so because they are also facing a tough competi-tion from parties like the Samata and BSP on this score! The other major problem that is going to arise is that of these constituencies being rotated which would create problems for established leaders of all parties, particularly those which have not been able to build women leaders of any stature. So far as the question of developing women leaders concerned, the BJP and the Congress (I) have had their own brand. One may call them leaders who are status-quoist or who would never challenge patriarchal values within their own parties, but, yes, they have been able spokespersons of all that thier parties stand for. The left, on the other hand, has had an impeccable record of raising women leaders right from the grassroots — women who have grit and courage! Women leaders who have fought for working class and women’s rights, those who have faced attacks by goondas and saffron clad lumpens, those who have sacrificed the comforts and pleasures of settled family life and those who have risked being isolated from the feudal society have been associated with the left and revolutionary stream of politics. The ‘social-justice’ camp has been too busy with its ‘caste’-based politics to be able to think on the gender question. In fact, they are afraid that gender would be divisive for their movement!

It would be worthwhile to discuss the question of why all the parties of the rightist and centrist camps are basically not in favour of women’s reservation. Firstly, the BJP, which has the maximum number of women parliamentarians, derives its ideological moorings from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has been known for its opposition to women entering politics. Leaders writing for Organiser way back in the 60’s cautioned against women being entrusted with positions of power. According to them, this could be done only in exceptional cases. In this regard, they felt political parties in western countries had acted quite wisely. Secondly, they took recourse to Freudian analysis in concluding that women are prone to acting on revenge, under frustration and through flattery, which makes them stick to positions of power. They said that the consequence of allowing women to assume power would be disastrous! It is not surprising that the only way women have been used by the Sangh Parivar has been in militant mobilizations on communal grounds (kar Sevikas) especially during riots, for example in Surat and Mumbai.

In fact BJP has no moral right to talk of women’s empowerment considering the fact that prominent leaders of BJP like Murli Manohar Joshi have gone on record decrying the struggle of women for equality and dignity e.g., the international conference of women at Beijing. Similarly, the BJP woman leader Mridula Sinha has talked of women’s assertion leading to discord within families and a total breakdown of society. It is not surprising that BJP M.P. and leader, Lalmani Chaubey also publicly stated his total oppo-sition to women’s reservation on the ground that it would be a total waste of one-third of the seats if they were reserved for women.

During the Ayodhya March too, Uma Bharati was provoking women to stand by their brothers as they prepared themselves for a ‘war for the Hindu temple of Ram’. The incendi-ary speeches delivered by her and Ritambhara were a powerful means of converting Hindu women into communal subjects who later watched the gang rape and burning alive of Muslim women in the riots that followed. It was Rajmata Scindia, on the other hand, who mobilized women in favour of Sati, saying it was part of the glorious Hindu tradition. Yes, this is the very anti-woman ideology that has kept the BJP women MPs and leaders from even raising the issue of sexual oppression and rape of women in Rajasthan. Then, do `fifty empowered women instill confidence in 50 million women’ as Uma Bharati says? Or, for that matter, does a Mayawati inspire the dalit women of Bathani Tola or Bathe?

Most of the autonomous women’s groups have not been able to assert forcefully on the question of women’s reservation because it does not directly concern them. There have been some prominent leaders like Medha Patkar (NAPM) who came forward with the formulation that the party which distributes maximum number of tickets to women candidates should be wholeheartedly supported by the women’s movement. Similarly, Mohini Giri was seen running from pillar to post trying to pressure political parties to give tickets to at least one-third of the total candidates being put up for the 1998 general elections. She even tried to put up a common lady candidate (Ranjana Kumari) as a token gesture but finally had to drop the idea when the Mahila Daskshata Samiti withdrew her name saying that the ‘parent party’ had not been consulted — an utterly naive act that made her a laughing stock!

The left women’s organisations are still quite defensive in opposing the BJP government on this question because of their failure to have the Bill passed during the UF regime. In fact, all their opposition to the treatment of the issue was then limited to formal protests whereas the Left MPs sacrificed the reservation issue to the exercise of saving the UF government from its eventual fall. The left parties are still caught in a Catch-22 situation where opposing the centrist parties would mean weakening their so called ‘anti-communal’ plank and letting the BJP walk away with the credit of having passed the Bill, and supporting them would mean surrendering the cause of women. While Com. Gita Mukherjee is justified in her efforts to win over support of other MPs in the Lok Sabha, it is strange that the leaders of women’s organisations of the CPM and CPI along with NGOs have been organising delegations to meet the P.M. and acting just as a pressure group from the outside. These, while their leaders (Jyoti Basu, Surjeet) are now caught in the OBC women syndrome. With the NCW invoking the spirit of Gandhi and the left women’s groups stopping short of any agitation against the anti-women ideology and politics of the BJP, it is the revolutionary left forces who will have to champion the cause while exposing the anti-women, reactionary ideology of the Sangh Pariwar.

The Congress party has catapulted on its position on the reservation question in the most shameless and pragmatic manner. Typical of Congress politics, it was Sonia Gandhi, the President who had risen above the CPP to confidently say she was all for the Bill being passed. Now it is the Congress which is trying to woo the OBC and Muslim voters and Sonia even had to face a lot of embarrassment for her unconditional support for the Bill.

This time the situation has turned from bad to worse with the vocal section of Muslim leaders demanding reservations for Muslim women within the 33% already stipulated. Similarly, it is demanded that the SC/ST seats for these women should not cut into the 22.5% seats already reserved for SC/ST members. Although some Leftist Muslim women leaders have tried to reject the above demand, they hardly represent broad sections of Muslims in the country. It is important to note that once the Pandora’s box has been allowed to open, with all parties except the revolutionary left trying some way or other for accommodating OBC women, there is no going back, and the very spirit of reservation for women as an unequal and oppressed section has been lost. Now it is a fight between various castes and communities - a debate that will go on ad-infinitum. Almost all parties seem to be in favour of shelving the Bill - ‘good riddance’ for them.

But let us look back to the struggle that has gone behind bringing in the Bill. There had already been a lot of discussion on the question of reservation for women (in all representative bodies) within the Committee on the Status of Women in India, where women political activists and social scientists who had been invited for discussion seemed to favour reservation in the Parliament and the state assemblies. Already there were some seats for women in panchayats as reserved seats but the number was quite small and this had absolutely no impact on the situation for women at the grassroots. Most of them were totally unaware of whatever had been given to them. At the first stage the committee agreed for statutory women’s panchayats with their President and Secretaries occupying reserved seats within the village panchayats. No reservation was to be allowed for assemblies and the Parliament. Rather political parties were urged to field at least 15% women among the total member of candidates. The result was dismal still and Vina Mazumdar as well as Lolita Sarkar had to dissent from this decision, saying this did not solve the problem at all.

In 1988 the Draft National Perspective Plan for women advocate 30% reser-vation in all elective bodies upto Parliament, of course, with the proviso that to begin with these seats would be filled by nominated or co-opted members. This was rejected by all national women’s organizations as most undemocratic. They were in favour of 30% reservation in panchayats, with separate reservation for women of dalit and tribal origin within this quota. They demanded elections to these seats. The rationale behind this was that able women leaders would be developed from below. They felt that once this process got going, it would pave the way for women to come up to the level of assemblies and the Parliament. The panchayati raj amendment was more effective in energising women than people had even expected and it was for this reason that enough pressure was generated from below to legitimize the demand for reservation in higher bodies. It was at this state that the Indian women’s movement changed its previous stand and began to support the need for reservations in state assemblies and the Parliament.

It is also worth noting that in terms of percentage of women in representative institutions, leaving aside the Scandinavian countries (more than 30% women, highest in Sweden 40.4%) and countries like China, North Korea and Cuba as well as South Africa (more than 20%) where there have either been social conditions favouring women’s assertion or women’s empowerment has been achieved through a conscious process, the developed countries like America (11%) Japan (4.6%) as well as Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (no women) have had the worst record. The East European countries, before the fall of socialism too had achieved an average of 26% representation through the process of women’s reservation too. Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s time had a poor representation of below 10% and it was during the time of Tony Blair that it reached 26% out which majority are from the Labour Party. In 1997, the Inter Parliamentary Conference in India had brought to light many facts and there seemed to be a strong opinion in favour of building leaders through a process of change in the situation of women at grassroots level. Coming through the ‘back door’, they said, would not help. The Chinese delegates informed that around 30 crores of Chinese women were being given political education to this end. Hence, women’s reservation has come up as a real issue - something which is not just a dream but which has shown concrete results! And though, in the beginning, it may benefit a privileged few, it will certainly set the ball rolling for greater changes.

Those opposing women’s reservation on the ground that 33% is inadequate and the fight should be for nothing less 50% should understand that this is a wrong position. It was way back in the decade of the 70’s that an American feminist who was studying the participation of women in business, looking for gender differences who found that at a level of 30% representation a minority group could influence decision making and behave like the majority! Later in the 80’s, a Danish Feminist and Political Scientist, Drude Dahlesip applied this to women in politics and argued for 30% reservation of women in decision making bodies. This debate did find its way in the U.N. international conference especially in the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference.

While the struggle for women’s empowerment goes on, one must however not forget that though numbers and percentages are important, it is ultimately numbers coupled with the correct world-view that can go a long way to strengthen the movement for women’s liberation. Hence, it is finally the struggle of the working class and the toiling women that must benefit from women’s quota. For the women who have made history without portfolios and reserved seats, reserved seats where women would be the contestants would expose better, the politics of ‘by women, of women, for women’. This would also help to expose the fascists and the ‘social justice’ camp or the Congress on the gender question. And this would ultimately provide an opportunity to the left women’s organisations to prove themselves true representatives of both women as well as the mass of toiling men. So far as the left is concerned, the question of reservation for women, unfortunately has been restricted to mobilizations of the women’s associations. The left parties should raise this important issue as a political question too - in fact all democratic opinion in favour of the Bill should be sought to be united under the leadership of the Left. It is surely not an easy task, but not impossible either!

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