Unsettling politics: Madhu Purnima Kishwar

March 10, 2010: The Indian Express

For a long time, any legislation which claimed to be pro-women, no matter how stupid and harmful in substance, sailed through Parliament because any legislative initiative claiming to help women enjoyed a moral aura.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is the first piece of legislation witnessing strong opposition within Parliament because this legislation will affect the fortunes of every single politician. If a secret voting is allowed on this important bill, Mrs Gandhi and BJP party bosses who have issued a whip will discover how deeply resentful their own party members are over this bill.

The Women’s Reservation Bill, in its present form, has serious, indeed fatal, flaws. If enacted, this measure will send our already tottering political system into a devastating tailspin. The one-third of the total parliamentary seats to be reserved for women is to be selected through a lottery system. This implies that at random, at least 180 male legislators will be uprooted from their constituencies every election. In their place, 180 women will be assigned those constituencies before every election. Then, at the time of the next election, when the new list of 180 reserved constituencies is declared in the same manner, these 180 women will not be able to contest from the seats they are holding at that point of time because the same constituency cannot be reserved twice in succession under the bill’s rotation system.

 Thus two-thirds of our legislators will be uprooted at every election. This takes away the incentive for women representatives to nurture and be accountable to their constituencies since after each election they will be expected to either withdraw from the contest or move to a different constituency since no constituency can be reserved in succession.

Thus this brainless scheme of reservation jeopardises the possibility of sensible planning to contest a political constituency for both men and women. Since very few women politicians have an independent electoral base, this uncertainty about where they will be fielded from will make them even more dependent on male bosses of their party to win elections. In such a situation, male politicians will find it easy to bring in their wives and daughters — the biwi beti brigade — as proxies to keep the seat “safe¶ for them until the next election when they would be likely to be able to reclaim their seats.

Being a politician’s wife or daughter ought not to be a disqualification in itself. After all, children of lawyers and doctors often inherit their father’s practice. But they have to prove their worth every day with their clientele. However, most female relatives are brought in as proxies whose only task is to safeguard the political interests of the men of their families. Like Laloo Yadav’ s wife Rabri Devi or Madhu Koda’s wife, they will be brought in as rubber stamps to safeguard family interests and sent home after their use is over.

We cannot afford to pack our Parliament and state legislatures with a larger contingent of Rabri Devis. Apart from other disabilities, they act as very negative role models for women because they enlarge the compass of the ideology of female subservience, which is most prominent in the domestic realm, into the public and political domain as well. The one and only agenda these women have is to do all that they can to save their husbands’ seat or protect them from being put on trial for looting the public exchequer. They don’t even bother to pretend otherwise. How does such a woman serve the cause of women or empower other women?

The biwi-beti brigade, in fact, acts as a definite block against the emergence of independent-minded women who wish to make a space for themselves on their own strength in the public domain. For example, it is a common phenomenon in India that the women’s fronts of various political parties are headed by wives, other female relatives, or mistresses of prominent male party leaders. These posts are given to these women like a jagir for as long as their men retain their clout in the party. A Brinda Karat, Promila Dandavate or Ahilya Ranganekar is put in charge of the women’s front primarily because of their husband’s clout in the party. Such women do not easily make space for other women with merit. Any woman who enters the party, no matter how talented, has to play a subservient role to these dependent women. The political initiative of most women thus gets curbed rather than encouraged in the party mahila (women) fronts.

Because of the familial connection between the main party and the women’s fronts, the politics of the women’s front remains subservient to the party. All too often, the main purpose of the women’s fronts turns out to be narrowly partisan on women’s issues. For example, if a rape is committed by people associated with the Congress Party, the women in Opposition parties are used to let loose a tirade against the Congress. But the same women turn a blind eye towards victims of atrocities when their own party colleagues are culprits. Can we think of even one Congress woman who took a public stand against her partymen involved in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs? Or any BJP woman who stood in support of the victims of Gujarat riots?

For years Mamata Banerjee kept crying hoarse about the violence unleashed by CPM cadres on people in rural Bengal, including cases of gruesome rape, in order to obstruct the conduct of free and fair elections in West Bengal. The CPM women responded in characteristic style and hurled the choicest of political abuses at Mamata instead of making common cause with her in combating the culture of violence in West Bengal.

No wonder our country has not yet witnessed the emergence of women-centric politics on women’s issues. The thoughtless scheme of reservation envisaged by the current Reservation Bill will allow the feminine political space to be totally dominated by the biwi beti brigade which will only demean the idea of women’s empowerment.

When it goes to the Lok Sabha, MPs should demand the right to secret vote on this important constitutional amendment. Democracy is meaningless if legislators are denied the right to vote for issues according to their conviction.

The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and founder editor ‘Manushi’

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