India Will Never Be the Same Again

5152.gamechangerHartosh Singh Bal and Dhirendra K. Jha on the new gender quota for India's parliament, in Open the Magazine:

[W]hatever the short-term impacts on politics and governance, there was something new and refreshing about Sonia Gandhi’s candour on the day the Bill was passed. She told NDTV 24/7, “Well, it is a huge risk, but we have taken risks before. Whenever there is something revolutionary and new, there is opposition. There are difficulties in all parties, perhaps in my party too. But as I said the larger picture of women’s empowerment is more important.” What she has brought to the issue of empowerment is a vision that has been lacking in our politics of pragmatism, a vision that goes beyond the calculus of losses and gains.

A week before the Bill was tabled, she had told the Congress Parliamentary Party, “It is a matter of great pride that even though it has taken so long, it is our government that has cleared the legislation in the Cabinet… This year on 8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. What a gift to the women of India, if on this important day this historic legislation is introduced and passed!”

It took a day longer, but the deed was done. For those who had argued the Bill could well wait till the end of the session, it must now be clear that the symbolism of the occasion was central to its passage. In fact, symbolism has been the key to its very conception. The idea of the Bill was born in 1994 as various women’s organisations, including National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), started gearing up for Fourth World Conference on Women due then at Beijing in 1995. This was later reflected in the election manifestos of various parties, including the Left parties, before the Lok Sabha election of 1996. The Deve Gowda Government took the first step, and after the idea of reserving seats was tabled in the Lok Sabha that very year, the Bill was referred to a joint parliamentary committee headed by the Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Geeta Mukherjee. It was this committee that recommended the 33 per cent reservation for women.

Born of symbolism, the impact though will be very real. The time for looking at whether the Bill should have been framed differently is now past. And it remains the case that our contradictory approach to reservations, justice and equity will bring new pitfalls as we continue to evolve our polity. But for the time being, what counts is the impact of the Bill.

One easy way to measure its impact is to look at Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) where the 33 per cent rule has been in force. All the criticisms levelled at the initiative remain valid, the ironic term ‘Sarpanch Pati’ is no aberration—a nationwide survey have shown more women than men have relatives who had contested elections earlier. But it has also shown that 37.3 per cent of all women candidates stand for elections because of this reservation. And that is probably the strongest argument for the Bill. Not that major legislative or normative changes in our politics are likely because of the Bill, but that it will create the perception of participation.

And this perception is what shapes the reality of a more equitable society.