Thursday, March 18, 2010

Not the Westminster way (March 19, 2010)

One danger is that women’s issues will become ghetto concerns

By Swapan Dasgupta

“We Englishman are very proud of our Constitution, Sir. It was bestowed upon us by providence. No other country is so favoured as This Country.”

“And other countries,” said the foreign gentleman, “They do how?”

“They do, Sir,” returned Mr Podsnap gravely shaking his head, “they do —I am sorry to be obliged to say it — as they do.”

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

Last week, the Rajya Sabha cleared the first hurdle in the path of a Constitution amendment bill to reserve one-third of directly-elected seats in legislatures for women. It was, as its supporters rightly boasted, a profoundly ‘revolutionary’ measure that, if it manages to negotiate the remaining hurdles, will allow India to look Rwanda and Angola in the eye and cock a snook at the patriarchal Anglosphere. What is more, as joyous pro-reservationists have pointed out, the bill was passed after a four-hour ‘debate’ — a curious name for the grand proclamations that party leaders recorded for the history books.

We are, it is said, “like this only” and grateful for small mercies such as four hours of speeches on a proposal that will change the persona of representative politics and further curtail the principle of free choice — the existing ‘reserved’ seats deny absolute free choice in nearly one-fifth of Lok Sabha constituencies. Considering that the government gave less than a week’s notice to the Rajya Sabha, was willing to rush through the bill without even the pretence of deliberations and, if Mamata Banerjee is to be believed, didn’t even bother consulting all the coalition partners, it was less of a debate and more akin to the proceedings of a kangaroo court. The insidious three-line whip and the threat of disqualification ensured that the outcome was settled even before the bill was circulated in Parliament.

The choppy passage of the Constitution amendment through the Rajya Sabha personified India’s cavalier approach to political decision-making. That the proposal was conceived by the ramshackle United Front government in 1996, subsequently endorsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government and included in the manifestos of the main parties doesn’t distract from this harsh indictment. The undeniable fact is that there was insufficient public debate on the bill and its far-reaching implications. Grand assertions from the high table — something Jawaharlal Nehru bequeathed to the country — don’t make for either informed judgment or a national consensus. No wonder back-bench members of parliament feel resentful and short-changed. And it is entirely possible that the cumulative impact of different grievances may derail the bill in the Lok Sabha.

At the risk of echoing Mr Podsnap’s pompous assertion of English superiority, it is worth comparing last week’s events with the path of the legislation that outlawed fox hunting in Britain. To the uninitiated, fox hunting was as central to English country life as, say, football and the pub are to urban Britain. The proposal to outlaw it hit at the very heart of country life in England. Yet, since hunting was also inextricably associated with privilege, the Labour Party manifesto of 1997 promised “a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned by legislation”. For New Labour, which had wisely turned its back on ‘class struggle’ issues, the crusade against fox hunting was a politically inexpensive way of kicking Tory butts and placating its own loyal army of the mean minded.

The seven years it took for manifesto commitment to be translated into the Hunting Act saw feverish courtship of the ‘free vote’ by both sides. There were countless hours of parliamentary, public and media debates, petitions, lobbying of MPs and the matter even reached the courts. The Countryside Alliance even organized a huge demonstration in London in 2004, a rare occasion when Labradors comprised a significant proportion of the marchers. Despite some dogged resistance by the House of Lords, the pro-ban lobby finally prevailed. Yet no side could really say that the legislation was passed without a full and exhaustive application of mind by MPs. A comparison between fox hunting and women’s reservation in Parliament may seem fatuous and, indeed, offensive. However, it’s not the subject of disputes or the passion generated by them, but the political process that bears measuring against the yardstick of democratic ideals.

First, the inclusion of a proposal in a manifesto doesn’t imply its automatic acceptance or rejection by voters. Women’s reservation was a tucked-away feature of the manifestos. It wasn’t even an incidental theme of the general election campaign and I don’t recall any leader of consequence speaking about the measure in their campaign rallies. The proposal didn’t shape voting preferences even nominally. It is also worth noting that even the decision to bring the bill to the Rajya Sabha wasn’t accompanied by the usual ‘busloads of arguments’.

Secondly, in matters concerning a way of life and the very character of the political system, as opposed to a money bill or a confidence motion, a free vote is desirable. A private member’s bill to this effect proposed by the Congress MP, Manish Tiwari, has been introduced in the Lok Sabha. Since majority opinion is the aggregate of local sentiment, there is a compelling need to factor in diversity. A sense of the ‘common good’ can come about after messy consultation and fractious debate. A parliamentary fatwa may enhance women’s representation; it won’t serve the cause of women’s empowerment. Indeed, there is a real danger that women’s issues may become ghetto concerns, unworthy of consideration by the whole society.

Finally, a legislation of this magnitude must be accompanied by robust debate that filters down to the grassroots. The last occasion there was even a flutter of sorts on women’s reservation was in 1996. Until the kerfuffle of last week, there was silence for 14 years. And even last week’s discussions, laced with dollops of correctness, were confined to NGOs, women activists and the editorial classes.

Yet, there are other voices too. Some of them may be crass, unenlightened and rarefied, but they too need to be heard. The very process of engagement and consultation will strengthen democracy immeasurably. It will make any radical step more palatable and less divisive. The introduction of a common civil code for all Indians, for example, has been held up for six decades because of minority misgivings. Indeed, any meaningful debate on this issue has been peremptorily foreclosed not because it will necessarily fail to reflect the national feeling but because the debate itself will reveal fissures in society. The Indian political class, it would seem, is most comfortable with a contrived consensus achieved through diktat; a genuine battle of ideas is invariably shunned. The immortal words of a Gilbert and Sullivan song seems to have struck a chord in India’s parliamentary democracy: “I always voted at my party’s call, /And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

Two decades ago, India moved hesitantly away from the inefficiencies of the command economy. Tragically, it remains wedded to a command democracy whereby the leader directs and followers passively acquiesce. In a counterfeit system, ‘political will’ has come to denote the ability of a leader to impose his/her will on a deeply sceptical party and country. The instrument of this imposition is, predictably, the gagging order of the three-line whip and the threat of disqualification under the 10th Schedule. It’s not, as Mr Podsnap would undoubtedly have reminded us, the Westminster way. But then, it’s not meant to be. Our new ideal is Rwanda.

The Telegraph, March 19, 2010

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