Sunday, March 07, 2010

Women’s quota Bill restricts democracy (March 7, 2010)

Swapan Dasgupta
Last Friday, Congress MP Manish Tiwari introduced a laudable Private Member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to free Parliament from the tyranny of the party whip. The Bill, which is yet to be debated, proposes to amend the 10th Schedule of the Constitution and make it possible for MPs to exercise free choice in all matters except confidence motions, money Bills and adjournment motions. Most important, the proposed amendment enables MPs to apply their minds and exercise independent judgement in the crucial area of law-making.

Unless I am very mistaken, it is unlikely that this Bill will endear Tiwari to the leadership of the political parties. An unintended consequence of the anti-defection legislation was the transformation of the backbench MP into either voting fodder by the Treasury or a disruptive mob by the Opposition. Whereas the sentiments of backbenchers are crucial to the calculations of party leaders in Westminster, these count for little in India and facilitate a peculiarly autocratic democracy. The draconian nature of anti-defection legislation has marred the vibrancy of Parliament and jeopardised internal democracy within the major political parties.

The fear of MPs sleep-walking their way to national disaster is not an academic one. The next week is certain to be dominated by the Government’s attempt to rush the Women’s Reservation Bill through both Houses of Parliament. The proposed Constitution Amendment reserving one-third of parliamentary and State Assembly seats for women is assured of overwhelming parliamentary endorsement with the Congress, BJP and CPI(M) having issued three-line whips to their MPs. The only opposition is likely to be from three caste-based parties which want a sub-quota for women OBCs. They, however, don’t have the requisite numbers to make any difference and may, at best, fall back on disruption.

Both the supporters and opponents of the Women’s Reservation Bill agree that it is a landmark, perhaps as significant as the introduction of communal electorates by the Government of India Act of 1909 and the Poona Pact of 1932 that reserved seats in the legislature for the “depressed classes”. The proposal, first mooted by the short-lived HD Deve Gowda Government in 1996, has gone through a parliamentary committee and, after 14 years, is ready to be made into law and put into effect with the next general election.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is calculated to change the basic character of representation to the highest law-making bodies in the land. It is a Bill aimed at restricting free choice to meet the imperatives of equity and social engineering. The issue is not so much the right of women to secure adequate representation in Parliament and the State Assemblies — such an unfettered right has been in existence since the Constitution came into being in 1950. Nor is the Bill aimed at making it obligatory for registered political parties to nominate enough women to contest elections. The legislation is centred on compulsion.

In the next general election, it will be compulsory for the voters of selected constituencies (chosen, presumably, by lottery) to select their MP or MLA from a slate of women candidates. In short, a citizen of India will be barred from contesting a particular seat on grounds of gender. Considering that there is already a caste/community-based restriction on individuals from contesting in Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes seats, this legislation will impose an additional restriction on the principle of free choice, the basis of democratic governance. Since the laws of the land are made by Parliament and the State Assemblies, it naturally follows that all enacted legislation will in future suffer from an in-built distortion arising from flawed representation.
It is important to distinguish women’s reservation in the law-making bodies from the existing quotas in municipalities and panchayats. The organs of local Government don’t make laws; they raise local taxes, undertake limited welfare projects, and frame rules and guidelines relating to buildings, roads and sewage disposal. Nor should women’s reservation in the legislatures be equated with affirmative action in educational institutions and the bureaucracy. These are measures aimed at enhancing the quantum of opportunities for livelihood. And the bureaucracy implements and enforces Government programmes; it doesn’t make laws.

In making restricted choice an overriding principle of membership to law-making bodies, the women’s reservation legislation is hitting at the essence of democracy.

There is, undeniably, a strong case for increasing the representation of women to the legislatures. Political parties, even those who have piously issued three-line whips to their MPs, have been insufficiently attentive to the fact that not enough women are given winnable seats. If they had a better track record, they would have had the moral authority to resist compulsion. Yet, the question remains: Must iniquities always be rectified by radical social engineering that has baneful side effects? Or is it necessary to be fanatically committed to the fundamental principles governing democracy?

These are questions that Parliament has to address and in a spirit of openness. These are questions that civil society needs to think about. Unfortunately, parliamentary discussion is certain to be hamstrung by the three-line whip and an oppressive climate of political correctness that has gripped the media. And the pace of legislation is calculated to rule out any meaningful debate in civil society.

In private, many MPs are deeply disturbed by the Bill but they are helpless in the face of instructions from above. The absence of honest debate will facilitate this undemocratic legislation and pave the way for many unanticipated distortions in the political process.

Parliament has an inalienable right to pass any legislation, including crazy ones. There may be some redemption if MPs are at least allowed the liberty of a conscience vote. If only Tiwari’s Bill was law…

Sunday Pioneer, March 7, 2010

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