Panchayats in thousands of villages in India are headed by women, and chief ministers of several states are - or have been - women. Yet any attempt to advance the presence of women in the chambers of Parliament itself has failed time and again. Less than 10% of the directly elected national representatives - 45 members of the Lok Sabha's 542, - are women. Even in the Rajya Sabha, where members are appointed and therefore can be more easily chosen to represent a wide spectrum of India, only 28 of 242 seats are held by women. Parliament has repeatedly witnessed ugly political exchanges and male lung power battles over the Women's Reservation Bill, which proposes 33% reservation for women. One government after another has put forward planning meetings that never arrived at a consensus.
Why is this final hurdle so much harder to cross? Is every effort merely a pretense, a concession to the few highly educated and aware women voters that ultimately means nothing to the great majority of others?
What's the right quota, and who will fill it?
The demand for the number - 33% - is partly based on 1970s research conducted in the United States, on women's participation in business. It was shown that within a decision making body, 30% representation by minorities could significantly influence the majority verdict. Drude Dehlerup of the University of Stockholm extended these findings to women's reservation in politics. She observed that while quotas are necessary to jump-start the process of equality, the demand for quotas is a manifestation of growing impatience with unequal political and social citizenship. The inequality isn't correlated with development; while France and Sweden have nearly half their public offices held by women, Japan fares very poorly, with only 4% of its parliamentary seats occupied by women. Some of the poorer nations - a few African countries, Cuba, Pakistan - have reservations for women.
The arguments in favour reserved representation for women are manifold, and by now familiar - 1) Women represent half the population of a country and have the rights to half the seats and parliamentary decisions that affect their lives. 2) Women have different social and biological experiences that ought to be represented 3) women and men have partly conflicting interests, and 4) Women in positions of power can inspire more women to take up these paths.
Attempts to establish reservations for women in the Indian Parliament have invoked stiff resistance - and even insecurities - among MPs, mostly male, who are unwilling to dilute their power. Some faces in the resistance camp have raised 'caste' flags against gender-based reservation, thereby successfully stopping the bill every time it emerges. The Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh and Rastriya Janata Dal of Bihar, for example, demand caste quotas within any women's quota that is arrived at. Ironically, these parties are in power in states that are among the very worst in gender indicators - maternal mortality, women's literacy, etc. Nor is their stance consistent - while demanding a caste quota within the women's reservation efforts, they show very little interest in women's reservation within the already existing SC/ST reservation quotas.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is grinding a different axe on this issue. After promising complete support for the Reservation Bill, the party has yielded to the objections of Uma Bharati and several others within the organisation. It is not hard to imagine that party members in BJP who have close ties to conservative parent organisation, the RSS, would oppose bringing women more positions of power. The RSS had cautioned against the entry of women into politics in its publications as far back as the 1960s. Party ideologues like Murali Manohar Joshi and Lalmani Chaubey are on record decrying women's organizations and arguing that reservation for women would be a waste of seats.
Lobbying for women's share in legislative processes in India is in its infancy. All women do not identify with their womanhood first, group identity first - of being a woman. The August 12th parliamentary meeting hinted at this: the women members took positions consistent with their party lines instead of the interests of women citizens of India. Also, women's organisations have not seriously taken up the endorsement of particular parties or candidates in their efforts to get greater inclusion for women's interests in parliamentary affairs.
It is interesting that despite most major parties having initially voiced complete support for women's reservation, a situation so emerged that the bill has to be shelved again. The effort to make the amendments through 'consensus' is also a charade. Parliament is composed of members who are expected to vote their preferences, and if there are disagreements let these be plain. Consensus can in any event be fleeting - at the time of election there is always enough support for a reservation bill, but this is quickly lost when it comes to actually enacting such a law.
Power, the real issue
Separate from the question of representation by women is the matter of power attached to legislative positions. MPs are loath to give up their seats, so their strategies for greater 'inclusion' of women are superficial. Some have argued that parties should simply be required to ensure that 33% of their candidates for elections are women, but this would probably just mean that parties would nominate women candidates to those races that they never expect to win - like an Telugu Desam candidate in Goa. At the state level, this deception would be harder, admittedly, but here too parties have their strongholds, and could easily meet such requirements in letter without the spirit of such expectations being met. The nomination of women closely related to the men who exercise the real control is also a potential stubmling block.
There are other suggestions. One is the possibliity of having a third of the constituencies represented by two members, one of them being a woman. This is construed as an insult to women by feminists like Mohini Giri, and Brinda Karat, ex-president of AIDWA and now a Rajya Sabha member from West Bengal. Such an arrangement would make it appear that women are incapable of handling their own constituencies and have to play second fiddle to the male members. Another possibility thrown up is that of increased the number of parliamentary seats to 900 and thereafter allotting a third of these - by turn, perhaps, as in the Panchayats - to women. This will increase the parliamentary financial costs by 100 crores; while some object to such costs the benefits will likely far outweigh them. In addition, this would bring voters closer to their representatives, by reducing the number of voters per constituency.
Male MPs are willing to fight hard to preserve their seats in Parliament. In fact, they were fully confident that the "OBC block" from those lobbying for a caste quota would not allow the enactment of the Bill. Thus many politicians belonging to different parties have confidently proclaimed their support for the legislation in public, certain that it would never become law.
Those openly opposing the bill have argued that reservations of 33% will only bring urban elite women to power. This is unlikely; no quota has ever seen a homogenous representation. But even if the argument were justified, should we believe that Indian women would rather continue to be represented by Mulayam Singhs and Lalu Yadavs than by their urban sisters? Jayalalithaa's AIADMK government in Tamilnadu is far more women-friendly than any Bihari or UP government in memory. Indeed, it is one of the dirty secrets of Indian society that caste struggles often cover up great gender inequalities with the castes. Dalit women writers are applauded when they write about caste and hounded when they write about the condition of women in the lower castes.
Representation is a tool for equality and dignity
Both men and women are equal citizens in the eyes of the law. But this is far from the reality. India ranks 115th of 162 countries in terms of gender development. The patriarchal society not only harbours a culture of violence against women in the form of dowry, domestic violence and female infanticide, it also manifests even in government policies towards women. The aggressive population control measures in states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, to implement the 2 children per family norm, blatantly target rural women to undergo forced sterilisations in the most unhygienic conditions. Instead of targeting women's health, education and family planning awareness, these state governments tried taking short cuts to achieve a drop in their population growth, by risking their female population. These decisions are taken at state level by bureaucrats and MLAs who are predominantly male, with little concern or sympathy for women's health. Could such blatantly anti-women policies or laws pass through a Parliament where a third of the votes come from women themselves? Unlikely.
Women's representation in govt.
No bill, no will
The late Gita Mukherjee, CPI-M member and MP from West Bengal, who headed the special parliamentary committee on the Reservations Bill, constantly asserted that the first step was to allow women to break into politics. Their awareness would automatically rise as a consequence. The Panchayati Raj institutions are prime examples of this. Giving women the reins of power at the panchayat level has proven that women are capable of governance. When US President Bill Clinton visited India, his meeting with women Panchayat leaders in Rajasthan was flashed as headlines by every newspaper, drawing attention to their articulation of issues, concerns, and strategies for solutions. These women demonstrated that they were capable of rising up to a challenge and were in complete charge of their responsibilities. In a remarkable incident, the women Panchayat leaders asked the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Digvijay Singh why they were made to sit on mats while officials sat on chairs.
Women's interests can never be completely represented by a group of men. The very treatment of the reservation bill is proof of this. Everybody agrees on the principle of equal participation for women, but none will lift an honest finger to ensure equal representation. The Prime Minister, after reassuring the AIDWA women's delegation in May 2005 that the bill would be tabled in Parliament, and after it was included in the UPA government's National Common Minimum Program, has failed the women in India. Preventing women from creating their own leadership, and obstructing them from policy-making decisions is simply a continuation of the gender subjugation that has gone on for millennia in this land.