Friday, June 5, 2009

WOMEN'S BILL: EMPOWERING GHARANAS, NOT WOMEN

The results of recent Lok Sabha elections have driven home the very disturbing fact that politics in India is fast becoming a family business. If this trend continues, as indeed it will unless major changes are made, India will soon find itself being ruled "democratically" by just over a thousand families who will fight among themselves every five years to send 543 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

Given this development which will sound the death knell of democracy both at the Centre and in the states, it is indeed surprising that the real implications of the Women's Reservations Bill that President Pratibha Patil has said will be passed within 100 days, are being overlooked completely. It may be recalled that the bill had been introduced thrice earlier but could not be pushed through because of staunch opposition from some political parties who wanted sub-reservations, within this 33% reservation, based on community and religion.

Is sending 181 women MPs to the Lok Sabha really going to empower women, as the nation is being made to believe, or is it only going to lead to further concentration of power in a few political families?

In the present Parliament, there are 58 women MPs, the highest number ever. The main reason for there being so few women MPs since 1952 is their poor win record, as they have to fight male candidates. This time, for example, in Uttar Pradesh out of 61 women contestants, only 7 managed to get elected. In West Bengal, the tally was four out of 34, in Andhra Pradesh it was 3 out of 21, in Haryana only one out of 8 won and in Madhya Pradesh three out of 30 made it.

That is perhaps why our wise politicians and already empowered women have fallen once again back to the the arguably regressive reservation route to empower 183 women politically. In reality, even these few women are not going to be empowered in the manner that the proponents of the bill have visualised. Consider this: of the 58 women MPs elected recently, as many as 36 are widows, wives, daughters or daughters-in-law. Of the remaining 22, there is reason to believe that most are in Parliament due to some family political connection or the other. There are hardly any women who have made it to Parliament on their own.

The results of the recent Lok Sabha elections have also starkly brought to fore the fact that at the national level, so far it is the Congress party alone that has many flourishing political dynasties, starting right from the top. The BJP is also beginning to get afflicted with this disease, though it has very few such political families yet. It is only the Left that has remained untouched so far. Most regional parties have, of course, already become small, single family business houses.

Does this not make the arithmetic straightforward? Or are you also not able to see it yet? Once the Women's Bill is passed, 181 women will fight only against women and, naturally, only women will win. So what is going to happen? All parties will go hunting for women candidates who can win. That is where the Congress will win hands down. It will be easily able to find 181 women who are part of or connected to its long established and powerful political dynasties.

Unless there is a wave against the Congress, therefore, most of its candidates will easily win against candidates put up by other parties in seats reserved for women. The recent victories of family backed women candidates against powerful male candidates should leave no one in any doubt about what the outcome will be when they are pitted against weak, "commoner" women candidates. So, after the next elections, we will have, for example, not just Sachin Pilot in the Lok Sabha but also his mother Rama and wife Sara, both elected easily from reserved constituencies. The same or a similar story will be repeated in the case of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Prithviraj Chauhan, Prateek Patil and many, many others.

Do you get the big picture? 181 normal seats plus 181 women's seats, that means 362 seats, or two thirds of Lok Sabha, can theoretically become the borough of only 181 political families. Therefore, if the Women's bill is passed, in the next election the Congress will find itself in a position to easily get more than 272 MPs into the Lok Sabha and form a government on its own, if there is no wave against it. If there is a small swing away from it, it will still be able to hang on to power with the help of allies. A non-Congress government at the Centre will be almost an impossibility unless there is a massive wave against the Congress or till other parties get their own political dynasties going to make it an even fight between two or more women belonging to one "royal gharana" (family) or another.

Perhaps the Congress, in the light of the results of the recent elections, has already spotted the pot of gold that this reservation for women is going to bring for the party. That could be one reason why it is in a tearing hurry to push the bill through, before other political parties wake up to its implications. It is very surprising that they are still blissfully unaware of the tectonic change that reservation for women is going to unleash to perpetuate democratic dynastic rule.

If politicians and women's organisations are genuinely serious about empowering women, then they should be thinking about provisions that will prevent the degeneration of reservation into family businesses where the role of women will remain as it has been forever. Don't you find it strange that no one is talking about prohibiting wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, first cousins etc of male Rajya Sabha MPs and Lok Sabha MPs/candidates from contesting from seats reserved from women? Why are some politicians instead asking only for more sub-reservations based on community/religion alone? It seems they all want to tweak the bill in a manner that will help them promote their own little dynasties/empires while preventing any real transfer of power to women.

In a recent discussion on Headlines Today, a fiery lady who has been aggressively pushing the bill for long, admitted that initially only wives etc of politicians would get elected. That was fine by her, she said, because she hoped that things would change over time and lead to real empowerment of women, like it had happened at the panchayat level in some states.

Is that really going to happen? The Parliament is not a lowly panchayat where the stakes are small. It is big business. Have we not already witnessed how, thanks to virtually no restrictions placed by law, our politicians have managed to increasingly ensure the concentration of political power in the hands of a few political dynasties? Are they going to foolishly let this golden opportunity slip away, and let 183 women MPs get empowered in the manner that some of us are simplistically hoping they will some time in the distant future?

The proponents of the Women's Reservation Bill have got it all wrong, I believe. Reserving seats for 183 women in Parliament is not going to lead to the empowerment of ordinary Indian women in any manner whatsoever, ever, bar the high decibel chatter. All that it is going to do is to make political gharanas even more powerful, with their women playing primarily the stereotyped supporting role of adding the weight of numbers to the family jaagir (estate).

Passage of the bill in its present form will, thus, only hasten the ongoing take-over of India's democracy by political gharanas. When that transition is complete, general elections will become a farce in which a few hundred families will go to the ordinary people of India every five years and ask them to choose 543 MPs out of members belonging to their very exclusive club.

Is that what we want to see happening? If not, then this bill needs to be opposed fearlessly for all the right reasons.
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Readers may also read:
1. Election 2009: dynasties empowered, not youth
2. 62 years down the line, the Raj is back in a new avatar