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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Should seats in Parliament be reserved on the basis of gender?

Women's Voting I am sorry. I've tried my best. But I still remain unconvinced of the merits of the case for reserving parliamentary seats for women. it is not as though I am against the proposal; just that I remain ambivalent. And unfortunately, such is the self-righteousness of those demanding reservation that they do not regard it as necessary to try and persuade anybody that they are right. Rather, they take the line that anybody oppose to reservation is also opposed to women and therefore, beneath contempt.

As far as I can understand it, the case rests on several propositions. The first is that Indian women are a disadvantaged grouping and therefore deserving of some special consideration. I have no real problem with this proposition. But it is from the next step onwards that I begin to get more than a little bewildered.

The second key proposition is that the way to advance the cause of women is to ensure that lots more women occupy positions of political influence.

At first, this doesn't sound unreasonable but the more I think about it, the weaker this formulation seems to me.

It makes the assumption that women in positions of power will help other women. But will they? Do men in power actually help other men? What reason is there for believing that any powerful women will put herself out for her sisters?

Let us take the case of the single-most powerful prime minister India has ever had: Indira Gandhi. From 1966 to 1977, Mrs Gandhi spent 11 years in power during her first term. And from 1980 till her assassination she was the leader of the party in power; a party that called itself the Congress (I) after her.

Indira Gandhi This achievement cannot be minimised. Mrs Gandhi took office 13 years before Mrs Thatcher and assumed a political importance that few women have achieved in the West even today. A woman has never been elected president of the United States or of France.

You could argue that Indira made it to the top in 1966 because she was Pandit Nehru's daughter. But the 1971 and 1980 victories were entirely her own.

And yet, did Indian women benefit substantially during her reign? Were they significantly better off in 1984 than they were in 1966 as a consequence of anything she did? Did she even regard it as part of her responsibility to be especially concerned about women?

If the argument is that all women benefit when some occupy positions of influence, then why didn't it happen in Tamil Nadu when Jayalalitha was chief minister? In Orissa when Nandini Satpathy ruled? And so on.

You can't respond that this was because they were untrue to the cause of women. If every Indian woman in politics is untrue to this cause, then what reason is there for believing that those who will get an assisted entry into Parliament will be any different?

And perhaps this is how it should be. The basis of parliamentary democracy is that a representative represents all his or her constituents. Men aren't elected to help men. And women aren't elected to help women. Both are elected to help everybody.

Take the argument that the way to, help all women is to place women in positions of influence and substitute 'women' with 'Muslims' or 'banias' or 'harijans' and you will see how dangerous it is.

Mayawati When Muslims vote as Muslims, we worry that they are not voting as Indians, Why, we ask, can't they vote for a Hindu? Do they believe that all national politics should boil down to a single-point agenda: vote for our own kind? When 'banias' appeal to other banias only on the grounds of caste, we say that it is a symptom of an immature democracy.

And yet, in this case, we believe that the best way to ensure that women's interests are protected is to change the law to exclude men from being elected!

Does that make much sense?

Nor is it necessarily correct to say that women believe that they will only progress if other women represent them. Take the example of the West. Few would deny that American women are as politically aware as American men. And yet the proportion of women in the Senate is not significantly different from the number of women in the Lok Sabha.

If you claim that the low proportion of female Indian MPs is a symbol of the backwardness of Indian women, then what about America? Why don't those educated, politically aware women elect more female senators?

Could it be because they don't believe that the only way ahead is to vote on the basis of gender?

Take an Indian example. Kerala is one of India's most literate states. Female literacy is staggeringly high and society is matriarchal. Yet, the proportion of women in state politics is not much higher than in say, Gujarat or Rajasthan.

Perhaps educated women voters don't necessarily want to be represented only by women. Perhaps they can see beyond gender even if those pressing for reservation are not willing to do so.

And finally, there is the whole business of the double standards on reservation.

Until the demand for reserving seats for women caught on, most educated middle class women would say that they were against reservation. They believed that the scheduled caste/tribe reservation should be phased out. And when V P Singh introduced the Mandal proposals, they were outraged.

Today, many of the same women are supporting reservation of parliamentary seats for women. And they are dredging out the same arguments they rejected during the Mandal debate.

They claim that the proportion of women in Parliament is significantly lower than the percentage of women in the population - and so, we should change the rules of the electoral system to ensure a near parity.

But the percentage of Muslims in Parliament is also lower than the proportion of Muslims in the general population. So is the proportion of Dalit Christians. And so on.

Are we going to keep changing the electoral system until we achieve demographic parity through reservation? If you accept the case for reservation for women then you are logically bound to accept the proposition. Consistency demands that you extend the principle to all groups, not just to women.

But, I suspect, few of us are prepared to agree to that. Muslims have asked for reservation for years on exactly the same grounds: they are disadvantaged; political parties don't nominate enough of them; the more Muslims there are in power; the better off the general Muslim population will be, etc.

Sushma Sawaraj Each time, their demand has been denied. We have explained that we are not anti-Muslim; just anti-reservation. We said the same to the Mandalites. And we repeated it to Dalit Christians. When politicians did not listen to us, we damned them as venal and opportunistic.

But now many educated women have turned those arguments on their heads. They have completely abandoned the principles that they professed only a couple of years ago.

Why is this? Is it because they smell a chance to grab some power for themselves; a chance to get into Parliament?

I hope not. I hope there is a convincing rebuttal to the arguments I have raised. And, I hope that some supporters of the proposal will finally take the trouble to convince those of us who remain ambivalent.

Vir Sanghvi is editor of Sunday magazine

Vir Sanghvi

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