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December 21, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Vir Sanghvi

The nonsense of reservation

Two years ago, when there appeared to be a broad consensus over the proposal to reserve seats in Parliament for women, I wrote that this consensus had been 'manufactured.' Few people who mattered were convinced that this was a good idea. But such were the demands of political correctness that to oppose the proposal seemed to be to insult all Indian women. I argued then that the proposal could not go through, at least not in the shape of the Women's Reservation Bill. I added that it did not deserve to go through.

It is now staggeringly obvious that each prime minister of India feels obliged to declare how committed he is to women's reservation while recognising that the bill has no hope of being passed by Parliament. Many of the bill's advocates say the parliamentary opposition comes from the kind of male politicians who support dowry, child marriage and sati. They claim that all opponents of the bill are motivated by fear of losing their hold on the political system.

Perhaps this characterisation is justified. Certainly, it is hard to see Laloo Prasad Yadav and his Rashtriya Janata Dal as champions of women's rights (unless the women in question is Rabri Devi and knows that Laloo is always right). And the kind of hooliganism that we have witnessed in Parliament over the last fortnight tends to confirm the feminist view that the bill has been scuppered by thugs.

Each opponent of the bill has his or her own reasons for wishing to destroy it, and often the feminists are right when they say that those who sabotage the bill are also those who would sabotage any measure that bettered the lot of India's women.

All I will say is this: are you surprised? Did the bill's advocates really believe that a fundamental change of this order could be pushed through Parliament just by threatening people with the spectre of political incorrectness? The self-righteousness of India's feminists is a powerful weapon on television talk shows and in newspaper editorial columns. But the real world is, as they say, another country entirely.

Now that the bill is stalled, it might be a good time to re-examine the proposal. I have always opposed it -- not because I am against women, but because I am against further reservation.

Let's look at the feminist argument in its favour. In essence it runs thus: India's women are a disadvantaged group. Their lot will not improve unless their representation in Parliament reflects their numerical strength in society. Women have never been elected to Parliament in sufficient numbers. This is because politics is male-dominated, and men don't let women get into the Lok Sabha. So, it is necessary to reserve one-third of all seats in Parliament for women. Only then will their condition in society improve.

Just re-read the above paragraph substituting 'dalit' for 'women' and 'upper caste' for 'male' or 'men'. As you will see, the argument is roughly the same. And scheduled castes/dalits already have reservation in Parliament. So, why shouldn't women?

This seems fine. But there already are problems. Many believe that reservation for scheduled castes has gone too far. It was never intended to continue forever. Also, the whole basis of the reservation argument is that the entire community will benefit from it. Is this true of dalits? Most people feel only a tiny minority -- 'the creamy layer' -- has gained and the vast majority of scheduled castes are no better off than they would have been without parliamentary reservation.

Assume, nevertheless, that these criticisms are invalid. Perhaps reservation has benefited the scheduled castes. Then you run into a new problem. In 1990, V P Singh argued that there were several backward castes that were at least as badly off as the scheduled. Why, he asked, should they be denied reservation? This led to the Mandal madness that engulfed India for all of that year. At the time, nearly everybody I know who was not a backward caste said Singh was playing politics and that further reservations were to be discouraged.

I find it interesting that half the people I know who opposed further reservations in 1990 now say a full third of Parliament should be reserved for a particular group. I find it even more interesting that nearly all of these people are women.

How can you be against reservation and still support the Women's Reservation Bill? The women I have argued this out with say they are not against reservation, they merely disagreed that backward castes deserved reservation. Many who would have benefited from Mandal were already well off and powerful -- the Yadavs, for instance -- and so, Mandal had to be opposed.

Let's assume that this explanation is valid. But then, we have a new problem. By nearly every parameter, there is one group in this country that is at least as worse off as women. India's Muslims are a poor, ill-educated minority and suffer appalling discrimination. Statistics show how few government jobs are occupied by Muslims. There is not one Muslim-owned unit in the first 500 industrial units in the country. The Muslim per capita income is far lower than the Hindu income. And though Muslims comprise between 12 and 15 per cent of the population, they occupy far fewer seats proportionately in Parliament.

How can anybody who is committed to reservations for disadvantaged groups deny reservations to Muslims?

Supporters of women's reservation seldom offer an explanation. "We're talking about gender, not religion," they declare, as though the laws of logic will crumble in the face of feminist indignation.

It is not my case that we should reserve constituencies for Muslims. I sympathise with their predicament. But reservation is not the answer. The problem with reservation is that it is based on three premises that simply do not make sense.

One, only members of one group can help others in that group. Two, Parliament must function like a pollster's sample group and constitute an exact reflection of the composition of society. And three, democracy does not work; people don't vote as they should.

In the case of women, the first premise is demonstrably untrue. Supporters of the reservation bill say that the only way to improve the lot of women is to put other women in power. This is nonsense. In advanced societies where women have made huge strides - such as the United States and the United Kingdom -- the proportion of women in parliament is sometimes even smaller than in India. Moreover, Indian politics was dominated by a woman for over a decade. It is not clear how Indian women gained much more from Indira Gandhi than they did from, say Jawaharlal Nehru, or how powerful female politicians as J Jayalalitha have helped improve the lot of Indian women.

This leads to the second premise. The basis of representative democracy is not that only Muslims can help other Muslims. Democracy assumes that a representative helps every elector in his constituency, whether this elector is Hindu or Muslim, man or woman, rich or poor. It doesn't always work. Sometimes a representative will favour one section of his constituency. A Yadav member of Parliament may help Yadavs more than he helps Kurmis or Brahmins. But when this happens, we regard it as a failure of democracy.

The problem with the Women's Reservation Bill is that it wishes to institutionalise this failure. Imagine how outraged we would be if you substituted 'Yadav' for 'women'. Would we tolerate a measure that worked on the assumption that Yadav MPs would think first of Yadavs, and then of other constituents?

The problem with the third premise is self-evident. Reservation is often offered as a solution when communities are so spread out that they are unable to swing the result in individual constituencies. But in the case of women, half the voters in the average constituency are women. Why do they need reservation? Why don't they just use their vote and elect other women?

Pro-reservation activists will argue that women do not have a choice because political parties do not put up female candidates. But you don't need to change the entire electoral system to overcome this problem. Considering that all political parties say they are in favour of women's reservation, why don't activists insist that the parties step up the number of female candidates they field?

They don't do it simply because the political parties won't listen. The truth is that India's politicians do not support reservation for women. If they did, there would have been many more female MPs without a single seat having to be reserved.

In that fact, lies the way out. Women's activists should put pressure on political parties to nominate more female candidates. This will be easier to accomplish than the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill. Moreover, it will not require us to sacrifice the principle of 'no more reservation' for one particular interest group. And we won't have to tear up the rules of representative democracy to accommodate one lot of very vocal activists.

Women have the strongest weapon that any group can possess in a democracy: the advantage of numbers. Activists should encourage female voters to vote for other women, and to demand that political parties put up female candidates.

Why don't activists follow the democratic way? Why, like India's Yadavs and other Mandal advocates, do they want reservation? The answer is self-evident. It is easier to create public opinion in the media than it is to make India's women conscious of the power of their vote.

But because some articulate activists want to take the easy way out, that is no reason for us to tear up the principles on which electoral democracy is based.

Vir Sanghvi

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