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July 24, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend T V R Shenoy

Chauvinists in Parliament

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party," court reporter Charles Weller tapped out when his friend Christopher Sholes asked him to test an early prototype of the typewriter in 1867.

The Women's Reservation Bill could have been as revolutionary a concept as the typewriter. Fittingly, the reaction of most of the males in Parliament is an eerie parody of Weller: "Now is the time for all good parties to come to the aid of the men!"

Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav may have been at the forefront of those trying to scuttle the Bill, but they had plenty of hidden support. There are chauvinists in every party.

"If the Bill goes through, the ratio of men and women in the Lok Sabha will be 33:67," was one comment, "But in our party it will be something closer to 40:60." I can't reveal the identity of the speaker as this was a private conversation, but I can tell you that he belongs to one of the parties that publicly pledged all-out support to the Bill.

This attitude is far more common than the BJP and the CPI-M will acknowledge. Being cadre-based parties, both cultivated their women's wings. Had the Women's Reservation Bill been enacted, both had a pool of strong potential candidates. Given that women have historically had a better track record than men in Lok Sabha elections, the ratio would definitely have been higher than the mandatory 33:67.

Nor, of course, would sitting members be denied tickets in the event that their constituencies were classified as general constituencies. Can you imagine the information & broadcasting minister being left out, or the minister of state for external affairs? But while a woman may stand from an open seat, a man can't be elected from a reserved constituency.

Once the implications sank in, there were many men willing to derail the Bill. But they wouldn't have had the courage to speak up if not for the two Yadavs. And Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav had no other choice. Unlike the BJP and the Marxists, neither of the Yadavs has ever paid any attention to women voters. Let us face it: the best they could offer was a Phoolan Devi and a Rabri Devi! These are the kind of women who make our legislatures the laughing stock of the world.

Not that respect for our legislatures in high just now, especially after the antics of the two Yadavs. For two days, the business of the Lok Sabha came to a screeching halt. The Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal can't muster fifty members of the Lok Sabha between them. Despairing of blocking the Bill outright, they came up with the stratagem of threatening violence in the Lok Sabha and demanding a quota within a quota for the benefit of television viewers outside the House.

But reservations for the "backward" castes -- a very loose and flexible term -- is anathema to the more thoughtful. Once you open the doors to such fragmentation in seats reserved for women, can you oppose caste-based reservation for males?

Ultimately, there won't be any unreserved seats at all. Parliamentary democracy functions on the assumption that an elected representative speaks for all his constituents, not just his or her caste-fellows. Now will it stop at caste-based demanding reservations; the Muslim League, I note, has already begun demanding reservations. (This demand was specifically rejected by the Constituent Assembly at Sardar Patel's urging.)

Unfortunately, the two Yadavs succeeded in derailing the Bill. Women may constitute half the electorate, but there are an equal number of backward caste voters. No politician wants to antagonise either. So the government hastily postponed introduction of the Bill, saying it needed to forge a consensus.

This is a cure almost as bad as the disease. The highest forum of discussion is Parliament. Its power to make laws has already been diluted by abusing the right to issue ordinances. If even debate is denied, citizens may well question if Parliament is needed at all.

In any case, consensus is possible only if all concerned are prepared to negotiate in good faith. The Yadavs only want to derail the Bill altogether. What consensus is possible then? And if it proves impossible, will the Bill be postponed indefinitely?

Frankly, every party has come out badly. The BJP was clearly caught in two minds. The Marxists have taken refuge in a cowardly silence. And the Congress ended up opposing a Bill originally proposed by Rajiv Gandhi!

T V R Shenoy

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