Why do women want reservation in elected Houses? Because a frail girl child a few weeks old, euphemistically named Baby India by a TV channel, is swapped with a male child and no one really wants her. This is India 2003.
Anyone who really believed that the contentious Women's Reservation Bill would see light of day this time is as na´ve as that infant who will realise only years later that her parents would rather not have had her at all. Much like Laloo Prasad Yadav would rather not have too many women sitting in the Lok Sabha.
And poor Laloo and Mulayam Singh Yadav are only the visible part of what is actually an entire male firewall cutting across parties. Truth be told, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the only man in a three-member club that was committed to bring the Bill this time. The other two, Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj, are the kind of women that give nightmares to their male counterparts now sweating it out to make sure that nothing of the kind happens.
The weekend before the government decided to debate and pass the Bill in Parliament, the Prime Minister told some of his Cabinet colleagues that he wanted to make sure it was done in this session. A senior minister, a man, after singing the customary paeans to the modern woman, admitted that few men actually wanted to see this happen. "I wonder too, what if they notified my constituency as reserved for women? Where would I go?" he asked a trifle worried.
He needn't be. The Bill is unlikely to be passed ever, at least in its current form. The issue evokes more passionate protest than the Gujarat riots did. MPs stomp into the well of the Lok Sabha, tear copies of the Bill or shirts of their colleagues whichever is at hand, and generally ensure a well-orchestrated chaos to stall parliamentary proceedings. It has happened thrice now.
The usual suspects have their usual arguments, brought out and dusted for use the moment there is the hint of a truant government threatening to upset the applecart. There is a general feeling that reservation, if at all, should be within the party, ie, each party apportions one-third of its ticket to women. Very smart. That will hardly ensure that one-third of the Lok Sabha or state Assemblies will comprise women. The more likely scenario would be that parties would put up token women candidates in places they are likely to lose.
You cannot bank on the good intentions of parties simply because there aren't any in this case. The high-profile Gujarat Assembly elections saw both the Congress and the BJP field less than five per cent women candidates. The holier than thou in both parties sagely pointed out that electoral imperatives in so crucial a battle could not be sacrificed at the altar of gender equality.
On the flip side, some parties have voiced concern that the Bill in its present form will ensure that only urban, English speaking or well-connected women will get a chance. And that the ones who really need to be empowered will be left back slaving in their villages. Women like Rabri Devi and even Sonia Gandhi and Jayalalithaa give meat to that argument. But for every few of them there is a gritty Mamata Banerjee who has fought her way up.
Every policy for reform will have its loopholes that lend themselves for misuse. But to abandon the path of reform because of that would be foolish. Men like Laloo and Mulayam have pointed out that the BJP-led government itself lacks the will on reservation for women. The CPI(M) too has put the blame for another no-show squarely on the Centre's shoulders. A point well made.
This government has been wearing an injured look of "I can't do this alone" for far too long. After the Congress pledged support to passing the Bill this time, as did the CPI(M), it would have sailed through. And let us not forget that this is the government that pushed Pota through a historic joint session of Parliament.
This article was publised in MAY 13, 2003 issue of Times of India