March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day across the world. This year India marked it by tabling the Women’s Reservation bill – which aims to reserve a third of legislative seats for women – in Parliament. However, the bill was torn up by its opponents amidst an uproar. A day later it was cleared but there are still hurdles to be crossed: the lower house of Parliament, Lok Sabha, must pass the bill, then the proposal has to win the approval of at least half of India’s state legislatures, and finally, a sign-off by the President – the last, hopefully, will be a cinch. The President’s post in India is largely ceremonial, and Pratibha Patil, the first woman to be President, has already urged the passage of the bill.
Since its inception in 1996, the bill has had a rocky journey. Opposition has been mounted by conjuring myriad unwelcome consequences of its implementation: increased marginalization of other minority groups such as backward castes and Muslims, the abuse of the reserved seats by male members of the woman’s family, disruption in domestic life. All such arguments are, in fact, ingenious attempts to distract from the central fear: empowering women.
The bill tabled by the Congress-led ruling UPA has garnered support from opposition Communists and rightwing BJP but was opposed by two northern regional parties, members of its coalition. These parties are headed by men who have made their political careers by playing the caste card in states which are populous, poor, caste-ridden, male-dominant, and largely illiterate. One of the states, Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 190 million, is the most populous state in India and if it were a separate country, it would be the world’s fifth largest nation.
At a previous discussion on the bill Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh, cautioned his fellow parliamentarians championing the bill: “for all the table thumping taking place, you will be thumping your charpoys (string cots) in your homes”. A deep fear prevails that “leadership” – read patriarchal hegemony – will be “destroyed” by the passage of the bill which promises to unleash women onto the political arena. Playing the minority card, they have termed the bill elitist, insisting it should have a quota within quota for backward and Muslim women – further stirring up the state’s caste-heavy cauldron.
The irony is that both the President and leader of the largest party in India are women. For fifteen years, it was led by a democratically-elected Indira Gandhi, the Iron Lady of India. Inherent in that fact is the contrarian nature of Indian politics, marked by nepotism. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nehru, India’s founding father, and the inheritor of his Congress party. What would prevent a similar misuse of power when the women’s reservation is implemented? ‘Proxy’ seats filled by the female relatives of male politicians is a possibility. However, for reference, one can turn to the village and local governments, panchayats, where a reservation of 33 percent for women was implemented in 1993.
Today there are one million elected women leaders in local governments. Several studies have been conducted on the result of increased participation of women. While ‘proxy’ cases have been recorded, it is also seen that panchayats run by women have effectively tackled several areas that had been traditionally ignored: reducing liquor consumption by removing liquor vends, increasing panchayat income by removing encroachment on government land and building shops for rent, installing hand pumps to provide drinking water, setting up maternity homes, providing toilets for women at bus stops.
The results fly in the face of concerns about women’s ability to serve as effective legislatures. Concomitant with the growth in economic prosperity has been an increasing participation of women in the corporate sphere. ICICI Bank, the country’s largest private bank, is run by a woman. She reached there due to the bank’s policy of actively recruiting women.
According to the Centre for Social Research, women make up 44 percent of the voting population and have less than 10 percent representation in India’s parliament. In a country where fifty million women have gone “missing” a move to ensure their representation will empower women. In turn, they will be more likely to champion women’s causes and serve as role models for other women.
In the mid-nineties when I joined Unilever India after business school I was the first woman recruited into the sales system. The company that sold consumer products targeted at women had over its 150-year presence in India been steered solely by men. With increasing competition, a more sophisticated consumer, and the emergence of women in MBA courses, the company had decided to widen its talent pool and leverage a woman’s perspective. It was a new reality in which male chauvinism was endangered. Later when I started writing full time, I fictionalised my experience as a lone woman in an all-boys sales club to write my first novel, ‘Earning the Laundry Stripes’.
A changing India cannot afford to keep women out of the talent pool of available politicians. The women’s reservation bill is a first step in helping more women earn their political stripes.