Critical agenda of politically empowering Indian women

Prrime Minister Narendra Modi has given a brave new vision for 2022 as India turns 75: a new India, prosperous and inclusive, not through appeasement but development with opportunities, particularly for the poor and youth, transcending religion, caste, political affiliation; power as “sewa”, not patronage. A radical political reconceptualisation if actualised. Notwithstanding, a major flaw exists in this else-inspiring call to unleash the intrinsic strengths of poor as prime engine of growth. It is the omission of firm gender-affirmation as sole exception to the conscious erasure of caste, religion, political-affiliation biases.

Recognised world-wide today is the fact that no nation develops its full potential if its female-half lags. China mobilised its feet-shackled-half “to hold up half the sky”with dramatic results. Despite claims for women’s advancement, India is at bottom-heap: 127 among 142 countries in the UN Gender Development Index. One cannot itemise here the gender-gaps; suffice to say, McKinsey estimate women’s equality-push could add 1.4 points to GDP. Constitutional obligations apart, substantive economics!

Two major challenges adversely impact change of scale in women’s lives today. One, inequitable political representation in the State’s principal law-and-policy-making bodies: the Parliament and State Legislatures, the nation’s apex-forums for public discourse and action; two, a phenomenal increase in violence, particularly sexual-violence against women. The latter requires separate discussion.

Tilak said: “Political action is, possibly, more important than social reform in empowering women.” Gandhi-ji: “As long as the women of India do not take part in public life there can be no salvation for the country.” Yet, 70 years post-Independence, women’s political representation remains an insolvable conundrum. Indira Gandhi, or the latter-day Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee et al solitary swallows that have not heralded summer for women.

The recent elections reportedly brought forward women-voters in very sizable numbers — at par in most places, outstripping men in some. But as before, the percentage of women contesting, still less joining the ranks of those entering to wield “power as instrument of service” is pathetic — average 5% or less; UP 10%.  A million women in the panchayats/nagar-pallikas have not sequenced-up the political-tier in an overwhelmingly masculine, muscle and money-dominated political-ethos.

There is a two-decade record of miserable failure: misguided, feeble attempts to bring about one-third share for women in the Parliament and State Legislatures’ composition. In 1996,the 81st Constitutional Amendment proposed reservation of 33% seats for women, on rotational basis, in Lok Sabha and State Legislatures. A flawed design as it displaced one-third members — and threatened all — to create space for women. That basic controversial formula continued, tweaked/clarified in a succession of Bills which either lapsed/were thrown-out with unprecedented scuffles marking new lows in political behaviour. In 2014, the now 108th Amendment was willy-nilly accepted in Rajya Sabha amid shameful scenes, but then never reached Lok Sabha.

The recent imbroglio in Nagaland — where 33% reservation for women even at urban municipal level met with such resistance and rioting, paralysing the state, necessitating a change of Chief Minister — brings into still sharper focus: one, women cannot succeed in receiving their due at men’s expense; two, quotas from existing seats is problematic, precipitates disharmony. The solution lies in imaginative-innovative creation of additional spaces, earmarked for women, in substantive number to create a critical mass that can enable successful women to speak for women, not remain carbons of male politicians.

A robust alternative strategy to provide additional seats for women in Parliament and State Legislatures without displacing/arbitrarily rotating/fragmenting or upsetting the delicate balance of demographic seat-allocation between and within states, exists. This merited serious consideration by the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice chaired by lawyer-MP Sudarshana Natchiappanthat examined the Women’s Reservation Bill in 2008-10.

At the time, Streebal, the women’s organisation of which I am Founder-President, along with several organisations, presented the PSC with detailed arguments, suggesting a strategy of 50% of all constituencies rendered double-member-constituencies (DMC) stipulating one member to be a woman.This achieves one-third seats for women. Fifty percent earmarked increase is an almost magical mathematical answer to 33% reservation. It, automatically, results in a minimum 33% share of the total, no matter what the original number! Further, this formula keeps intact the equitable balance of population/representation ratio between and within states that is vital. Simultaneously, it attacks the other great democratic-deficit today: ever-increasingly unwieldy-size of each constituency in the country, due to the freeze in constituency-numbers at 1971 population-level afterthe extension — till 2026 — of an Emergency-era Act, whose lapse in 2000 threatened to penalise Southern states having done better family-planning!

Parliamentarians across parties, including then-Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, agree that substantially increased numbers in Parliament/State Legislatures are consonant with India’s present population-size; also other countries’ norms. Solutions stand identified for practical issues like accommodation etc. The PSC, after cross-state discussions, also assessed increasing members a politically-viable option. PSC Chairperson and other members participated in influential civil-society forums alongside us — and Justice Rajender Sachar — to further it. However a change of Chairperson — to 33-percent-reservation-fundamentalist Jayanti Natrajan — lidded alternative thinking, returned the old formula to Parliament.

Two major challenges adversely impact change of scale in women’s lives today. One, inequitable political representation in the State’s principal law-and-policy-making bodies: the Parliament and State Legislatures, the nation’s apex-forums for public discourse and action; two, a phenomenal increase in violence,

Constitutional history provides precedence for the DMC path. In the first two elections in the country a third-plus of all MPS were elected from DMCs. Only late President VV Giri’s defeat, in aDMC, led to the Two Member Constituencies Act (1962) being passed to eliminate DMCs. The reason given then to bifurcate mirrors today’s predicament — constituencies at million-plus population had grown too large! Besides, there were issues of manual counting/ballot boxes no longer applicable.

Today the average size of a Parliament constituency well exceeds 2 million, approximates 3 million in many. In 15 states a legislative assembly constituency is around 3 lakhs; near 4 lakhs in four states; more in Uttar Pradesh. They will grow still larger by 2026 when the next delimitation is due. Unwieldy size, a huge factor of money-and-muscle dominance, militates against women’s participation; disconnects people and their representatives. But this unacceptable size — and the scarcity of seats bedevilling the political system that squeezes out women as less-winnable candidates — is an unfortunate circumstance-created political artifice. The Constitution envisaged constituency sizes of half-to-one million.

We need to consign the now mouldy-mould of the Women’s Reservation Bill to the dust-bin of history and recast a fresh legislative approach. This requires a new short bill that seeks to amend Articles 81(re-Parliament) and 171 (re-State Legislatures), introducing a new clause to each Article — to allow increase of fifty percent (or hundred percent if we dare real parity!) in the number of representatives directly elected/nominated; further, a sub-clause: the entire increase earmarked to be filled by women.  The upper limit on elected representatives to the Lok Sabha/Legislative Assemblies is not sacrosanct — it has been readjusted periodically, the very first readjustment as early as the Second Constitutional Amendment, 1952. What is politically difficult is changing the population-representation-ratio of constituencies, thus upsetting the delicate arrangement achieved between and within states. Thus, if it is sought to only bifurcate/bisect each constituency (or half the number, selecting the larger fifty per cent of constituencies in each state) there would be no change in the balance as each would proportionately get fifty per cent more while a substantive increase of representatives would be effected. It is a desirable, doable path.

Required to be processed alongside would be a short Double Member Constituency Creation Act to empower the Election Commission to identify and bifurcate 50 per cent (or all) of the constituencies as politically agreed. This would not entail a cumbersome delimitation exercise now. The delimitation done post-2001 census has furnished online mapping of each and every constituency in the country; so basic data exists to easily bisect according to suitable topography. The Double Member Constituency (Abolition) Act 1962 provides both example and historical precedent (although in reverse) for quick emulation. More details to fill out this strategy are readily available in published records to move the process forward quickly.

Such an initiative for women would be a radical measure befitting the PM’s grand vision and ability to bedaring. It would catapult India to global leadership in gender political-equality while redeeming long unfulfilled promisesto Indian women.

Source: The Sunday Guardian

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