Thursday 5 June 2008

An Appeal to the Members of the Indian Parliament

The 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill is yet another example of the growing gap between pious promises and actual results of government policies and legislation in India.

The Bill provides for reservation on rotation basis through a lottery system, which means that two-thirds of the incumbent members will be forcibly unseated in every general election and the remaining will remain in a limbo till the last moment. Such compulsory unseating violates the basic principal of democratic representation and jeopardises the possibility of effective planning to contest by nurturing a political constituency for both male and female candidates. As legislators will be denied the possibility of seeking re election from the same constituency, politics will become even less accountable than at present. Since a seat will be reserved once in 15 years, males who will be pushed out of their constituency are likely to field their own female relatives as proxy candidates as a stopgap arrangement and women will not get the chance to cultivate deep roots in their constituency. Women will be ghettoised and forced to fight elections only against other women. They will lack the legitimacy of being mainstream politicians. Moreover, this Bill is completely silent about women's representation in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils.

It is unfortunate that the UPA Government did not take several more viable alternative proposals that have been mooted in the last few years for enhancing the representation of women in legislatures. The Alternative Bill proposed by Manushi CSDS and Loksatta has received the endorsement of the Election Commission and several political parties who are opposed to the recently tabled Bill.

We have proposed that a law be enacted amending The Representation of the People Act, 1951, to make it mandatory for every recognized political party to nominate women candidates for election in atleast one-third of the constituencies. In the event of any recognized party failing to nominate one-third women candidates, for the shortfall of every single woman candidate, two male candidates of the party shall lose the party symbol and affiliation and all the recognition-related advantages. (For the full text of Manushi's Alternative Bill along with a critque of the Government tabled Bill see issue No 116 at www.manushi-india.org.
In order to preemept the likelihood of parties giving tickets to women only in weak constituencies, we have prposed that the unit for consideration (the unit in which at least one out of three party candidates shall be a woman) for the Lok Sabha shall be a state or union territory; for the State Legislative Assembly, the unit shall be a cluster of three contiguous Lok Sabha constituencies.

This Bill has the following advantages: Firstly, parties will be free to field women candidates where they can offer a good fight rather than in pre-fixed lottery based constituencies, where they may or may not have viable women candidates. Thus there is flexibility and promotion of natural leadership. A woman candidate will be contesting both against female and/or male candidates of rival parties. The democratic choice of voters is not restricted to compulsorily electing only women candidates.

Unlike with the lottery system of reserved constituencies, in which women's presence is likely to get ossified at 33 percent since there would be resistance to letting women contest from non-reserved constituencies, this model allows for far greater flexibility in the number and proportion of women being elected to legislatures. If women are candidates for one-third of all seats contested by each party, theoretically they could even win the vast majority of seats - all on merit.

Another major advantage of our Alternative Bill is that it obviates the need for a quota within a quota. Since the onus of fielding women candidates will be each party, those who are concerned about increased representation of OBC, BC women can field as many BC/OBC women as they think appropriate. Given the prevailing electoral arithmetic, OBC, BC communities have a great numerical edge over so-called upper castes. That is how most of our state legislatures are heavily dominated by OBC/BC men even without a reserved quota for them. The same caste arithmetic will work in favour of women of these communities.

The Bill tabled by the government is likely to face endless delays and obstructions because it requires an amendment to the Constitution, which mandates a 2/3 vote in favour of the Bill in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Thereafter, it has to be ratified by at least half of the state legislatures. Given the overt and covert opposition to this Bill within all parties, including the Congress, the Bill will face endless hurdles and delays along the way. By contrast the Alternative Bill proposed by Manushi can be passed by a simply majority in the two Houses since all it requires is an amendment to the Representation of Peoples' Act.

It is noteworthy that the proposal made by the Election Commission is identical to the one proposed by Manushi. Important leaders within all parties, including the Congress Party have expressed preference for Manushi's Alternative Bill. Thereore, it has a much better chance of success.
We therefore request you to oppose this discriminatory and undemocratic bill by signing this petition to send a powerful message to the Indian Legislature.

[Written by Madhu Purnima Kishwar]