Shikha Mukerjee | 33% quota hasn't moved needle on women power

It is a significant legislation, the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, or what is best understood as a straightforward constitutional amendment giving women 33 per cent reserved seats in Parliament and in state Assemblies. It gives the Narendra Modi government yet another opportunity for virtue signalling.

Its significant majority and the near unanimous support of all political parties in the two Houses of Parliament enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party to break the wall that has withstood repeated attacks on its adoption for 37 years, that is from 1996 when United Front Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda first tabled a bill and set the ball rolling.

Tragically, the needle has not moved even after the first step was successfully navigated. The tragedy is not only in the rather hazy time line that is a part of this significant legislation, it is in the proportion of seats that will be reserved for women legislators. The insult to the injury lies in the fact that since 2010, there is a 50 per cent reservation for women in all panchayati raj institutions and in the nagar palikas, that is, municipalities and city corporations. The year is important because the

proportion of seats reserved for women was bumped up from the original 33 per cent when the 73rd constitutional amendment was passed in 1992.

India therefore has accepted that women as elected representatives at the lowest tier of government must have a 50 per cent stake in local level policy choices, decisions and in implementation of all programmes for rural and urban citizens. The 33 per cent reservation of seats for women legislators is moving the needle back instead of forward.

There are social and structural problems that reservation for women in panchayats and nagar palikas has revealed. The impact of women on policy making, choices, decisions and implementation has been uneven. In large swathes of the country, power continues to be held and exercised by men, regardless of women’s reservation. News reports and academic studies all confirm that a new category of persons have been created after women’s reservation in PRI and city corporations and municipalities. This new category even has a name – “Panchayat Pati”, the husband of the elected woman panchayat member, regardless of whether she is the pradhan or an office-bearer.

Neither the Constitution nor education nor training has changed much; these “panchayat patis” are routinely sworn in by senior members of the state bureaucracy as the office-bearers of panchayats. Old habits, paternalism and the patriarchal order live on. There is a wilful violation and deliberate encouragement to those who are determined to deny the basic foundational value of respecting the individual as equal, regardless of gender, with rights that are universal for all citizens.

There is a rot that has gnawed away the fundamentals of a rule-based constitutional democracy, where orders ought to be obeyed in letter and spirit and where the mandate of the people reflected in the choice of a representative is respected, without exception.

Two incidents from Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP is in power, reveal the nature of the problem and the crisis of governance when required to deliver social justice and gender equality. These are not trivial lapses.

A 2022 news report revealed that two male zilla parishad CEOs, both experienced civil servants as they were of deputy commissioner rank, scrambled to cover up two reported incidents -- in Sundrel in Dhar and Gaisabad in Damoh. The two CEOs tacitly consented to making women non-persons, by swearing in the patis, or husbands of the women elected from Scheduled Caste reserved constituencies in the local panchayats.

Warped thinking and values have grown instead of being permanently deleted, like the precedence of family customs over rights. Though Amartya Sen is not a favoured intellectual of the Narendra Modi government, it would have benefited from his wisdom that Martha Nussbaum had summarised as “women’s current preferences often show distortions that are the result of unjust background conditions”. Having been socialised to accept their status as “passive dependents”, the perpetuation of their subordinate role as wives, albeit elected panchayat members, reflects “adaptive preferences” as a survival choice.

The laws do not make India an ugly place to live in. It is the failure of the political class and the governments that they run which makes it a cruel, violent, corrupt, immoral, unjust and unequal, intolerant and irrational country.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is entirely correct when he claims to have empowered women by reserving 33 per cent of the seats in Parliament and the state Assemblies. He is suspect when he claims to have done this for “mothers, sisters and daughters”. Women are not archetypes. They are not to be classified as roles that emphasise their relationship with someone else. Women are individuals, too.

Reservation for women as MPs and MLAs is flattery for a purpose. If the Modi government was seriously committed to social justice and gender equality it would have spent the past nine and a half years in designing policy with incentives that brought more women into the workforce, made them truly empowered in the fullest sense.

Women’s condition has changed in 75 years; it has improved in terms of education and participation in elections. In 10 states, including Bihar and Uttarakhand, and three Union territories -- Puducherry, Daman and Diu and Lakshadweep -- 21 lakh more women voted than men in 2019. This is up from the 10 states and UTs where more women voted in 2014.

The significance of this change underlies the promise to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in Parliament and the state Assemblies. Women are now a constituency and matter in 118 Lok Sabha seats.

In misunderstanding the capability of women to act with agency, the Modi government seems to have taken it for granted that a promise that will be fulfilled in the future is sufficient to win the women’s vote in the crucial states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana which go the polls soon, and in 2024 when the Prime Minister will be a contestant in the Lok Sabha elections.

The deification of Bharat Mata as the embodiment of renunciation reflects the expectations of the social and political order, that spent more time talking about OBC reservation within women’s reservation than about why India needed a constitutional amendment that gave only a 33 per cent guarantee of representation.

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