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CLOSE to a decade and a half after it was first sought to be introduced in Parliament, the Women’s Reservation Bill has finally cleared its initial legislative hurdle, passed in the Rajya Sabha by an overwhelming majority of those present. And yet, despite a seeming consensus on the need to enhance the presence of women in legislative fora, the measure has engendered deep disquiet, not only among male politicians who may be displaced from their privileged perches but also sections of the academia and social activists.

The jubilation over victory comes accompanied with charges of both tokenism as also elite social engineering. There is considerable apprehension that while signalling the normative desirability of women’s empowerment, we have failed to adequately debate both the underlying presuppositions and specific provisions of the proposed constitutional amendment, some of which may well end up creating problems that we might subsequently rue.

Take, for instance, the concerns related to the creation of political quotas based on ascriptive identities. While our constitution does mandate political reservation for scheduled castes and tribes, it is not self-evident in the Constituent Assembly debates that the measure was intended as a permanent arrangement. And while the creation of women’s quotas is to be time-bound and transitional, our record of withdrawing quotas, even if the situation that warranted them changes, does not generate confidence.

Are we, as Pratap Mehta points out, in introducing political reservation based on ascriptive characteristics, attempting to ensure proportional outcomes in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, undermining thereby the integrity of a territorial based representation system? Is it that in seeking to address a legitimacy crisis created by a durable under-representation of different social segments, we are jettisoning the principle of majority rule.

It is worth recollecting that ever since this issue (of the systematic under-representation of women) acquired political salience, both theorists and activists have proposed a range of alternative arrangements – ordaining that each political party nominate a certain percentage of women in each election; experiment with multi-member constituencies; move towards a list system, and so on. Why these proposals were rejected in favour of the current proposal of legislative quotas is not clear. Not only is the argument of many protagonists that these are merely moves to indefinitely delay women’s march to political equality a little disingenuous, to aver that correctives, if needed, can be brought in later demonstrates a lack of seriousness about creating consensus.

There is also substantial unease about the proposed rotation of constituencies, that once the amendment becomes law, one third of all constituencies will be reserved for women candidates till each parliamentary and assembly constituency has experienced a woman legislator at least once. Does this violate the principle of democratic accountability? Many fear that if those elected are likely to replaced in the next round, there is little impetus for them to be accountable to the electorate.

Underlying a quota based system to correct social and political infirmities lies and a deeper concern. Ideological support for reservations is invariably justified through appeals to equity and justice, that the reforms will enhance space for the weak, the poor, the social marginalized. In actual practice, however, whichever the category – SC, ST, OBC, women, religious minority – those best positioned to avail of the newly created institutional avenues are invariably the strongest among the group.

We have experienced this in the SC/ST constituencies; why should the case of women be different? Similarly, if an exclusionary provision like creamy layer is legitimate in education and employment quotas, why is the demand of incorporating sub-quotas within quotas so troubling? And finally, why privilege one set of social categories and not others? Are for instance, religious minorities – Muslims – too not under-represented?

None of this is to argue that strategic interventions from the top to initiate social reform must indefinitely wait for appropriate social conditions. After all reservations for women in panchayats and municipalities, though controversial, have over time successfully created a wider pool of women leaders who are making a difference. Nevertheless, pushing through major reforms without reasoned debate or drawing on available research, both within the country and outside, is not designed to convince the skeptics or counter the changes of mere symbolism. The damaging impact of ill-thought intervention, even if well intentioned, is no less serious than inaction and paralysis.

Harsh Sethi