Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Debasing India’s Democracy

The constitutional amendment to reserve seats for women, in a rotational basis, in national and state legislature was introduced as a historic step. While Rajya Sabha passed it after a tumultuous two days, it exposed the deep political fractures. If adopted, this legislation will seriously undermine the roots of democracy in India.

I assess the political cost of reserving seats for women, in the article titled "Debasing India's Democracy", in the Wall Street Journal Asia, on 9 March 2010.

It was advertised as a historic day. On March 8, the centenary of International Women’s Day, India’s governing coalition planned to present the country with a constitutional amendment reserving 33% of the seats for women in national and state legislatures. However, it was not to be. The failure of the amendment to pass was dubbed by the law minister a national day of shame, as a few unruly MPs, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, created such a ruckus that the house had to be adjourned six times.

The bill was adopted in the Rajya Sabha the next day, with the government promising to bring further amendments to the bill. But it has also exposed the widening gap within the governing allies, and it is likely to be a close race in the Lok Sabha, the lower house. Increasing women’s participation in politics sounds like a fine idea in principle. But its implementation would have grave consequences for the country’s quality of governance and political culture.

A comfortable majority in the parliament professes to support the women’s reservation bill, with dominant parties on both sides of the political divide in favor. However, the truth is that many members are apprehensive about the consequences. And that opposition can’t be explained away as simply the vested interest of male politicians.

First of all, the justifications for the amendment don’t stand up to scrutiny. If there is indeed political and social support for greater participation of women in politics, nothing prevents political parties from choosing more female candidates. Nor would reservations somehow change the status of women in the country—some of the worst forms of discrimination against women continued to take place even after Indira Gandhi became prime minister in the 1960s. And finally, there are formidable women leaders like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal who have come up on their own through persistence and political acumen. In the name of empowering women, the bill is actually is very paternalistic, believing that women cannot make it in politics on their own.

More importantly, the bill poses a fundamental threat to the nature of India’s representative democracy. While the reservation of a small number of seats for certain castes might be accepted as a temporary anomaly necessary to correct historic wrongs, a reservation for such a broad section of the population inevitably undermines India’s “first past the post” electoral system. The bill moves India toward a proportional representation system dividing the population on sectional lines. This represents a fundamental change from the basic design of the constitution, and the debates in the constituent assembly, when the notion of separate electorates was considered and rejected.

In the current system, parliamentary constituencies are comprised of a wide range of people, forcing candidates to build a social and political coalition to have a reasonable chance of winning the election. It is this tendency to bridge the sectional divide among the population that has been the hallmark of Indian democracy, where diversity has only strengthened the political institutions.

If India is to tread the path toward ensuring representation according to the diversity of the population, by adopting a kind of proportional electoral system, then the social coalition will inevitably break down, leading to increased political instability. The demand for a sectional quota within the women’s quota would be a logical demand in that direction. And the next step could be to demand political reservation for men as well along sectional lines. This would signal the end of the idea of India.

Accountability to voters will also be reduced. At one stroke, by rotating the constituencies reserved for women, an enormous political churning will be triggered. Legislators who have built up their own independent base of support within their constituencies will be forced out of office. Two-thirds of the sitting members of the legislature may have to surrender their seats under a rotational reservation for women. In effect this will disempower the voter, and reduce the incentive for elected representatives to be seriously concerned with the issues affecting their constituencies.

Party leaders stand to benefit the most from a system where the voters are not in a position to assess the performance of their representative. The parties will have to constantly put forward for new candidates, and these are chosen by the leadership—there is no inner party democracy in India. Hiding behind the fairer sex, entrenched party leaders are solidifying their authority over their backbenchers.
This represents an extension of the antidefection law which was passed by the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, when it had an unprecedented majority in Parliament. Under this law, a legislator is required to vote along party lines or face disqualification from parliament. That spelled the end for meaningful parliamentary debate.

Now Sonia Gandhi is now attempting to push through a constitutional amendment that deals another body blow to representative democracy. At a time when the rest of the world is just beginning to appreciate the democratic miracle that is India, it is ironic indeed that the country’s own political leadership is seeking to undermine its democratic character to further its own narrow interests.

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