THE deed is done, but the deal hangs mid-air, wrapped in uncertainties which a future government will need to unravel as and when the Act is implemented. The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008 — popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill or the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, as christened by the Narendra Modi government to emphasise the underlying message of gender empowerment — sailed through both Houses in the just-concluded special session of Parliament. While seeking to set aside one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and legislative Assemblies, the Act is riddled with complexities, not the least being its linkage to the delimitation exercise, whose fate itself is unknown. The coupling of the Act with delimitation raises the question — when can women expect to get the political representation they have been seeking for decades?
The other issue is the demand for a separate sub-quota for women from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities, both of which were raised mutedly, the latter more so in the pervading socio-political milieu. The Bill set aside the statutorily mandated quota for SC and ST women from the overall 33 per cent.
The call for an OBC sub-quota had scuppered attempts to pass the Bill in the past. It was a hangover of the Mandal era, which ushered in a new phase of OBC empowerment — or re-empowerment of the economically empowered — in the Hindi heartland. The southern states, pushed by social reformers and political radicals such as Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar and D Devaraj Urs in Karnataka, Narayana Guru in Kerala and EV Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar) and CN Annadurai in Tamil Nadu — accepted the sub-quota demand as an inevitability, but joined their colleagues from the north as and when it figured in Parliament.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav, the leading lights of post-Mandal politics, championed the ‘cause’ of the OBC sub-quota for women. The Congress distanced itself since its then president Sonia Gandhi resolutely pushed for the Bill’s passage in its existing form, but the BJP was in a pickle and conflicted over its stand. In principle, BJP leaders stressed that they wanted the Bill, but in reality, the bloc of powerful OBC leaders it nurtured to catch up with the Mandalised socialists was second to none in supporting the sub-quota demand. Those were the days when the writ of the BJP’s top brass didn’t necessarily prevail over its rank and file. Uma Bharti, backed by the male OBCs in her party, led the clamour for an OBC sub-quota.
Remarkably, when the Bill was finally passed, the sub-quota bugbear was submerged in the all-party enthusiasm over its passage and the celebrations which ensued once it was done. The Mandalites, especially those from the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, were muted in their response. The only note of dissent was struck by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), but nobody associated with its two MPs who voted against the Bill.
It appears as though Mandal politics might have run its course as its stormy petrel is no longer around in Parliament. Their successors, mostly legatees, are less caste-obsessed than the fathers. They look to enlarge their social alliances and engage with the upper castes by minimising the scope for combat. The BJP has an OBC Prime Minister and a covetable bench strength of OBC MPs who seem least concerned about caste politics.
The polemical battle between Hindutva and Mandal — Mandal-Kamandal, as it was termed — which dominated the north’s political landscape in the 1990s looks settled in favour of Hindutva. Many believed that caste identity would trump religious polarisation, but faith has taken precedence, at least in the present phase.
Strangely, the Congress doubled down on the demand for an OBC sub-quota after a long and uneasy relationship with the OBCs and Mandal. It appeared as though the party hoped that its carefully nurtured social equation of Brahmins-Muslims-Dalits in the heartland would endure even when politics entered a new chapter.
There was a Rip Van Winkle feel to the Congress, as though it had sleepwalked when the forces unleashed by Mandalisation and Hindutva battled one another. The Congress’s ‘discovery’ of the OBCs is an afterthought, but to be fair, it tried to catch up by appointing two OBC CMs in the heartland — Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel.
As the BJP expediently shoved the sub-quota issue to a later date, will the celebrated Bill impact women voters in the impending state elections as well as the 2024 battle? The Congress and the BJP have worked hard to cultivate a gender vote bank through targeted programmes in the states they rule. However, the atrocities against women and the manifest failure of the administration and the police to nail the criminals often detracted from the cutting-edge benefits of publicised schemes such as MP’s Ladli Laxmi and Ladli Behana Yojana, Rajasthan’s Udan scheme, Swavalamban Yojana and Mahila Nidhi and Chhattisgarh’s Saraswati Bicycle Scheme and Godhan Nyay Yojana.
Certainly, the BJP packaged the Bill with the Centre’s other gender-oriented projects, such as the Ujjwala gas, toilets in villages, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, extended maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks and paid tap connections, to reinforce Modi’s ‘commitment’ to improving the quality of life for women.
With or without the new Bill, women have emerged as vote blocs. The notable examples are Bihar, where women voted Nitish Kumar massively after he brought in prohibition, and West Bengal, where they rooted in a big way for Mamata Banerjee when she was pilloried and heckled by the BJP. In Gujarat, women are among the BJP’s biggest supporters since 2002, when Modi led the party’s election campaign.
The question that needs to be asked is: will the legislation ensure equity in representation or will the upper-class/upper-caste women continue to have inherent advantages over the others?
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