Dissension over the Bill for reservation of seats for women once again threw Parliament into turmoil. Dissension in Parliament is not new, but this time it appears that matters may not settle down very easily or very soon. It is agreed on all sides that women should have a larger role in public life. But there can be more than one opinion on whether quotas is the best way of ensuring a position of dignity and honour in society and politics for them. I do not believe that it is. Further, recourse to mandatory quotas for solving all social and political problems will have adverse consequences for democracy in India in the long run. But that is a subject on which others may honestly subscribe to a contrary view.
What is distressing about the agitation over quotas is that all political parties have acted in bad faith. Leaders of all parties wax eloquent about the injustices suffered by women in the past and the need to give them a larger role in political life in the future. But no political party has done very much to set its own house in order by accommodating more women in its own top echelons.
Communist parties the world over have been the worst offenders. They have been ingenious in devising ways for using women as foot soldiers, but have maintained their politburos as bastions of male dominance. In India, the other parties have acted in much the same way. Where women have occupied important positions at the top, they have come into those positions through the family, as the wife, daughter, daughter-in-law or niece of a political heavyweight. Exceptions such as Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee, who have made it to the top without the prop of the family, stand out because of their rarity. Their achievements have little to do with caste: Mayawati is a Dalit while Banerjee is a Brahmin.
The party, not the state, should take the lead in enlarging the role of women in politics. Unless political parties change their modes of recruitment and operation, no change of lasting importance can come about in the role of women in political life. They have until now shown little initiative in this regard. Deep-rooted inertia leads every party to shift the burden of improving the position of women on to the state.
Quotas for women can bring about only cosmetic changes in their influence on the political process. There are also apprehensions, not entirely without basis, about the kinds of women who will be given tickets to contest reserved seats. Ours is not only a deeply caste-divided society, it is also a deeply class-divided one. Only a fundamental change in the character and composition of the political party can ensure tickets will be given to women on merit, and not because of family connections. In a system in which parties have done little to build women’s political capabilities from the bottom upwards, it will be only natural for the vacuum at the top to be filled by wives and daughters.
The burden of hierarchy weighs heavily on Indian women. In the past they were kept in control, by what students of Hindu law have called ‘perpetual tutelage’. They faced obstacles wherever they tried to move up in public institutions and found it hard to cope with those obstacles unless they had the support of the family. For a long time, that support was provided in a niggardly way, and hence only women of exceptional ability and determination could make a mark through their achievements in education and employment.
In the last 60 years, resistance to women’s advancement has eased slowly but steadily. The middle class family has become more supportive of the education of its daughters and their ambitions for professional employment. But this change has been very slow and it has benefited only a small proportion of women, mainly in the educated middle class and that too in metropolitan cities. Women from this class have achieved remarkable success in a variety of professions on their own initiative, with hardly any more support from the family than it would give to its male members.
More than 60 years after independence, it is simply not true that the odds against women are still so high that they cannot achieve any success in public life without the support of quotas. This is no longer true for academic institutions, or financial institutions or the media. In my early years in the university, i was struck by the slow but steady advance of women in institutions of teaching and research. More recently, i have been struck by their success in our banks. It is in political parties more than in most institutions that they remain weighed down by the burdens of the past.
Until leaders of our political parties take a serious and long-term interest in the advancement of women, instead of treating them as pawn in the politics of power and patronage, democracy will play only a small part in the transformation of Indian society.
It is agreeably surprising that the distinction between affirmative action and numerical quotas has found at least a toehold in the higher leadership of the Congress party. It is an important distinction with far-reaching implications. It is to be hoped that the point that has been made by a member of the Union cabinet will get a favourable hearing.
The argument being made against quotas for Muslims is that they will create resentment and generate a backlash. This is a weighty argument and it is almost certainly true, although it is unlikely that the victims of the backlash will be the same as the beneficiaries of quotas. Quotas by their very nature directly benefit only a few individuals and their extended families. Does that not create resentment among the hapless many against the resourceful few who have learnt to manipulate the regime of quotas to their own advantage?
There are as yet no quotas for religious minorities, but we can form some judgement of their possible consequences from our long experience of quotas for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the other backward classes. It cannot be said that quotas for SCs and STs have brought no benefits to the wider society. They played a useful role in the colonial period and also in the early decades of independence. But as their scope expanded after 1980, their social costs began to outweigh their social benefits.
In India, the Constitution and the laws have been committed since independence to the principle of equality of opportunity. But translating that principle into practice is no easy matter. As R H Tawney, who was a major intellectual inspiration for the welfare state in Britain, pointed out, the existence of equality of opportunity depends not merely on the absence of disabilities but also on the presence of abilities. Affirmative action is important because it serves to create those very abilities without whose presence equality of opportunity remains only a formal principle. Numerical quotas undermine that difficult and delicate process by putting individual effort at a discount and reinforcing the sense of incapacity from which disadvantaged castes and communities feel they are doomed to suffer.
Extensive numerical quotas have not only created resentment among those who fall outside their scope, they have also sapped the morale of their intended beneficiaries. Successful performance in any field of endeavour depends not only on innate intelligence and access to social capital, it depends also on determination and effort. It is often pointed out that there is a social bias against the backward castes and the religious minorities. No government can eradicate all bias from society. What sensible social policy can do and must do is to encourage individuals to overcome the bias by rewarding those who make a special effort to do so.
Muslim politicians who clamour for quotas may succeed in bringing some benefits to individual Muslims in the short run, but their actions can serve only to undermine the morale of the Muslim community in the long run. Indian Muslims have a tradition of pride and self-respect. That tradition should be harnessed for achieving worthwhile social objectives, and not squandered away by joining the rush for the loaves and fishes at the government’s disposal.
Recourse to quotas for addressing every perceived social imbalance has become a habit of mind among leaders of every political party. The habit has become so deeply ingrained in our political culture that even to raise a question in public about its wisdom is to risk causing a scandal in the political establishment. It is in this environment remarkable for any single political leader, no matter how high his standing in his party, to question the advisability of quotas for his own community. But it is too early to say how far the statement will carry.
If serious thinking has begun in political circles about the limits of numerical quotas and the need for affirmative action in the case of Muslims, should there not be the same kind of thought given to policies relating to women? If quotas will create more problems for religious minorities than they will solve, will the case for women be significantly different? There is a Bill awaiting Parliament’s approval for quotas for women. As soon as it is adopted and made into law, pressures will begin to build for quotas for women in education and employment.
No one can deny that women in India suffer from a host of disadvantages which begin within the family and are carried over into virtually every sphere of public life. Here again, equality of opportunity will depend on the creation of abilities and not just the removal of disabilities. There is enormous scope for the creation of those abilities among women through sensible affirmative action. The adoption of quotas will subvert the course of such action. They will inevitably act to the advantage of upper caste, middle-class women as against women of other classes and communities, and create bitterness and strife within the political class without seriously addressing the problems that hundreds of millions of ordinary women face in everyday life.