Against reserving seats for women

Empowering women is not quite the same as creating powerful women

(From this blog’s archives, a post first published on August 23rd, 2005.)

No nation can stand proud if it discriminates against any of its citizens. Certainly no society can claim to be part of the modern civilized world unless it treats its women on par with men. The time for genuine and full empowerment of women is here and now.” (the Indian prime minister) asserted. [IE]

Dr Manmohan Singh is on the money when he identifies discrimination against women as one of the biggest problems that India faces. Unfortunately, his government is not quite on the money as far as the solution goes — reserving a third of seats at the national and state legislatures does not sufficiently guarantee that India will change its attitude towards women. Worse, it may convey an impression that the problem is being addressed while not amounting to much in reality. But this may explain why Indian politicians are excited about the move in the first place.

Firstly, reservations and entitlements are not the best way for a democratic country to order its society. History has shown that once an entitlement or a reservation is put in place, it is impossible to revoke — regardless of whether the purpose for which it was intended has been achieved or not. Reservations create no incentives for those entitled to them to break away from them and enter the mainstream. Besides it is a fallacy to believe that women legislators solve women’s problems better. And the idea of free and fair elections is for the electorate to choose who, in its combined opinion, is the best person for the job. Interfering with the course of free and fair elections seriously undermines democracy.

Secondly, reservations for women are ineffective from another, practical, point of view. That is because while it will empower those women who make it to parliament, it will not do much for the majority of women who don’t. Creating powerful women is not quite the same as empowering women. And that is an important distinction. The streets of Chennai, New Delhi or Lucknow, all in states ruled by a powerful women, are no more safer from the streets of Bangalore or Kolkata which have male chief ministers.

Forget empowered women. In the worst case, reservations may not even create those powerful women. Packing parliament with 150 ‘Rabri Devis‘, elected as proxies for their male relatives will defeat the spirit and the purpose of the entire idea. Worse, it will also create 150 ‘Laloos‘ who can enjoy all the privileges of political power without being accountable to anyone. (Perhaps with the exception of their wives. But the jury is out on this.). Given the way electoral politics has come to be practised in India, this is a real possibility.

What then is the appropriate public policy response to what is arguably India’s single biggest challenge? Actually, Dr Manmohan Singh alluded to it further down his speech.

“We are pursuing legislation that will provide flexibility in working hours to women and encourage women’s employment in the industrial and services sector”, he said adding a Bill on protection of women from domestic violence has been passed and changes had been effected in the criminal procedure code and the Hindu Succession Act to empower women. [IE]

Indian women have been politically empowered (in law) since 26th January 1950. But economic and social empowerment has been elusive. Laws and regulations — sometimes introduced with the intention to protect them — have only led to their economic marginalisation. Other laws, like those allowing Muslims to follow a different civil code from people of other faiths, have led to cases like Shah Bano or Imrana.

For India to truly empower women, it does not need to have ‘gender sensitive legislation’ as Dr Manmohan Singh has proposed. It just needs to clean up the gender sensitivities in the existing body of legislation that distort the equality and undermine the empowerment that they already enjoy under Indian constitution.

Experimenting with compulsory voting

Let’s find out whether it works

This blog has long argued that for governance to improve more citizens must vote. So what should we make of the Gujarat state’s decision to make voting compulsory in all local body elections?

Constitutional and philosophical reasons apart (see Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s op-ed for this) this is an interesting experiment and it will be valuable to see what it leads to.

Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and a proponent of compulsory voting calls it a “historic move to strengthen democracy” that will take “drawing room politics to the polling booth level.” But Mr Modi might be making the OMIPP—mistaking correlation for causation.

High voter turnouts might bring about responsive accountable governments because voting rate is a sign of an engaged electorate. But forcing everyone to vote might not have the same effect, because the people are merely forced to queue up and press a button on the voting machine—they are not being forced to “engage”. A non-engaged, apathetic electorate when forced to vote, might vote randomly, whimsically or spoil the ballot.

So compulsory voting might be equivalent to introducing a political wild-card without necessarily improving governance outcomes. The effect might vary ward by ward, constituency by constituency and region by region—it’s hard to answer the question of “who will it benefit?”

The experiment should be allowed so that we can add empirical evidence to the list of criteria we use to assess whether the idea of compulsory voting is a good one.

My op-ed in Mint: The lines of nuclear succession

the nuclear factor thus calls for both the declaration of a line of succession as well as ensuring that key cabinet portfolios are entrusted to separate individuals. It renders unacceptable practices that have either become norms or are compulsions of coalition politics. Parties preparing for the coming general election, therefore, would do well to go beyond announcing their prime ministerial candidates. They should announce their leadership succession strategy and the line-up for key cabinet positions.

The nuclear factor renders unacceptable practices that stem from the compulsions of coalition politics

In today’s Mint, I argue that “the nuclear factor thus calls for both the declaration of a line of succession as well as ensuring that key cabinet portfolios are entrusted to separate individuals. It renders unacceptable practices that have either become norms or are compulsions of coalition politics. Parties preparing for the coming general election, therefore, would do well to go beyond announcing their prime ministerial candidates. They should announce their leadership succession strategy and the line-up for key cabinet positions.”

Read the entire article over at LiveMint.

Vote, you fools!

There are no shortcuts to good governance. Certainly not negative ones

A group of well-meaning citizens and organisations came together in Mumbai on 11th January and “discussed strategies for networking, shortlisting common activities and adding value to each others’  core competencies”. Among those present were members from Youth For Equality, Yuva, Association For Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Praja. Also present were incipient political parties like Loksatta, Jago Party and the Professionals Party of India. [Update: See ADR’s clarification at the bottom of the post]

These groups “consensually decided” that  “a pan-India platform of groups, individuals and political parties should be formed  with an  initial focus on Mumbai in the lead up to the April-May Lok Sabha elections.”So far so good. Greater middle class engagement in civic life is a good thing. Until you see that these groups—which includes political parties and a well-regarded election monitoring NGO—“consensually” decided to

4. Have a single point “NO VOTE” campaign for the April-May 09 (Lok Sabha) elections. The plan is to tap into  public disgust with political incompetence by asking people to vote for candidates who add an alias “No Vote”to their name, thus giving voters an option to use a NO VOTE option even though there is no such provision in the Constitution. [via email]

What an astounding waste that will be! Some of the most promising, public-minded young people come together and decide not to vote! Just why couldn’t these ingenious people decide to put up one good candidate and campaign for him? Wouldn’t this send an even more powerful signal to those incompetent politicians?

Isn’t it tragic that when the decent citizens decide to engage in civic activities that they long neglected, they come back to trivialise, undermine and ultimately subvert Indian democracy? The Mumbai meeting did mention some other proposals to improve governance—but the adoption of as wretched an idea as a “no vote” campaign fatally undermines its credibility. The good people behind this ill-considered move would do well to jettison the “no vote” plan when they meet later this week.

On the importance of voting: A common bank of votes & notes, on DCubed; Vote, you fools! here on this blog; Rohit Pradhan’s article in Pragati; V Anantha Nageswaran in Mint

Update: ADR’s Professor Trilochan Shastry writes in an email:

We never said this. There is some mistake.

We are only saying there should be a button on the EVM saying “None of the above”. This is also a demand of the election commission.

If you have been sending out emails on this, please send out corrections as well.

The paragraph you have highlighted below is not from ADR.

Since the minutes of the January 11th meeting are of public interest, I have decided to make them available here, sans phone numbers and email addresses to protect privacy. The minutes indicate that the “no vote” plan was agreed upon consensually in the presence of an ADR representative. Professor Shastry’s clarification is therefore welcome.

My guest post on Dilip D’Souza’s blog

A common bank of votes and notes

As the ghastly chapter of the terrorist attack on Mumbai came to an end, long time reader Jai_Choorakkot wrote to Dilip D’Souza, Rohit Pradhan and me suggesting that posting on each others’ blogs would be a great way to show that Indians are united on fundamental issues. So here, on Dilip’s invitation is my take on what we—as individuals and citizens—could do in the wake of the terrorist attacks. To keep the discussion in one place, do leave your comments there too.

On trying Kasab

The best prosecution and the best defence

Mohammad Ajmal Amir Iman is a terrorist who was caught red-handed by the police. He is very likely a trained covert operative and is likely to exploit the Indian media and through it, the legal process, to his advantage. In time, a coterie of jihadi apologists might rise to obfuscate his crime. Politicians might use his case as a political football.

Yet, none of these is good enough a reason to deny him proper legal representation and a fair trial. Quite the contrary—this case deserves an exemplary prosecution and an exemplary defence. And should he be found guilty after an exemplary judicial process, he deserves exemplary punishment. (See Salil Tripathi’s piece).

America’s greatest mistake after 9/11 was Guantanamo Bay. India should not make the same mistake.

Update: Ram Jethmalani says lawyers cannot refuse to take the case, and, “a person who thinks that by doing these actions, he is going to heaven he should be denied the chance to go to heaven, he should remain the rest of life in a jail in India.”

Vote, you fools!

A government that can’t protect us from rainwater can’t protect us from terrorists

What can ordinary citizens do? Well, go out and vote. Salil Tripathi on the attack on Bombay:

New York has been attacked, London has faced – and avoided – attacks. Israelis are used to dealing with terror. And yet, the perception about India is that it takes these attacks in, as if nothing has happened. Returning to normalcy is an important part of dealing with terror. Preventing terror, and making people feel secured without imposing arbitrary restrictions on their lives, without suspecting individuals because of the collective they may belong to – religion, caste, language – and inspiring a sense of security among those who want to trust the law: these are the things a government must do. And it is in that area that the state has failed its people.

Fixing that also requires greater political participation. South Bombay, the epicenter of the attacks, is among the wealthiest parts of the country. And yet, that parliamentary constituency routinely has low turnout during elections. Voters don’t turn out for municipal elections as well. They must register their voice, they must protest, through the power the Indian constitution gives them, and elect a government that delivers, and not one that gets in through default, due to overall apathy. India has a phrase – chalta hai – this will go on. That must not do. Bombay’s citizens cannot, and should not, go about being vigilantes. But they can be vigilant about their rights, through their right to vote. [FEER]

Gimme hope, Raisina, gimme hope

Too many politicians, not one leader

Over at the Cape of Good Hope, Trailblazer takes the BJP to task for taking a position that is as self-defeating as it is brazen.

India’s political class has shown a sheer lack of courage to embrace the secular ideals of the country that, to an extent, the people have adopted already. The BJP has shown its communal face in all respects with an almost compulsive patronage for the Malegaon blast accused in these testing times. [TCGH]

Whether Rajnath Singh is a loose cannon or an authentic representative of one segment of the party, the fact remains that the BJP has covered itself with shame over the case of the radical right-wing Hindutva extremists. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes, every political formation from separatists, left wing revolutionaries, right wing extremists and political parties of all colours are attacking the institution of the Indian state:

After the BJP is done with what the state is supposedly doing to Hindus, and after the UPA is done with what it is doing to Muslims, does the Indian state have any shred of credibility left? [IE]

Dr Mehta believes that drastic measures are required to prevent falling off the edge, and recommends contemplation.

The UPA government created untold damage to the national pysche (and to the fisc) by rolling back the narrative of hope—by abandoning economic liberalisation and replacing it with communal socialism. The BJP’s national leadership, on the other hand, has failed to impress. It could perhaps defend its position on the India-US nuclear deal as arising from a genuine, but different interpretation of India’s national interests. Such a defence is unavailable to it in the case of its defence of suspected ultra-right Hindu terrorists on the sole basis of their religion. Would the BJP next defend suspected Hindu criminals merely on the grounds that they are Hindu? Why, some criminals might even be sincerely patriotic and deeply nationalistic, but that doesn’t mitigate their culpability. Far too many Hindu suspects get beaten up in police stations on any given day. No concern for them?

Despondency, therefore is warranted. Turning the national mood from despondency back to hopefulness is a matter of political astuteness that is sorely lacking in Indian politics, and most certainly in New Delhi. There are political rewards for parties and leaders that espouse reconciliation instead of recrimination, renewal instead of redistribution, and responsibility instead of rejection. The BJP’s current leadership doesn’t get it.

On what is ironic

Further adventures of the moderate Mirwaiz

Speaking from atop his wooden throne in Srinagar’s Jama Masjid earlier this month, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq delivered a stinging attack on politicians who will contest the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections next month.

“I want to ask the Prime Minister of India,” the cleric and secessionist politician said in his October 10 sermon, “whether it serves any purpose to hold discussions with leaders who do not dare move among the masses unless they are protected by a cordon of guards.”

Mirwaiz Farooq’s fighting words would have had a great moral force had it not been for one uncomfortable fact: he is among the ranks of politicians he railed against. Like his secessionist colleagues Sajjad Gani Lone, Bilal Gani Lone, Abdul Gani Butt and Aga Syed Hassan, the Mirwaiz is protected by the Jammu and Kashmir police. In addition, the Mirwaiz—whose father was assassinated by jihadists — has invested in a bullet-proof car. [The Hindu]

Alas, Praveen Swami reports that the ‘moderate’ Mirwaiz has hardened his position, even to the extent of signing a secret deal with the not-at-all-moderate Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Mr Swami’s restates the simple old point—the Hurriyat hungers for power, not dialogue; and that instead of a dalliance with them, India should seriously involve the democratically elected politicians in finding a solution to the problems in Jammu & Kashmir.

On the importance of history

Connecting strategy, law and history

This is an extract from the brilliant introductory chapter of Philip Bobbitt’s remarkable The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History. Bobbitt disputes the view—including The Acorn’s—that law exists in practice because of the state. Be that as it may, what is interesting about Bobbitt’s thesis is his perspective on the role of society and what it believes of itself in the theory of the State.

We scarcely see that the perception of cause and effect itself—history—is the distinctive element in the ceaseless, restless dynamic by means of which strategy (ie, foreign policy—ed) and law live out their necessary relationship with each other. For law and strategy are not merely made in history—a sequence of events and culminating effects—they are made of history. It is the self-portrayal of a society that enables it to know its own identity. Without this knowledge a society cannot establish its rule by law because every system of laws depends upon the continuity of legitimacy, which is an attribute of identity. Furthermore, without such a self-portrayal, no society can pursue a rational strategy because it is the identity of the society that strategy seeks to promote, protect and preserve. One might say that without its own history, its self-understanding, no society can have either law or strategy, because it cannot be constituted as an independent entity.

History, strategy and law make possible legitimate governing institutions.

The State exists by virtue of its purposes, and among these are a drive for survival and freedom of action, which is strategy; for authority and legitimacy, which is law; for identity, which is history. To put it differently, there is no state without strategy, law and history, and, to complicate matters, these are not merely interrelated elements,they are elements each composed at least partly of others. The precise nature of this composition defines a particular state and is the result of many choices.

Law cannot come into being until the state achieves a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Similarly, a society must have a single legitimate government for its strategic designs to be laid; otherwise, the distinction between war and civil war collapses, and strategy degenerates into banditry. Until the governing institutions of a society can claim for themselves the sole right to determine the legitimate use of force at home and abroad, there can be no state. Without law, strategy cannot claim to be a legitimate act of state. Only if law prevails can it confer legitimacy on strategic choices and give them a purpose. Yet the legitimacy necessary for law and for strategy derives from history, the understanding of past practices that characterise a particular society. [Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles pp5-6]