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.

Ill-conceived dialogue

…played into the Hurriyat’s hands

Praveen Swami’s indictment is damning: “New Delhi’s well-meaning but ill-conceived dialogue process communalised Jammu and Kashmir and laid the ground for the ongoing crisis”

Experts have been telling New Delhi that the solution to this Islamist upsurge lies in negotiations which will give power—if not independence—to secessionists. Both the premise of this received-wisdom and the prescriptions it lends itself to are false. In fact, the crisis now unfolding in Jammu and Kashmir can also be read as the consequence of New Delhi’s peace process. In its effort to make peace with the Islamist-led secessionist movement in Kashmir, this counter-intuitive argument suggests, India ended up fuelling competitive communalism in each of the State’s three regions.

New Delhi deferred the (round table conference) dialogue process until after the Assembly elections scheduled for October. Islamists in Kashmir, though, feared that the elections would lead to their annihilation, and began sharpening their knives. To anyone other than Prime Minister Singh’s house-intellectuals, whose eyes seemed to have been paper-clipped shut, the brewing crisis was evident. [The Hindu emphasis added]

The dialogue process in Jammu & Kashmir was in piece with the UPA government’s policy DNA: entitlements based on communal socialism, accepting competitive intolerance and yielding to the resulting political violence.

Social justice is injustice

And the source of so many of India’s problems

Today’s dose of excellent writing comes from Mint, where Vipin Veetil argues that “social justice is injustice”.

Governments were larger than ever before, and socialism the intellectual high ground. And justice became muddled. Right to education, right to leisure, right to what politicians want were all called justice. And this is (Amartya) Sen’s notion of justice. Social justice is, however, self-contradictory, for a simple reason. Since individuals have the right to own their produce, heavy taxation is theft. So is price control and taking away land for social good. We run into a logical contradiction—for justice we practise injustice.

And once justice loses meaning, collectivism triumphs, for the old solid moral foundation of law can now be replaced with political opportunism. The government takes to cost benefit analysis (CBA)—any and all actions are possible if politicians can claim it’s for the greater good of society. Only trade can ensure that exchange of property rights happen only when both parties are better off. With CBA, experts decide who should command resource and who should leave their property. Violence erupts as some citizens feel they lost out. Interest groups capture the government; if there is going to be theft, why not get the government to steal for me than from me.

And justice begins to mean different things to different people. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) claims it is unjust to halt development that will bring jobs to millions; displaced farmers claim it is unjust to take away lands. And both are right because justice has no meaning. Behind the present turmoil lies a muddled notion of justice. Private property must be reinstated as a fundamental constitutional right for justice to have meaning. [Mint]

Related Links: Here at INI, in the December 2007 issue, Pragati argued for the reinstatement of the right to private property; and Offstumped had declared war on social justice.

Non-opposition is costly

The BJP didn’t forcefully counter the UPA government’s communal socialism. It’s paying for it in Rajasthan

Let there be no mistake: those who organised the violent mass agitation demanding entitlements that go with a scheduled tribe (ST) status, including its leader Kirori Singh Bainsla, are responsible for the deaths and injuries that resulted. Surely in a country where Chauri Chaura is taught in history textbooks, public protests involving burning down police stations and public transport buses can’t be called non-violent protests? Mr Bainsla’s claim to a Gandhian parallel—he was fasting while blocking railway traffic—is a macabre parody. The Gujjar riots are not about non-violence. They are about cynical use of violence and the threat of violence to press political demands.

And let there also be no mistake that even ‘non-violent’ tactics that disrupt normal life—blocking railways and holding up traffic—have no place in a constitutional democracy. As B R Ambedkar said, such methods are the “grammar of anarchy“. The political demands that the Gujjar protesters had should have been pressed in constitutional ways: through electoral politics and the judicial system. Arson and vandalism are crimes. Nothing in the Gujjar agitation must desensitise us from seeing them for what they are.

The police and law-enforcement authorities acted correctly. The loss of lives is unfortunate. But the police were not firing on a group of peaceful satyagrahis, but rather, on mobs that were resorting to mass violence. Mr Bainsla and his colleagues cannot escape moral responsibility for these deaths. They also cannot escape responsibility for diminishing the legitimacy of whatever genuine grievances some in the Gujjar community might have had.

These riots have come at a time when tensions between the BJP government in Rajasthan and the UPA government at the centre came to the fore after the terrorist attacks in Jaipur. The Congress Party is revelling at the Vasundhara Raje government’s discomfiture, at the hands of a monster that the UPA government nursed back to health.

It’s useful to be blunt about it. The rhetoric of ’social justice’, ‘reforms with a social face’ and ‘inclusive growth‘ is largely about doling out entitlements based on group identities. The prize—the status of ‘backwardness’, with its attendent benefits in terms of reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, and if the UPA government were to have its way, in the private sector too. The designation of backwardness was subject to electoral promises, not hard-data or economic rationale. Do this long enough and you run into the Gurjjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab. Continue to persist along this path, and such incidents will be repeated in hundreds of places. [The Acorn, 4 June 2007]

Dr Frankenstein will face his creation eventually, but the BJP cannot escape its share of blame for failing to prevent, or at least draw attention to, the UPA’s larger project of divide and rule. It did complain when entitlement were sought to be handed out along religious lines, calling it minority appeasement. But it remained cynically silent when entitlements were handed out along caste and ethnic lines.

A party claiming to represent the whole of India should have protested loudly inside and outside parliament when the UPA government began its divide and rule project. Why, even a party claiming to champion the interests of the Hindu majority should have protested loudly when its base was being vivisected. If the Congress Party has succeeded in pulling the rug from under the BJP it is only because the latter could not muster up the leadership and courage to speak out against entitlements. As the Gujjar riots indicate, it will have to play the game by the rules set by its opponents.

Asking Manmohan Singh the right questions

The onward march of communal socialism

The UPA’s most unfortunate strategy of earmarking government expenditure along community lines continues apace. The latest in this juggernaut is the Prime Minister’s 15-point programme for the welfare of minorities. It contains, among other things, measures to allocate greater resources for the teaching of Urdu, for modernising Madrasa education, for quotas in the rural employment guarantee programmes, preferential bank loans, government jobs and why, even a quota for upgrading of slums. That’s not just an assault on good economic sense. It’s a naked assault on secularism.

Prevention and control of communal riots is an excellent policy goal. But it is a national policy goal. To place it as a ‘minority welfare measure’ is not only an affront to justice. It is counterproductive to the cause of communal harmony, as earmarking justice—in the same style as jobs, loans and slum upgrading—will deepen the suspicion that it won’t be even-handed.

One person challenged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on this patently anti-secular socialist policy:

“The New 15-Point Programme that focuses on earmarking certain outlays of various developmental schemes and programmes of the Government of India amongst the eligible beneficiaries, based on their minority status, should be reviewed in the interest of maintaining the social fabric of the nation.”

“Such discrimination, amongst the eligible beneficiaries, for flow of funds based on minority status, will not help the cause in taking people of India together on the path of development,” he said.

(He asked) the Prime Minister how was “religion important” for a government strategy on inclusive growth.

Wondering “what has gone wrong in the previous plans” that such an approach should be adopted, (he) said “poverty has no religion” and only poverty should determine allocations in the Plan. [IE]

That person was Chief Minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat. The prime minister waffled in response. And Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, didn’t even realise the irony of what he said in defence of the 15-point programme:

Ahluwalia later said “one of the instruments being used is to make special efforts to focus on districts where there is high concentration of minorities” and these programmes “do not involve discrimination in favour of minorities as such.” [IE]

What’s the difference, Montek?