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Beyond Mere Gestures
Enhancing women’s reservation in panchayats is good but it is not enough.
eventeen years after the Constitution was amended to reserve one-third of the seats in panchayats for women, the union cabinet has approved increasing this reservation to 50%. The move has been met with widespread welcome, but there is also apprehension that this surprise enhancement is the centre’s way of making up for the lack of any forward movement on the Women’s Reservation Bill that has been hanging fire since 1996. (See the commentary, “Reservation for Women in Panchayats: A Sop in Disguise?”, p 8, in this issue.) The experiences of women panchayat members since 1992 have been filled with a large number of problems in the course of their work. Merely enhancing the reservation percentage is unlikely to help in dealing with these problems. In Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the state governments have already reserved 50% of panchayat seats for women. In Bihar where the reservation was enhanced to one-half of the seats in 2006, in the elections that followed 55% of the elected panchayat members were women. The functioning and powers of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) are susceptible to dilution by a number of factors: the pressure from caste (khap) panchayats in certain parts of the country, the influence of the upper castes and corrupt officials, and marginalisation in many states by the creation of parallel outfits like the forest management and drinking water groups. Women panchayat members have to deal with the additional handicaps of discharging their duties even as they shoulder the burden of domestic responsibilities, and, most importantly, having to deal with an entrenched patriarchal mindset that seeks to ensure that their influence does not go beyond registering a token presence. In the years immediately following the introduction of the onethird reservation, a number of studies said that most of these women were “proxy” members for their husbands. But one study conducted by the Women’s Studies Programme at the Jawaharlal Nehru University during 2002-03 on reservations based on caste and gender in the Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Bangalore City Corporation showed that the question of “proxy” roles is much more complex than it is made out to be in public discourse. A large number of corporators interviewed, both men and women,
Economic & Political Weekly EPW
admitted that they owed their entry into politics to a political leader or “godfather”. For both, being a proxy of sorts is the condition for entry into politics. A majority of the women went on to develop in different ways in the course of their term in office as opposed to a small number which continued to remain victim figures. The media does also report instances of women members, including those belonging to the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), who have fought not just patriarchal attitudes but even vested interests, some of whom have paid with their lives for refusing to become part of a corrupt nexus between elected representatives and officials. However, the focus has been more on the political inexperience of the women rather than the socially positive effect their participation has for women at large. There are also other issues that need to be looked at if reservation for women is to be effective. A nationwide study in 2007-08 of elected women representatives in PRIs that was commissioned by the ministry of panchayati raj found that four-fifths of all the representatives got elected from reserved seats and that withdrawal of reservation was an important reason among many of the former representatives for not contesting elections. The study, “Elected Women Representatives in Gram Panchayats”, notes that reservation is meaningful when women can sustain their political activity through re-elections. The data, however, showed that 85% of the women were first-timers and only 15% got re-elected because the seats from where they were elected were de-reserved in the next round. The study therefore recommended that, “at the policy level, the rotation of seats may be discontinued for the women-headed panchayats and wards”. Acceding to demands, the Tamil Nadu government has decided on rotation after two terms, while everywhere else the old practice continues. Whether for the chairperson’s post or that of the ordinary member, a number of commentators and studies have pointed out that rotation not only deprives the elected official of a continuous learning process, it is also conducive to the creation of a “short-term gains” mindset and deprives voters of the right to demand accountability from their choice of representative. Political parties are also reluctant to nominate women from unreserved seats. In states where panchayat elections are fought on party tickets and symbols, as in Rajasthan, political parties have declined to give even successful women members the chance to re-contest on the ground that other women too should get an opportunity.
october 3, 2009
vol xliv no 40
As in many other endeavours, the data from the panchayati raj ministry study shows that the duration of political involvement is directly indicative of the performance of women representatives. The study also recommends that an effort should be made not only to maintain women’s representation in the panchayats, but also to
strengthen their ability to remain in politics by provision of training to function effectively in office. That effort can only come when the government is less anxious to cover up its inability to resolve the deadlock over the Women’s Reservation Bill and more keen to ensure that women’s representation at the grass roots level is truly effective.
democracy Betrayed in Nepal
Can a system where capitalism and democracy are significantly less incompatible be peacefully created?
he great hope that following the Maoists joining the “democratic mainstream” and participating in “competitive politics”, a new democratic Nepal would be on its way has been dashed. After the resignation of Pushpa Kamal Dahal (“Prachanda”) as prime minister in early May this year over the thwarting of his move to establish civilian control over the armed forces, a rickety 22-party coalition government with Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN(UML)] took office. But the Nepali Congress (NC) and the CPN(UML) have been bitterly contending with each other to gain the upper hand, and the various factions in each of these outfits continue to wrestle with each other, rendering governance a casualty. Their main aim of effectively keeping the Maoists out of power has however, at least so far, been attained. No doubt, Washington and New Delhi must be heaving a sigh of relief, for neither the CPN(UML) nor the NC is interested in the integration of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the Nepal Army (NA), as also the “democratisation” of the latter, both of which are part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 21 November 2006. Nor are they bothered about institutionalising civilian control over the armed forces, which the interim constitution requires, and they have the tacit backing of India and the US in this respect too. So it is only a government headed by the Maoists that can ensure these basic prerequisites of lasting peace in that strife-torn land. But given the ganging up of virtually all the major political parties in the constituent assembly against them, the chances of all this happening is distant. Meanwhile, even as the task of drafting a new constitution is getting more and more urgent with the approach of the deadline of May 2010, it is most unlikely to happen before that date. Then what of the peace process itself? After all, there is an internal struggle going on in the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN(M)] over the derailing of the path towards a new democratic Nepal. The party’s shift from the Maoist strategy does not seem to have got it any closer to its goal of establishing a “new democracy” in Nepal. It may be well to recall that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), as the UCPN(M) was known earlier, having decided to change its path, tactics and strategy in advancing towards the goal of a new democratic Nepal, went to the extent of entering into a grand political alliance, which included parties that had earlier collaborated with the monarchy to eliminate it. But, all
that has been achieved so far is the removal of the monarchical dictator, Gyanendra, and the establishment of a republic. No doubt, these are significant milestones, but, to get there, the PLA had to be demobilised, disarmed and confined to the barracks under the supervision of the United Nations in Nepal; the “base areas” that the Maoists had established during the 10-year long “People’s War” had to be given up, including the land and property of the ruling gentry that was seized by the people in the course of that war, and their irregular militia, the Young Communist League, had to be demobilised and has now been turned from a political to a “social and development” organisation. In all of this, the Maoists have kept to their side of the hard bargain. But the major mainstream political parties have betrayed the will of the majority and gone back on the peace document (the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 21 November 2006) they had put their signatures to. In the understanding of the UCPN(M), a “new democracy” is one where the dominance of the wealthy, powerful and privileged of the “semi-feudal” and “comprador capitalist” order has been subverted, thereby qualitatively enhancing the otherwise limited compatibility of capitalism and democracy. We are of course here interpreting the latter term as government with the will of the majority of the people. What about the integration of the PLA into the NA, something which had been agreed upon earlier? And about which New Delhi, Washington, the mainstream political parties and the power elite are so apprehensive, indeed so fearful? What they are jittery about is the PLA’s close relation with the Nepali people. The argument that the professionalism of a national army will be undermined is plain rubbish. What the powers-that-be are interested in preserving is really the NA’s culture of feudalism, for the integration of the PLA into its ranks (the PLA had no badges and no permanent ranks; the necessary hierarchy was created by the appointment of suitable persons, both men and women, to appropriate positions of leadership) with its “proletarian” culture will surely democratise the existing army. And, a democratic army with the motto “Serve the People” as a source of inspiration is surely an alien concept as far as the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged are concerned. Sadly, all this makes a peaceful transition to a “new democracy”, which includes multiparty pluralism – the present experiment of the Nepali Maoists, what they call “21st Century Democracy” – unlikely. But for that it is the powers that be who are to blame, not the Maoists.
october 3, 2009 vol xliv no 40
EPW Economic & Political Weekly
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