Women’s bill, disinvestment to top government agenda (Comment)

June 6th, 2009 - 1:29 pm ICT by IANS  

Pratibha Patil By Amulya Ganguli
Having succeeded beyond its expectations in the recent elections, the Congress seems to have decided to play some of the cards which it couldn’t do in the last five years.

Thus, the emasculation of the Mandal brigade comprising parties of the backward castes has made it promise to bring the women’s reservation bill within 100 days, and the elimination of the Left’s earlier clout has encouraged it to opt for disinvestment of the public sector.

To add to the populism of the first step, the party has chosen to take what it claims to be a historic step in selecting Meira Kumar, a woman, and a Dalit too, as the Lok Sabha speaker. Having earlier chosen Pratibha Patil as the president, the Congress can boast of being a champion of women’s rights, especially if the reservations bill passes muster.

At a time when the party seems to have everything going for it, only the habitual fault-finder will carp at the fact that neither President Patil nor the new speaker was its first choice. It was the unprepossessing Shivraj Patil whose name was first proposed as the president till the communists shot it down.

In the second case, it was the MP from Andhra Pradesh, Kishore Chandra Deo, whose name was mentioned as a possible speaker before a case against his claim to be a tribal was filed. Since Deo was unceremoniously dumped, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to play the tribal card by naming a former minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, Karia Munda, as its choice for the deputy speaker.

But the Congress can be said to have stolen a march over it by choosing reputed Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram’s daughter as the speaker, although the term, Dalit, came into vogue after the former deputy prime minister passed away. In his time, the word used to describe the community was Mahatma Gandhi’s coinage of Harijan.

Meira Kumar’s choice is also aimed at boosting the Congress’s position in the Hindi belt, especially Uttar Pradesh, where the party’s much improved performance must have raised hopes of reviving its old Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim vote bank. The Congress lost it in the 1990s when the upper castes drifted away to the BJP, the Dalits to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Muslims to the Mandal brigade comprising, among others, Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

Whatever the impact on Uttar Pradesh and no matter how diminished is the strength of the parties of the backward castes like the RJD and Samajwadi Party, the latter are still expected to oppose the women’s reservation bill on the basis of their previously articulated stand that the proposed measure will only help the privileged among women. They are also likely to count Meira Kumar among them because of her background as the daughter of a widely respected Congressman of his time (who joined the Janata Party in 1977) and her own earlier position as a foreign service official.

It is for this reason that the RJD and the Samajwadi Party say that if such a bill is to be tabled at all, it should include a clause to provide a quota for backward caste women. They are likely to be supported by Nitish Kumar’s and Sharad Yadav’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U) of Bihar even if it means that it will have to part company with the BJP since the JD-U is a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

It is worth remembering, however, that the purpose of the bill has often seemed to be less to advance the women’s cause than to enable its proponents to claim credit for it and blame others if it falls through. This has been the story of the proposed legislation ever since it was floated in 1996. This time, however, the outcome may be different because the Congress and the BJP together have the necessary numbers to ensure its passage through the Lok Sabha although what its fate will be in the Rajya Sabha is not yet clear.

Despite the apparently better prospects, it is no secret that there are silent opponents of the bill within the Congress and the BJP, mainly on the grounds that a section of MPs may lose the constituencies nurtured by them if these are allotted to women.

Hence the suggestion that the emphasis should be on the parties being persuaded to field more women candidates rather than pass a law to set aside 30 percent of the parliamentary and state assembly seats for them.

The Congress, on the other hand, can expect a huge surge of support from women if the party can ensure its adoption. As it is, the party is riding high because of Rahul Gandhi’s seeming rapport with young people and Manmohan Singh’s favourable image among the chattering classes.

Now, if the women’s bill is adopted, for which Sonia Gandhi can legitimately claim credit, the party can feel secure for a term longer than five years.

Among the Congress’s opponents, the Left will have no option but to support the bill since it has been clamouring for it for long. In the din, the objections of the comrades to the Congress’s pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies via the disinvestment (partial privatization) of the public sector companies may not make much of an impact.

(06-06-2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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