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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

Women’s Reservation Bill

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Vijay Kumar


The 108th Amendment of the Constitution, better known as the Women’s Reservation Bill mandating one-third reservation in favour of women, avowedly for ensuring their adequate representation in highest legislative/ deliberating body at federal/state level and thereby empowering women, has been passed in the Rajya Sabha with just one vote against it. The object is undoubtedly wholesome and yet critical scrutiny will not be out of place to ascertain whether this Bill will readily lead to women’s emancipation or is mere tokenism or still worse clear and disingenuous means adopted to entrench the class interest
and thereby undermine democracy by making
it feudalised in a way as to certainly result in subversion of the republican ethos of the Constitution.

Far from being euphoric over the Bill being historic, sober reflection on it with critical outlook is desideratum to deconstruct the Bill in a profoundly intellectual and philosophical manner and delineate its real impact on democracy. The fulsome encomiums showered by the mainstream press and support of the same by political parties of all complexions, barring regional fringe parties like the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, Laloo Yadav-led RJD, Mayawati-led BSP and Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, and the Left parties being most consistent and vocal supporters for the Bill are unmistakable pointers to a remarkable consensus over the Bill. This consensus makes the exercise of critical scrutiny compelling. Since representative democracy the world over is afflicted by what was termed by Walter Lippman long time ago and Noam Chomsky recently as “manufacture of consent”,1 the extraordinary consensus across political spectrum should not deter honest intellectuals to deconstruct the Bill by showing what it is in reality.

The introduction of adult suffrage coupled with reservation of seats in the House of the People and State Legislatures for SC/STs initially only for ten years and providing reservation of SC/STs and other socially and educationally backward classes in educational institutions and state employment in the Constitution have succeeded in making Indian democracy inclusive to some satisfactory extent. From 1967 onwards, Indian democracy had been becoming increasingly inclusive and reached a plateau in the wake of the cynical attempt on the part of then V.P. Singh-led Janta Dal Government in 1990 to mandalise Indian politics and society. Having acquired the progressive trajectory, Indian politics for the last one-and-a-half decade has taken a regressive curve towards increasing feudalisation. In last Lok Sabha elections, less than one-third members were those who were the first persons in their families to enter politics. The corollary of this statistic is that more than two-thirds of parliamentarians are those whose families have been in politics from generations.

That Indian politics has been overly feudalised in the last two decades is a truism. The main reason for this increasing feudalisation is the mushrooming growth of regional parties led by families across the entire length and breadth of the country. Without naming any political party, it would be absolutely safe to assert that except for the cadre-based and ideologically-oriented parties like the BJP and Left parties, all other parties, including all regional parties, have thoroughly been degenerated into ‘pocket-boroughs’ of for the family. Earlier this was confined to the Congress party alone exemplified initially by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty at the top but made pervasive over the years among the rank-and-file. The historic decline of the Congress and its hegemony in post-mandalised politics resulted in engendering a plethora of regional parties which function mainly on the basis of patronage and clientale doled out by the leader and his/her family.

The phenomenon of feudalisation of politics was further facilitated by the other pernicious reality of the decisive role of money during election time. The role of crime and money have acquired determinative relevance for success and failure in the elections. The election has become exorbitantly costly and even middle class persons just can’t dream of contesting elections without the backing of money and muscle power. This nexus of politics-crime-money resulted in the growth of “pocket-boroughs” prevailing on “family line” in the garb of “party line”.

Thus the single greatest aberration afflicting Indian politics ever since the rise of regional satraps is the increasing stranglehold of the family in Indian politics. The fateful implications for this increasing feudalisation of politics cannot be overstated. Amidst this crisis of ever increasing feudalisation of politics, the introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill, far from furthering democracy, will undermine it by acting as a catalyst to alarming trends with Indian politics increasingly becoming hereditable. The bane of the Indian politics right from independence and even prior to it is the inevitable degeneration of “progressive radicalism” into “destructive and mindless populism”. In this sense, the Women’s Reservation Bill is not merely ‘rhetoric’ but far worse than that inasmuch as this amendment will entrench alarming feudalisation of Indian politics to the incalculable detriment of the common people including the average woman, let alone the poor and downtrodden women. Therefore, the remarkable consensus among almost all political parties is not surprising at all. So is the lavish praise showered by mainstream media by dubbing the amendment as a historic one. Most shocking and surprising is the stand of the Left parties who are hardcore supporters the Women’s Reservation Bill. The Bill, in the present context of fragmentation of politics and the fact of the overwhelming majority of political parties being run by the families, will only end up by entrenching the class divide in Indian society. But the Left parties have all along been the prisoner of “popular rhetoric” rather than attempting to bring about any structural change in Indian politics and social structure. Given the complete stranglehold of the family in almost all political parties except the BJP and the Left, the Women’s Reservation Bill will intensify the regressive trends of descent of Indian democracy into oligarchy.


The grave implications for all these distortions in Indian democracy aggravated by the Bill for our constitutional ethos are too obvious to need any detailed elaboration. Egalitarianism and social justice are the two cardinal features of the Indian Constitution and would become complete casualty. To the extent reservation in favour of women entrenches feudalism in Indian politics, it is ipso facto subversive of the egalitarian and republican ethos of the Constitution. The galaxy of geniuses who framed the Constitution after more than three years of intense deliberation and hard work thought of only one kind of reservation in Parliament and State Legislatures and that was in favour of SCs and STs and that too only for the first ten years. The successive amendments in the Constitution extending reservation in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas for SC/STs with metronomic regularity after every ten years speak volumes of the stranglehold of the destructive populism in Indian politics. The 108th Amendment is another instance of obsession with the representative aspect of democracy at the cost of the participatory nature. The penchant for ‘populism’ and ‘rherotic’ has already reduced the representative democracy as a mere “ontological fiction” even in advanced democracies.2 The Bill also reinforces the preoccupation of the mainstream Indian political class with ‘nomological’ rather than the ‘ideographic’ aspect of politics.

The top-down approach for ameliorating the social disparity has failed in all areas whether economics or politics. It is the bottom-top approach that is the key to social welfare including women’s emancipation. At the heart of gender disparity lies the utter absence of ensuring education to all the female child and it is the access to education alone rather than the symbolic gesture of introducing quota at the top that can ensure women’s empowerment.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is a further pointer to the paradox of the women being at the helm of affairs in India and other South-Asian countries much prior to the women occupying the top position in developed democracies. In fact, no woman has succeeded in becoming the President of the United States till date. On the contrary, the woman became head of the ruling party or the Prime Minister long time ago in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In fact, in Bangladesh, both the ruling and Opposition parties are led by women from the last two decades and there is no possibility of any male becoming the head of one of the two main parties. Does this suggest the genuine advancement of the status of women in these countries or in societies? Far from it, these dominance of women at the top should not mask the unmistakable reality of the class and feudalistic character of politics in these countries. The conditions of women in general in the South Asian countries, including India, are far worse than those of their counterparts in developed countries. The poignancy of this paradox will acquire an ironical ring in the event of the Women’s Reservation Bill becoming a reality. The short and simple point I want to press is that the Women’s Reservation Bill, far from furthering the egalitarian goal of the Directive Principles of the Constitution, will certainly entrench class antagonism.

Reservation in favour of SC/STs and other educationally and socially backward classes has resulted in the benefit of reservation being cornered by the elite among them. That is why the Supreme Court of India in the Mandal case introduced the concept of the ‘creamy layer’ who are excluded from availing the reservation. The very constitutional recognition of the ‘creamy layer’ by the highest court of the land is an unmistakable pointer to the fact that the very concept of quota ultimately results in class divide within the same group and ends up by creating a privileged class within the deprived group. The Women’s Reservation Bill will inevitably result in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas being represented by elite women without any concrete benefit percolating down to the poor women. Even the possibility of some seats meant for women’s quota being auctioned by political parties in the favour of highest bidder looms large on the political horizon. The fight over reservation by its opponents and proponents has been characterised as “friendly fire” in the felicitous language of Prof Amratya Sen. Sen argues that fight over reservation is basically a fight among elite of the forward and backward classes to corner the benefits and perpetuate their privileged position to the detriment of the poor segments of their own group.3

The dynamics of class, its pervasiveness and its inexorable march cannot be denied. That is not to say that there is absence of any other source of inequality. For the critical analysis of the Women’s Reservation Bill from the standpoint of class, I can do no better than quote Prof Sen:

….Class does not act alone in creating and reinforcing inequality, and yet no other source of inequality is fully independent of class.

….Indeed, a congruence of class deprivation and gender discrimination can blight the lives of poorer women very severely indeed. It is the interactive presence of these two features of deprivation—being low class and being female—that can massively impoverish women from the less privileged classes.

Prof Sen concludes his analysis by observing:

(1) there are many sources of disparity other than class: we must avoid the presumption that class encompasses all sources of disadvantage and handicap; and

(2) nevertheless, class disparities are not only important on their own, but they also tend to intensify the disadvantages related to the other forms of disparity.4

The Bill is merely meant to achieve the other-wise laudable objective of increasing women’s representation in the highest legislative body and thereby ensuring women’s emancipation but the means adopted, far from furthering the holistic objective, will only result in aggravation of class interests with frightening consequences for democracy being degenerated into plutocracy where the privileged alone could contest the election.


1. Walter Lippman, Public Opinion, Reprint Edition 1991, p. 287, Noam Chomsky Deterring; Democracy, 1991.

2. Hans Cochler, The Changing Nature of Power and Erosion of Democracy in World Order: Vision and Reality, 2009, p. 115, Manak Publication, New Delhi.

3. Prof Amratya Sen, Class In India, Penguin, 2005, p. 204, ‘Class in India’, in Argumentative Indian.

4. Ibid.

The author is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of India.

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