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Tuesday, March 18, 2003

If there is one word which aptly describes the nature of our politics, it is 'tokenism'. All public debate and political discourse are reduced to mere symbolism and insincere tokenism. Much of our economy has suffered over the years because of this severe flaw. But greater damage is done to the political process itself, undermining democracy and institutional vitality.

The issue of women's reservation in legislatures is a classic example of this tokenism. For years now there has been a demand for reserving a third of the constituencies for women. All major parties privately oppose it, but publicly pay lip sympathy for such reservation, hoping that a Mulayam Singh Yadav or Laloo Yadav will have the courage to kill the proposal and accept the blame, while they can continue to eat the cake and have it too!  The continued deception of politicians on the women's reservation issue exposes their intellectual bankruptcy and moral ambivalence as few issues have.

That there should be fair representation for women in legislatures is unquestionable. But reservation of constituencies is a remedy worse than the disease. Reservation by draw of lots and rotation of seats is a disastrous recipe for representative democracy. With one-third seats randomly reserved for woman by draw of lots, the incumbents are forcibly unseated, resulting in a scramble for other constituencies at the last minute. With women's reservation, total reservations for SCs, STs and women will be about 50%. The recent hiccups in delimitation demonstrate how difficult it is to find a fair and acceptable method of reserving constituencies for SCs. Permanent reservation of the same seats for women and SCs on a large scale is untenable, and therefore rotation of reservation becomes necessary (except in case of ST seats). Once nearly half the seats are reserved and rotated in every election, reserved seats becomes unreserved and vice versa, forcing about 90% of the incumbents to lose their constituencies! This is unheard of in any democracy.



Reservation of Seats







Percentage of seats





Reservation for SCs










Reservation for STs
















Balance Seats










Reservation for Women 33.3%

(in general quota)










Open for all








Such compulsory unseating have several undesirable consequences. It violates the very basic principles of democratic representation. With incentive for reelection disappearing, politics will be even more predatory; elected women legislators cannot build any political base as they lose their constituencies, and male candidates unseated will put up family members as proxies to keep the seat 'safe' for them, and indulge in back-seat driving. The net result will be a perpetually unstable polity, token representation for women without real power or political base, greater demands for reservation of constituencies for other oppressed groups, and delegitimization of representative democracy.

Happily, there are sensible and practical ways of enhancing women's representation. Evidence shows that voters are not discriminating against women candidates; parties are. Whereas 10.32% of all male candidates  have been elected to Lok Sabha since 1957,  17.16% of women candidates were elected during the same period. Among party candidates, the success rate of men is 26.50%, while 32.53% of women candidates have been elected. Clearly, the Indian people have no prejudice against women legislators. In fact, the contrary is true. Given a chance, voters are more likely to elect a woman than a man. This evidence points to an elegant, and viable solution. The parties have been guilty of not nominating enough women candidates on the patently false pretext of "winnability". If a law is made compelling political parties to nominate women in the required number seats, on pain of losing recognition and symbol allotment, the problem would be solved. There are many advantages of this model. Parties will have to nominate sufficient women candidates, but they have the flexibility in any given constituency depending on local political and social factors. Women can nurture constituencies and build a political base. A large pool of credible and serious women candidates will be in the fray, allowing real contests. There will be no need for reservation or rotation. Given past history, the success rate of women will be higher than the quota of seats allotted to them by parties. Parties can nominate women from any social segment – OBCs or minorities, depending on local factors.

There should be certain safeguards to plug possible loopholes in this model. A party may be tempted to nominate women in states or constituencies in which it is weak. However, by making the unit of consideration a state for Lok Sabha, and a cluster of three Lok Sabha constitutions for the Assembly, parties will be compelled to nominate women in all regions and states. No serious party seeking power can afford to deliberately undermine its own chances of election by deliberately nominating weak candidates.

Our political debates are often uninformed by best practices elsewhere. Women's participation has increased dramatically, to near equal or even higher participation, in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands which adopted such party-based quotas. Recently France amended its constitution to enforce party quotas. There is no successful model of genuine women's empowerment through reservation of constituencies.

Ultimately India, given our diversity and vertical hierarchies, has to wrestle with the issue of legitimacy of representation. Women, scattered minorities, OBCs and other neglected sections need genuine political space and opportunity. The real answer lies in proportional representation with reasonable thresholds to prevent political fragmentation. Adhocism and tokenism beyond a point are dangerous to the health of our democracy.

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