Politics of WRB: An interview

Well-known journalist Vidya Subrahmaniam of The Hindu wrote a stimulating article yesterday on the politics of WRB. I thank her for responding to some of my questions on her piece here. Her answers fill the gap between the legal and political understanding of this historic legislation.

Q: You are optimistic that the same forces that brought the OBC men in large numbers into Parliament and the Assemblies will, over time, inevitably tilt the balance of woman power towards the more socially disadvantaged. Can you identify and be specific and perhaps elaborate about these forces? Can you also explain how they succeeded?

VS: The forces that brought OBC men into legislatures are the forces unleashed by Mandal. Mandal stirred up the electorate, brought in new awareness about subaltern identity, and gave a fillip to the social justice parties. As they started fielding more OBC candidates, others had to follow suit. The BJP for instance coopted OBCs, calling it social engineering. I have cited the figures in the U.P Assembly in the story. My case is that in a predominantly rural OBC constituency, you cant import a urban upper crust woman. Surely, it cannot be the case of the SP and the RJD that they will field upper caste, urban elite women in these constituencies?

Q:Both the Geetha Mukherjee committee report in 1996 and now the Jayanthi Natarajan report in 2009 support the need for quota within quota, and want the Government to examine it at the appropriate time. Therefore, the reluctance of the political class comprising the Congress, BJP and the Left to consider the pre-enactment stage as the appropriate time, to fill that gap is inexplicable to me.

VS: I am not opposed to sub-quota on principle but I’m convinced that it is a ploy to scuttle the bill. For instance, Mulayam says he wants sub -reservation within the women’s quota not just for OBCs, but also for Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis etc. There are constitutional difficulties in enacting such a bill. There is no quota for Muslims or other religions in the general category, courts have repeatedly struck down religion-based reservation. The only way to do it is to bring them into the OBC quota, which will again be opposed by the Yadavs. They do not want the bill. Period. And they will do anything and everything to stop it.

Q: You suggest that the parties can individually take the initiative to nominate more women candidates from the OBCs and other underprivileged sections. The same argument can also be advanced to suggest why we require this bill at all. If the Bill’s objective is to ensure greater representation of women, then the parties, on their own could have ensured that they field enough women from winnable seats. Since it doesn’t happen, the WRB is considered necessary. The logic of competitive populism could have been expected to play a role here also. But it is obvious that the logic is impractical, because there is no level-playing field, where all the parties are equally convinced about the merits of fielding more women candidates. The question of who will bell the cat first will remain to be answered because the party which takes such initiative, so as to set the ball of competitive populism logic rolling, will have to accept certain risks, including inability to capture power after the elections. Had the UPA done so at the 2009 elections, it could have very well faced that risk.

VS: There is substantial evidence to show that women candidates have a better winning rate than men. This is so across parties, and holds true even for SP, BSP and the like. But fielding more women will cut into male seats, hence the resistance. Sonia and Sushma ought to have over-ridden objections but the fact that powerful as they are even they have not been able to do it shows how patriarchal our system is. If the bill becomes law, then they will all have to field women compulsorily. The question is: Can they afford to give ticket to just one kind of women? I am saying they cannot. But politics is also about symbolism. Which is why it is important for Congress and BJP to say that they will proactively allot ticket to OBC, Muslim women etc. It is simply not enough to say that it will happen automatically. If you want to seize the initiative from your opponents, you have to beat them at their own game.

Q: While exposing the parties’ double-speak on the WRB, you have not explained WHY the parties are reluctant to voluntarily field more women candidates, if the logic of competitive populism is so compelling. Is it due to the parties’ ignorance or some other reason?

VS:Mainstream parties do not allot ticket to women in greater numbers because parties are patriarchal, and women cannot be accommodated without displacing men, which is asking for trouble as you can see from the opposition to the bill. OBC parties are being duplicitous because they do not want the bill, and they are simply couching their gender bias in demands for OBC-minority reservation.

Q:The logic of competitive populism will also apply to SC/ST reservations in general. In principle, therefore, you end up questioning the relevance of these quotas as well, because the parties are smart enough not to ignore the social composition of our electorate, and their razor-sharp understanding of politics would have led to fielding enough SC/ST candidates as well. The underlying logic, therefore, is that castes and groups don’t vote en bloc to the candidates hailing from similar castes or groups. This is what successive elections have revealed. Instead, they judge candidates’ merits on various grounds which include caste considerations. It is not clear why competitive populism and parties’ understanding of caste dynamics, besides the need to harness diverse social and caste interests to ensure electoral victory should be ingredients of successful strategy in the case of OBCs, but not so in the case of SCs and STs.

VS: I am sure you know that the SC/ST case is entirely different from the rest. The Constitutional special provisions in their case is not a new thing. The framers of the Constitution believed them to be historically oppressed. The institutional prejudices against them still exist, and no government will dare undo reservation for them — even if their numerical strength and their political importance render it imperative for parties to field them.

Q: Your data on the number of OBC legislators in U.P.stop with 1993. There is a need to compare data especially after the onset of sarvajan politics. Unlike the South, in the North both the OBC and the forward castes are more or less evenly placed. The more than satisfactory representation of OBC male legislators is perhaps due to the higher male literacy rate, which has enabled their better political participation. The question is when we have similar quota for OBCs in local bodies, why deny the same in higher representative bodies. To ask for reservation for OBCs for general seats, before the WRB is a reality, may be misplaced because OBC males are already better represented. On the basis of poor representation of women in general, the apprehension that OBC women may not get representation sufficiently under the WRB appears to be valid.

VS: Why don’t OBC men want reservation for themselves? Because their numbers will come down if they are bound within a quota. Why do they insist that the same logic will not apply to OBC women? Not all OBC men are highly literate. If that were the case, then they should accept the creamy layer logic and agree to the exclusion of literate OBC men from OBC job quota. The truth is they want to have their cake and eat it too. Besides, as I have gone to great lengths to explain, the Yadav parties want reservation for OBCs and minorities. The bill will surely get stuck if the latter demand is to be met, and indeed that is the idea behind making such a demand.

Update: Today’s (March 18) Indian Express carries an article, based on empirical findings, to suggest that absence of quota for OBC women and Muslims did not result in their underrepresentation in the local bodies. An opposite view is canvassed by this EPW edit, which of course, does not cite any evidence to buttress it.

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  • "There is substantial evidence to show that women candidates have a better winning rate than men. This is so across parties, and holds true even for SP, BSP and the like."
    Might it also be true that patriarchal political parties have only been giving tickets to women in circumstances where they have an above-average chance of winning? Is there a need to resort to gender-essentialist justifications for the bill?

  • I read Vidya's article on the day it was published. She has written as a true feminist to empower the woman class and remove the subjugation of the patriarchal society.

    I hope her dreams come true with this largely symbolic bill that unfortunately gives another severe blow to our constitutional principles. Probably PB Mehta rightly says that we are in a quotacracy.

  • One issue I have is the sheer "open-endedness" of such quotas. For how long are such quotas supposed to last? Is there a set of criteria which can be used to determine when they will end? The point being that once a quota is introduced then the people benefiting from it develop an interest in its perpetuation and that makes removing it very difficult.

    We might note that in some southern states like Tamil Nadu, the quota system started before independence. We have consistently been told that it has made a lot of difference. Fine, so can we then just reduce it? I am not talking about removing it altogether; I am just talking about reducing it from the current 69% to something like 60%. But far from moving in that direction, the Tamil Nadu government wants to increase the quota by involving the private sector also! Again, we are told with great pride how Kerala's human development indicators exceed many developed countries. So, fine, can we suggest that the level of quotas in Kerala ought to be reduced over time? Would any politician dare suggest this?

    A second point is that quotas lead to other groups also claiming the same. Once you accept the principle of quotas, then restricting its usage becomes extremely difficult. Every other groups with real or imagined grievances will ask for the same. We have already seen this in operation. I believe in Tamil Nadu, even the Brahmins want a quota. (Not that they have a chance of getting it. In UP, though, Mayawati has talked about giving a quota to Brahmins.)

    I am not arguing against quotas. But surely these issues ought to be debated also. It is a measure of where we are that the only issue that seems worth debating is whether or not to have a sub-quota!