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Politics of Conviction

March 9, 2010

The continuous uproar in the Parliament for the past two days has seen unprecedented scenes that have done the august house no credit. The issue in contention is the Women’s Reservation Bill. This bill is nothing new and has been a matter that has come up in the House on and off  for the past fourteen years. Governments have come and gone and this contentious bill has been gathering dust. Some of the more vocal women parliamentarians have been raising this issue from time to time, to no avail.

In the last election the UPA had among other issues, promised to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in the parliament. The passage of this bill will see one third of the seats in parliament reserved for women. This has raised the hackles of members of parliament across party lines. There is no unanimity on the bill and there is a fear among the MP’s that they may have to look for another constituency if their seat gets bracketed as one reserved for women in the next elections. The critics of this bill are many, as one can expect. The opposition parties including the BJP and the Left alliance are for the bill. There is a deep division in other parties. But the only ones that are honest about their apprehensions are the Samajwadi Party and Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). Within the Janata Dal United, headed by Sharad Yadav, there is a split down the middle on the issue, as while Sharad Yadav the president of JDU is against the bill, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar who is also from the same party is for the bill. There was a ruckus in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha and the Chairman saw the papers on his desk concerning the bill being snatched and torn to bits by the opponents of the bill. There was a question mark over whether the bill will be passed in the parliament or was the ruling Congress Party playing politics by posing that while they were for the bill, the resentment to the bill is so great that they cannot help but leave it for another day.

Today was going to be the litmus test for the resolve of the government. The ruling UPA alliance, I daresay, has passed the test with flying colors. Those MP’s who were creating commotion in the House after rushing to the well of the House were named and suspended from the House for the remaining part of the current session. Most of them are from SP and RJD. This has sent a strong message across party lines – the bill will be passed come what may. The Congress has issued a party whip, as will the BJP and the Left alliance. The numbers are there and the two thirds majority required should be achieved without much trouble.

There was this incredulous media that was asking a very fundamental question – how was it that such a controversial bill is about to get passed in the parliament, when the feeling among parliamentarians across party lines as voiced by Lalu Yadav was – ‘we are not going to write our own political obituaries’.  The answer lies in the resolve of this one woman who stands tall in the Indian political landscape. The name of the woman is Sonia Gandhi. It is being said that she has made it very clear that the Women’s Reservation Bill must pass. Thankfully, there is this beautiful culture in the Congress that no one questions the Gandhi-Nehru family. They have lived off them and their political future lies intricately woven with that of the first family of India. It is true that there is a simmering resentment to the bill within the Congress, as it is in other parties, but no one dare raise his voice. They will tow the ‘official party line’ and will not raise a of voice of dissent. The parliamentarians across party lines are already planning as to which lady from their family can be their proxy were their constituency to fall under the women’s quota.

Sonia Gandhi has been frequenting rural India since the early eighties when her late husband Rajiv Gandhi first entered politics. She has seen up close the barriers that women have to face in rural India, as also in urban clusters of this land of silly orthodoxy. Women are denied education, a choice in their marriage and are subjugated so profoundly that their personality never blossoms. An illiterate, unhappy woman can do only so much for the family. Women need to come out of their shell and the emancipation of the woman and for that matter the society lies in empowering the female gender of the country. That is not to say that women in India are completely denied and there is no avenue for them, but the truth is that women deserve better opportunities. Once the women start speaking up and come out of their ghettos, the society will change for the better. A western woman, Sonia saw this glaring anomaly during her trips to the hinterland. Time passed and as fate would have it, the lady from Orbassano, Italy became the leader of the largest party in India – Congress. She was the caretaker of the legacy of the first family – the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The first time her party came to power, she tried doing things that were safe to do, though she did see to it that the contentious Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal got passed in the parliament. But when her party won a second time with a larger majority, she was determined to see through the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill that was close to her heart. Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul know that this may not be a politically prudent thing to do, and maybe the Congress may end up being a loser at the hustings the next time around, but what the mother-son duo know for sure is that this is an idea whose time has come and in the emancipation of the women of India lies the future of the nation. That if the nation has to take its rightful place in the international arena the women of this country must be encouraged to take a leading role in the development of the nation. Women have their own qualities, and if we suppress them so we are not using the potential of the population to the full. There is a reason why goddesses abound in the Indian culture. The question is that in a country where the tradition is steeped in reverence for the fairer sex, must we not give them what is rightfully theirs?

People are trying to find motives as to why Sonia Gandhi is so adamant that the Women’s Reservation Bill be passed in the parliament. If you look at the way Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul have conducted their politics, they have gone by what they believe is right. They believe that what is good for the society and for the nation is good politics. This is what can only be termed as politics of conviction. Instances abound. The Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal was one of them. The Gandhi’s believed that this was the right way for the nation to go. I must add here that the prime minister was also convinced on this, as he is about the Women’s Reservation Bill. There was a huge uproar in the House time and again and the drama that followed on the May 22 voting on the Nuclear Deal was like a soap opera. But the Gandhi’s saw to it that the nation went the right way and that was that.

During the recently concluded Jharkhand elections, the Congress was the largest single party in the state assembly. They were falling short by a whisker. Shibu Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha with 18 seats could have ensured a Congress rule in the state. The Congress lead by the mother-son duo decided to sit in the opposition rather than break bread with the tainted Shibu Soren. BJP saw in this an opportunity and supported Soren. This may have given them power by proxy for now, but in times to come one will see that not only will the JMM be rejected by the people but the one supporting Soren, the BJP will also see a decline in its fortunes in this crucial state.

Rahul Gandhi on a recent visit to Aligarh Muslim University exhorted the students to join the Congress Party. This is a university where most of the students come from the Muslim community. Rahul while agreeing that Muslims need to be encouraged to be a part of the mainstream did not fail to point out that the Muslim’s should not keep on talking about the welfare (or the lack of it) only of their community, but their concern should transcend religious boundaries and they should talk about the welfare of the Indian society as a whole. This was such a departure from what the Congress and other secular parties have been saying and doing till now that the audience was left dumbstruck. Again, the young man did not hesitate to say what he thought was right. Such conviction among politicians is rare, or if I might say, something new. Such is the impact of this ‘different kind of politics’ that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul have been dishing out that people from within the party and outside are left guessing as to what will come next from the High Command (as the top leadership – read the Nehru-Gandhi family is called).

I am still not sure whether the Women’s Reservation Bill will be passed by both the Houses in the parliament. I will not be surprised if there is a mutiny within the Congress and the BJP on the issue. What I am sure of is that Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul will leave no stone unturned to make sure this critical initiative is accepted as law by the lawmakers of this country. It is a matter of conviction for them, and one that could help India grow exponentially in the future.

Addendum: After some tumultuous scenes where the marshals had to physically evict some of the members of the Rajya Sabha, the Women’s Reservation Bill was discussed and passed with unanimous majority. This was a landmark in the sense that apart from the Congress led UPA, the BJP and its allies also came forward and supported the bill as did the Left. That the Left had taken keen interest in getting this bill passed peeved Mamta Banerjee and her party abstained from voting. A beaming Sonia Gandhi gave interviews to a host of TV channels, something she rarely does. She also said that her late husband Rajiv Gandhi had this dream of giving reservation to women in Parliament and therefore this was important to her. The ladies did not forget to thank the men who had voted in favour of the bill. Women across India were found celebrating this victory of sorts.

This bill has caught the imagination of the people of the country. Getting it passed in the Rajya Sabha was the first step. The more crucial test will be to get it passed in the Lok Sabha or the lower house. If this bill is introduced in the Lok Sabha in right earnest, there should be no problem in getting this through and my hunch is that the UPA will not delay the introduction of this historic bill.

The conviction of Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party (if one were to believe that this was a party effort) can be gauged from the fact that two allies of the UPA, the SP and the RJD have formally withdrawn their support to the government. This has reduced the majority of the UPA to a much thinner margin. The Gandhi’s are doing this out of conviction, and kudos to them for showing such resolve.  Their politics is beyond partisan rhetoric and on this one the opposition led by the BJP also deserves to be congratulated. This should bring about a fundamental change in the polity of the nation.

There were some voices demanding a reservation for the Muslims, the OBC’s and Scheduled Castes within the 33 percent reservation for women. Sonia Gandhi observed that no one was stopping the political parties to ensure that women from the weaker sections of the society are given precedence in ticket distribution. This should come from within, she observed. It will be interesting to see as to how this pans out.

Update 11.03.2010: There is a resentment brewing in various parties, including the largest opposition party, the BJP. The Women’s Reservation Bill may have been passed in the Rajya Sabha but its passage in the Lok Sabha may not be easy at all. There are some women who feel that such reservation will bring down the highest law making body of the land a few notches. One of them remarked that the parliament is not a ‘dharmashala’! Others say that those women who are elected must then be given some kind of an orientation program to help them conduct their duties well in the house. The Congress Party has said that they are in no hurry to push this bill through and it may well be another couple of years before it may be ready for implementation. Be as it may, this contentious bill will be in news for some time to come.

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