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India's Congress party stirs up the political cauldron
By Ramesh Balan
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 11 - 03 - 2010

India has made a historic beginning aimed at radically changing its sociopolitical landscape, for better or worse.
The move Tuesday in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, saw the country's leading political streams – the ruling Congress, the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left – acting in rare concert to favor by an overwhelming 186-1 majority a consitutional amendment for 33 percent reservation for women in the federal parliament and the state assemblies.
The amendment is not a given at this point as the bill, after 14 years of fierce parliamentary debate, still has to clear the Lok Sabha (the lower house) and half the state assemblies.
But if all goes well, women, who constitute 50 per cent of the society, will get 181 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha and 1,370 of the 4,109 seats in the state assemblies over the next 15 years.
As of today, 63 years after India's independence, women's representation in the Lok Sabha is only 10.7 percent, a rate that, while being appallingly low, still says little about the far worse injustices being perpetrated against females.
For example, nearly 70% of pregnant women still have no access to medical facilities for childbirth; maternal mortality is 410 out of 1,00,000, among the highest in the world; five million female fetuses are reportedly aborted every year because of deeply ingrained bias in the country's dominant patriarchal society; violence against women – including dowry deaths and rape – is rampant; female literacy is 53% against 76% for males; and wages are unfair especially in the rural agricultural sector where most of India's women work not out of choice but in order to survive and try to raise a family.
Tuesday's rare show of unity by the otherwise perpetually bickering parties is commendable for recognizing the dire need to finally move towards correcting these wrongs, even in the face of imminent political and social upheavals as other deprived sections of the country's vast population – Muslims included – find new urgency to push for reserving, preserving or increasing their share in the country's political space.
But, for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, in particular, there's clearly trouble ahead that could cripple its moves to continue with its bold reforms and policies.
Already its chief ally, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, is sulking over Congress's restored partnership with the Left, her chief political rival in West Bengal, over passage of the bill.
The unruly scenes created in the Rajya Sabha by Samajwadi party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (U) members Monday and Tuesday to obstruct debate on the bill smack of probably worse to come. These parties, hitherto pro-Congress, want quotas within the women's quota for other backward communities (OBC), scheduled castes and tribes (SC/ST), and the country's most neglected minority community, the Muslims. Their demand is not wholly ill-founded.
Moreover, the perceived unity within the Congress, BJP and the Left over the women's bill, is fragile. Media reports tell of rumblings within these parties as male parliamentarians grapple with the prospect of being weeded out as the party makes way for women. Traditional political turfs will be threatened they fear, political fiefdoms will fall, the politician-police-criminal nexus might be eventually nixed.
For the UPA, the immediate repurcussions will surface when the Lok Sabha takes up the finance bill in the coming days, a vote that's as critical as a no-confidence motion aimed at bringing down the government.
Congress's key UPA partners Trinamool and the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) of Tamil Nadu are already against the budget's controversial proposal to hike the prices of petrol and diesel. Now, in the wake of the row over the women's reservation bill, UPA allies SP, RJD and BSP may team up with the opposition BJP to oppose the fuel price hikes.
If that happens, the government will be faced with a wafer-thin majority – 276 votes, only four more than the half-way mark of 272 needed to pass the finance bill.
It's puzzling why the Congress ever chose to push through the women's reservation bill and alienate its allies ahead of the critical vote on the budget. The only plausible explanation forthcoming from Congress spokespersons is that their leader Sonia Gandhi was determined to realize her late husband Rajiv Gandhi's dream of giving women their due in the running of the country. No doubt it's a noble objective, but it's also one that opens up a Pandora's box of myriad religion- and caste-based problems that must also be addressed with equal urgency in all fairness to the perennially downtrodden.
India's parliamentary democracy has done well so far by bringing about some measure of social inclusion through reservation. But there's still a long way to go and there are serious questions arising out of this course, especially as it keeps on diluting the scope of meritocracy as the driving force of government.
The problem is not about choosing between merit and social inclusion. It's about striking a balance between the two. If that's what Congress has set out to achieve in the long run by pushing through the women's reservation bill and stirring up the political cauldron, well, good luck. – SG
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