It took a high level of strategizing. Women stood around the man given the task. They literally "protected" him. And in the end they and he won. He managed to "table" a piece of paper that was in danger of being snatched from his hands and mutilated by determined men.
One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle enacted in the Rajya Sabha on May 6 when the struggle to get the Women's Reservation Bill tabled in Parliament ended. Union Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj was successful in tabling the Bill before waiting members of the Samajwadi Party could physically snatch it from him. By tabling the Bill in the Upper House of Parliament, the government has ensured that it will not lapse and could still come up for a debate and a vote at some future date. How far away that eventual day is and whether it will ever dawn is still a moot point.
The tortuous 12-year journey of the Women's Reservation Bill or the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill 2008, seeking to reserve one third of the seats in Parliament and legislative assemblies for women, has been extraordinary in more ways than one. The idea was born following a similar reservation made at the local government level. The 73rd and 74th amendments - that reserve one third of the seats in 'panchayats' (village councils) and 'nagar palikas' (municipal corporations) - went through virtually without debate. Yet, when the idea of replicating this at the state and national level was suggested, all hell broke loose.
Most observers would be puzzled at the obduracy of the opposition and their unwillingness even to discuss the Bill. What are male MPs afraid of? Loss of power or the advent of sharing it with women? Or that women, perhaps with a different style of governance, will highlight their deficiencies?
Justice Rajindar Sachar had written presciently in the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Bulletin in 2003: "To expect one third of the male members to accept political hara-kiri is unrealistic. They are no Gandhians. They will not give up their privileges so easily".
Yet, not all men are opposing the Bill. Most political parties have supported it. So why are some parties, most specifically the Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh so set against the Bill? They claim that in its present form, only "elite" women with political connections will get elected. For men who see nothing wrong in promoting their own sons and wives to office to argue that the Bill will only help those women who have political connections is truly laughable. Does anyone in politics today not use connections? Indeed, if one surveys the existing members of Parliament, it would be enlightening to see how many have "inherited" their seats even if they have had to face the electorate to win them.
The real debate must centre on the merits and demerits of reserving seats for women in legislatures. The reality is that despite more women being visible in politics, and the ascendance of women in many other professions in India, only 8.1 per cent - 44 out of 543 - of the seats in the present Lok Sabha are occupied by women. In the Rajya Sabha the numbers are only slightly better - 26 out of 242 or 10.7 per cent. Such a discrepancy is untenable at a time when everyone swears by "women's empowerment". There can be no real "empowerment" if there is no access to power. That much is clear.
Is reservation of seats the only way to ensure that women get to play a bigger role in decision-making? It may not be perfect, but experience in many countries like South Africa, for instance, has shown that affirmative action of this kind does make a difference. It gives many more women an opportunity to enter legislatures that would otherwise be impossible given existing gender hierarchies. In India, reservation at the local government level has already demonstrated the benefits.
Will the advent of more women in legislatures alter the quality of governance? It might or it might not. But it will not make it worse than it already is. And at least it will create a more diverse and more representative body that decides how the country, or the different states, will be governed.
In fact, no one opposes the idea that more women should have access to political power. The sticking point seems to be how this should be done. Should the Bill reserve one third of the present strength, one third of an increased number in parliament, or a system of "twinning" whereby two seats are twinned, each having to field a man and a woman? And should there be quotas within quotas?
All these can and should be debated. But only if Members of Parliament permit the Bill to be placed in the House. The fact that even this was prevented until recently suggests that those opposing it are not open to reason.
The trajectory that the Women's Reservation Bill has taken has not done our democracy proud. What kind of parliamentary democracy is this where there is no room for reasoned debate on an issue that touches on the interests of half the population? Are those opposing the Bill really concerned about women "disempowered" by their caste or are they worried about being disempowered themselves? No matter how reasonable you try to be, there appears to be no justification for the antics of Amar, Mulayam, Lalu and company.