A bill to reserve 33% of seats in legislatures for women would be a bad idea at any time; it is a terrible idea when a popular leader like Modi, with tendencies towards authoritarianism, is Prime Minister.
A characteristic of the Parliamentary System is that it tends to weaken the power of parliaments over time. This is particularly true when the nation is led by a strong and charismatic leader who can run a presidential-style campaign. In the General Election, voters want to elect this leader as Prime Minister, but his name is not on the ballot. Instead, they have to vote for the leader’s candidates in their constituencies. This means that the candidates owe their careers to this charismatic leader, and they don’t have to be very capable leaders themselves.
What I have outlined above may be called the Lamp Post Theory of Parliamentary Democracies, after the popular saying that Nehru was so popular that even a lamp post standing for the Congress had a good chance of election to the Lok Sabha.
Now, India is such a large, heterogeneous and unpredictable country that lamp post phenomena have not lasted for long. Yes Nehru was very popular, but towards the end of his career he was faced with strong grassroots state leaders who were electing chief ministers he was not fully comfortable with. Indira Gandhi managed to gain dominance over her party and the country. This, she managed by stamping out local leadership from the INC. Eventually, she too lost popularity, and her party is paying the price for not cultivating strong local leadership.
After the recent General Election, much analysis has been wasted on whether there was a Modi wave. I believe that the answer is obvious. Modi was very popular, probably the most popular leader India has seen in the past three decades. But he could not have won the elections without skillful alliance-building. He was able to negotiate alliances with other parties like the TDP from a position of strength. His popularity attracted other popular local leaders, both within and outside the BJP, and they worked with him rather than at cross purposes.
So yes, although Modi is a strong leader and has been handed what is a decisive mandate by the standards of the past 30 years, he has not acquired the kind of dominance Gandhi did. The BJP still has a mind of its own, the RSS is a very autonomous body and local leaders are still important to win elections.
If I were Modi, how would I move to acquire that kind of dominance? Modi has already moved to gain control over the BJP. He has forced some leaders into retirement, he has denied tickets to potential thorns on his side. But he has had to make compromises. He couldn’t sideline Sushma Swaraj, for example.
That is where a Women’s Reservation Act will come in handy. The Act will reserve 33% of seats in all legislatures for women, and these seats will change every election.
If you are a popular local male leader, there is a 50% chance that your seat will get reserved for women in the next election. You are at the mercy of your party’s leadership to provide you with a seat elsewhere, a constituency where you may not be as popular. Right now, your popularity provides insurance against that happening. If the party leadership denies you a ticket, they risk losing that seat, either because you can stand as an independent and win, or because the opposing party can put up a strong candidate. But now, because the seat is reserved for women, the party leadership can be assured that all candidates will be newbies. As a result, the importance of the local leaders will reduce and the charisma of a strong leader will be what wins elections.
What about women leaders? Their lot will be worse, for two reasons. First, they will be shunted from constituency to constituency and will not be given time to build a local base. They will be perpetual newbies. This means that they will be even more dependent on the national leadership to win elections. Second, because they will end up always fighting other newbies, they will be unable to build up a profile – for example the fight Smriti Irani put up against Rahul Gandhi, which raised her profile significantly, will be a thing of the past.
All MPs will be at the mercy of the party leadership. And when the party leadership is controlled by a popular and charismatic leader like Modi, you can imagine the consequences.
For these reasons, the Women’s Reservation Bill is a bad idea. The Anti-Defection Act, passed 30 years ago, grievously injured parliamentary democracy in the country. This will kill it off completely. We will end up with presidential democracy without a legislature to check the powers of the chief executive. I am in favour of the presidential system, but this is not the way to achieve it.