OURS is a country which allegedly respects womanhood, if not fully, in practice, at least theoretically. Our national anthem starts with proclaiming Vande Mataram: “I bow to thee Mother”. There is an ancient saying: Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, Mandodari thatha, Pancha Kanya smarey nityam mahapathaka nashanam. One cannot imagine Mulayam Singh Yadav and that joker Lalu Prasad remembering the pancha kanyas (five women) to have their maha pathaka (great sins) forgiven, considering their stand on the Women’s Reservations Bill. That a man who placed his own wife in the state’s Chief Minister’s chair while his sins were under investigation should oppose the Bill tells us of the hypocrisy that is prevalent among our male chauvinist ‘leaders’.
That the Bill for politically apparent reasons will be held in limbo till 2014 again tells us of the prevalent culture in this ancient land. That it was passed in the Rajya Sabha with some forty odd abstentions tells its own story. But what shall we say of the behaviour of our elected MPs whose unruly and, to put it mildly, boisterous attack on the dignity of the Rajya Sabha chairperson puts us all to shame? What sort of characters have we elected to our Parliament? Facts speak for themselves. According to figures compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms, the Congress gave tickets to 24 candidates with a dubious past. The BJP, one understands, was not way behind with its own 23 such candidates. The BSP reportedly has 17 MPs with anti-social antecedents and the Samajwadi Party making its own contribution with ten candidates.
What is frightening is that between 2004 and 2009 General Elections there was a 17.2 per cent increase of MPs with criminal records and, if media reports are to be believed “an even scarier 30.9 per cent rise has been noticed of these ‘honourable’ representatives of the people who have been charged with ‘serious” crimes such as murder! Anything in this country, apparently, goes. What sort of responsibility, one wonders, does the Election Comission exercise. Money is what matters. In one State Government, two brothers are members of the State Cabinet, something unheard of in the past. That is only one aspect of the degeneration that one has come to witness in the exercise of democracy in our country. Take the attendance at Lok Sabha meetings as another example of fall in standards. Even when the Finance Minister presents his budget, some MPs do not seem to think that the situation is worthy of their presence. One can well understand how little attention is given to occasions far less important.
In November 2009, as many as 28 MPs were absent on the day their questions were listed to come up. According, again, to media reports, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar “read out name after name to find the MPs absent”. They should have been sharply pulled up and reprimanded, for their careless behaviour. But who is to bell these wild cats? In July 2009 there was an occasion when not even 10 per cent of the 552 Members of Lok Sabha were present. The House had to be adjourned. Time spent on discussing the budget has come down from 123 hours in the 1950s to an average of 34 hours in the past decade. It is unbelievable, but true.
In the immediate post-Independence years, MPs were a committed people, proud of having been elected, anxious to show that they deserved to be elected. They were ever anxious to make their special contributions. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India hardly missed a single sitting. He was almost religiously in attendance, willing to face any criticism with humour if not equanimity. Consider the situation today: The number of parliamentary sittings has come down from an average of 140 a year in the early Lok Sabhas to 102 in 1988 and a sickening 74 sittings in 2004. That shows the nature of responsibility that our MPs show to those who elected them.
The tragedy is that the electorate seldom gives any thought to these figures. It is not that the MPs are poorly paid. Yes, their monthly remuneration is meagre, just about Rs. 12,000 p.m. But the kind of perks they enjoy can make one’s mouth water. Apart from a monthly constituency allowance of Rs 10,000, they can travel anywhere in India, with a spouse or a companion, 40 times by air, free of cost every year, they are entitled to three phone lines and 170,000 free local calls every year, their medical expenses are met and there are a whole lot of other perks. No one can say that they are underpaid and overworked.
But when one comes to think of it, hardly anyone can hold a candle to such distinguished Indian ladies like Suchar Chanda Kochchar, 49, CEO and MD of ICICI Bank, Nirupama Rao, Foreign Secretary, Sudha Murthy of Infosys Foundartion, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, C and MD of Biocon Ltd, Kiran Bedi Anu Aga, ex-chairman of Thermax Ltd, to name only a few Indian women who have made their mark in various fields. And one does not have to remind today’s generation of such leaders of the past like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Sarojini Naidu, Lady Rama Rau, Durgabai Deshmukh and Amrit Kaur.
In suggesting that some 33 per cent of seats to Parliament must be reserved for women, no party is doing a favour for the so-called weaker sex. If women form some 45 per cent of the total population, one would imagine that they have, percentage-wise, the same percentage rights to any organisation. As one media noted, “the 33 per cent reservation that the Bill proposes for women is not a concession for women but an acceptance of their rightful role in national life”. but the point must be made that should India stand out in passing the Women’s Reservation Bill now or at any further time, it will be a landmark in the history of democracy and resound to our credit.
The Lalu Prasads and Mulayam Singh Yadavs are freaks in a dying world of no consequence. India has to move ahead, and to say that the Bill was prematurely introduced in Parliament, is to duck the issue. Indeed it should have been passed without even the slightest debate, almost routinely. That a handful of MPs snatched a copy of the Bill from the table of the Speaker, tore it and threw the pieces of paper in the air merely mirrors their upbringing in a dacadent Society. They should be treated as men of no consequence. But apparently they have put the fear of political loss in the Congress. And the latter has succumbed to it. A pity. A great pity.