Are women’s quotas in Parliament necessary, or can we learn something from the experience of the private sector, where competition for talent has broken the glass ceiling?
A case in point—all the major public banks have male bosses, but ICICI and HSBC (two of India’s biggest private banks) have female bosses. Now this might just be a coincidence, but studies have confirmed that competitive pressures such as trade and deregulation (Sandra Black, UCLA) reduce discrimination against women in the labour market. Not surprising, since public companies are coddled by the government while the private ones have to compete in a globalized market—and so must choose the best talent without prejudice, be it men or women.
Which prompts the question: Can the entry of women (and not just the wives or daughters of existing politicians) in politics be similarly eased by breaking the oligopoly of a few dynasties and cliques?
Let us consider a hypothetical Meera Maverick—brilliant, patriotic and honest. She decides to contest the Lok Sabha election. But she finds that the Election Commission (EC) does not allow her to spend in excess of Rs25 lakh for campaigning—that is, slightly more than Re1 worth of outreach per constituent—whereas her opponents are either movie stars or established politicians with existing name recognition.
Now, she could lie to the EC but that would defeat the whole idealistic purpose of her joining politics. She could try to get a mainstream party ticket instead: The same spending limit would still apply to her, but the party would be allowed to spend more money on her behalf. Yet, that would entail dogmatically following the party’s agenda—again a non-starter. But even if she could leverage the party name and win by staying within her spending limit, she would not be able to vote according to her conscience in Parliament, because of existing anti-defection laws.
Obviously, what is true for Meera Maverick is also true for Captain Conscience: Honest people of both genders are discriminated against in the existing system. They are defeated by campaign finance and anti-defection restrictions that favour those candidates who can, and are willing to, use mafias for muscle power and middlemen for illicit cash. And such candidates, notable exceptions apart, are often not women.
Quotas at the lowest political tier can be useful to get underprivileged minorities trained in grassroots democracy. Moreover, since multiple panchayat seats are up for grabs in the same village, a popular citizen from a non-reserved background can still get elected, although it will be more difficult for him.
But identity quotas and sub-quotas in the legislatures are not only anti-liberal, they are counter-productive too, because they favour friends and relatives of existing politicians. We need to prevent the political elite from forming an exclusive guild.
Those who correctly point out that quotas will simply end up favouring the female relatives of male politicians often propose an alternative that one-third of party tickets be reserved for women. Yet, this idea is in complete opposition to the promotion of intra-party democracy and reduction of political entry barriers. If the party “high command” continues to decide the distribution of tickets, individual legislators will remain powerless and gender diversity will just amount to tokenism. We need real diversity to bring in real new perspectives on important issues.
They used to say that women were supposed to become typists, not managers, assistants, not bosses. But liberalizing the economy changed all that. Similarly, liberalizing our politics will allow many Meera Mavericks in.
Harsh Gupta writes for Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org