Kumar’s Election As Speaker- A Symbolic Move?

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI:  History was certainly created, opening a new chapter in India’s politics, when senior Congress leader Meira Kumar took charge last week (June 3) as the first woman Speaker of Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Indian Parliament. It is to be watched as to what degree does this actually contribute to development of Indian women and pushing through the much-delayed Women’s Reservation Bill. The controversial bill promotes 33 percent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies. Kumar was elected by consensus with leaders of several parties proposing and seconding her name for the august post. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was the first to propose Kumar’s name. Senior Congress leader, Pranab Mukherjee, who is also Leader of the House, seconded the motion. Leader of the opposition, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani was the next to propose Kumar’s name. Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj seconded his motion. Fourteen legislators moved motions proposing Kumar’s name, following which she was elected by a voice vote with the legislators declaring their support by thumping of desks.

Extending congratulations, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Madam Speaker, it’s my proud privilege to greet you respectfully on behalf of the government and the people of country for being elected to be the Speaker of this august house.” “It is in many ways a historic occasion as for the first time a women has been elected that too a women from the Dalit community. By electing you, we pay homage to the womanhood of our country,” Kumar was an “embodiment” of qualities, “wisdom, knowledge and experience,” possessed by her late father, former deputy prime minister Jagjivan Ram, Singh said. Kumar’s services as a distinguished diplomat, 25 years in Parliament and her role as a minister would stand her in good stead to execute her “onerous job” well, Singh said.
Welcoming Kumar’s election, Advani expressed confidence that her experience in public life would help her serve as Speaker in an efficient manner and 15th Lok Sabha would run smoothly.

Thanking the House for bestowing this honor on her, Kumar said that assumption of the Speaker’s office by a woman was a “historic” occasion. “I assure the House that I will pay full attention to all sections of the House. I also assure you that neither I will be biased against the Opposition nor I will give any opportunity for the Treasury benches to complain,” she said.

Displaying her concern on Lok Sabha having been witness to stormy scenes in the past, leading to its abrupt adjournments, Kumar said: “We should discuss and debate and if need be we should express differences but in a gentle manner without affecting the working of the House.” Expressing that Indians do not welcome such disruption of the proceedings of House, Kumar said: “Disrupting of the work of Parliament does not allow the review of the work of government, its omissions and commissions by Parliament and the principles of democracy demand that this should not happen.”

Observing that there were 58 women legislators in Lok Sabha, Kumar said: “This highlights the fact that the Indian woman cannot wait any longer to set herself free from the bondages of the society and seek equal share on the path of development.”

Among the few parties, which did not file nominations proposing Kumar’s name as the Speaker was Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). Explaining this, CPI-M leader Basudeb Acharia said that the government had “not approached” his party “properly” on this. Nevertheless, Acharia expressed hope that with a woman becoming the Speaker, the long-pending bill for women’s reservation would be pushed through the House.

During her address to the joint session of the Parliament, President Pratibha Patil said that the government will “initiate steps within the next hundred days” on several measures (June 4). These include, Patil said: “Early passage of Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament providing for one-third reservation to women in state legislatures and in Parliament.” Patil also created history by assuming office as the first woman President of the country on July 25, 2007. Her becoming the President has played no role in pushing Women Reservation Bill through the Parliament.

At present, 58 women members constitute less than eleven percent of the 543-member Lok Sabha. Though selection of Kumar as the first woman Speaker definitely constitutes a major development, it is as yet too early to view this move as an indicator of Congress’ plans to push forward the Women’s Reservation Bill. Rather, Kumar has been deliberately selected primarily because of her being a Dalit. Congress is hopeful of playing on this political card to attract Dalit votes to its party in the Hindi belt. The Congress apparently aims at creating a dent in the Dalit-support enjoyed there, particularly by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is headed by a Dalit leader Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and Samajwadi Party.

Besides, Kumar’s election as Speaker of Lok Sabha has had no impact in changing the attitude of politicians who have opposed the bill from the beginning. Sharad Yadav (Janata Dal-United) threatened to consume poison if the bill was passed in its present form (June 5). Clarifying his opposition, Yadav said that there should a “quota within the quota.” “I am not asking for a reservation of 33 percent (for women), it could even be 50 percent. But ground realities should not be overlooked. Weaker sections among women face more difficulty.”  Taking a strong stand against the bill, Samajwadi leader Mulayam Singh Yadav said that the bill should be passed only by a consensus. He warned of a people’s movement if the bill was pushed through the Parliament. Explaining that he was not against greater participation of women in politics, Yadav said that leaders like Advani (BJP), Lalu Prasad (Rashtriya Janata Dal) and others had achieved political success through “hard struggles” and not in a day. Describing the bill as a conspiracy, he said: “This bill is dangerous for leadership of Lok Sabha. It is a conspiracy. It would finish the leadership.” Amid this backdrop, it is to be watched whether the bill is amended to include quota for weaker sections, including Muslim women, and is passed by consensus; it is pushed through within less than 100 days in its present form; or it is allowed to only gather dust, which would suggest the relevance Kumar’s election as Speaker holds for the bill– whether it is symbolic or not!


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