Congress leader Meira Kumar made history on Wednesday when she became the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha.
Kumar, a Dalit, is a five-time Lok Sabha MP and the daughter of freedom fighter and legendary Congress leader Babu Jagjivan Ram. She was an Indian Foreign Service officer before joining politics and has served in Indian missions in Spain, Britain and Mauritius.
Political parties across the spectrum in the Lok Sabha supported Kumar’s election as Speaker. "You have distinguished yourself in more than one way. This experience will stand you in good stead on issues that come before the august house," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"In many ways it is a historic event as it is for the first time that a Congress woman member of House has been unanimously elected as Speaker," said Singh.
BJP leader L K Advani congratulated Kumar and said: “I feel you will be able to serve the people better in this position than as a minister."
Should being a woman and a Dalit be the criteria for occupying high office? CNN-IBN’s Bhupendra Chaubey asked this to Congress MP and spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad, and Suhel Seth, social commentator and managing partner at Counselage.
Seth believed a leader’s test is how inspirational he is. “Are they (leaders) inspirational, iconic, intelligent and would they earn the respect of the people. It is not about a woman or Dalit--it is about are these people fit to hold such high office or are we in the process by appeasing to caste and family destroying the inspirational attributes of high offices.”
Meira Kumar is a Dalit but she is also a former IFS minister, a former minister and the daughter of a legendary politician. She cannot claim to be oppressed but neither can the symbolism of her appointment be disregarded, said Kishwar.
Kishwar likened Kumar’s election to Mohammad Azharuddin becoming the captain of the Indian cricket team. “That created a surge of enthusiasm and hope among Muslim youth, because they felt they had a stake in this country and they could reach anywhere. These symbols do matter.”
Symbolism maybe an acceptable political tool but Congress has “insulted” Dalits by making Kumar the Speaker, said Prasad. “Only two politicians in this country reject Dr B R Amebdkar openly: one is in the BJP and the other is Meira Kumar. Dalits have only icon--that is Dr Amedkar,” he said. “She is not going to inspire anybody.”
Congress spokesperson Natarajan accepted that Kumar had the advantage of being born into a political family but insisted that didn’t dilute her own merit and experience.
“Getting five times elected to Parliament after the death of her father long ago is not a fluke. I don’t think you can dismiss Meira Kumar as a beti (daughter of a politician),” she said.
“She is a five-time Lok Sabha MP. She never said I am oppressed, I am a Dalit and so please elect me,” said Natarajan.
Agreed, said Seth. Meira Kumar is a woman on her own right but the irony is that the House she will lead has not passed the Women’s Reservation Bill. Her election is neither going to improve the lot of women or Dalits, he said.
Merit should be only criteria for high offices. “Is the person best within the gender and is the person inspirational? If the Congress believes Pratibha Patil and Meira Kumar are the best then it is fine,” said Seth.
Natarajan’s reply was that it was for the Congress to decide who are the best candidates and it was for Indians to judge those candidates. “On a day Meira Kumar is elected you cannot say she is the best. You have not even given her a day’s chance.”
Kishwar welcomed Kumar’s election but objected to the Prime Minister lauding her for being a woman and a Dalit. “I found it very demeaning that the Prime Minister’s list of qualifications said nothing about her as a person or parliamentarian but only her pedigree.”
Prasad supported Kishwar’s objection. “Why should not the Prime Minister tell something good about Meira Kumar? Why just that she is Dalit?” he asked.
The Congress “vote of confidence” in Kumar’s competence was placing her in the Speaker’s chair. “We don’t need to be saying wonderful things about her,” said Natarajan. It was now for the people to judge if the Congress made the right selection.
SMS poll on: should being a woman and a Dalit be the criteria for occupying high office?
No: 85 percent, Yes: 15 percent.