If the BJP and the Congress come together, they can pass any bill in Parliament. Then why is it that the women’s reservation bill, first introduced in 1996, is yet to see the light of the day?
India has failed the women’s test and the blame game is as thick as ever. During the UPA’s 10-year rule, the Opposition had often accused the Congress of developing cold feet to push the landmark bill that aims to reserve 33% seats in Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women. Now, the Opposition is pointing a finger at the BJP.
The bill came closest to reality when it was passed in Rajya Sabha in 2010. On March 9, 2010, the Upper House had to overcome protests from Rashtriya Janta Dal and Samajwadi Party and throw out an RJD MP to pass the bill. Hours after the passage of the bill, Congress president Sonia Gandhi gave interviews to select TV channels and expressed hope that the bill would also be passed in the Lok Sabha.
Since then, the biggest reform in India’s parliamentary practices has been lying in cold storage.
The latest announcement on the legislation came from information and broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu who said, “Once we (BJP) get a majority in Rajya Sabha, we will get the bill passed.”
The statement drew widespread criticism instantly. Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi dubbed it as a gimmick. “If the BJP was serious about the issue, they could have easily passed the Bill in the Lok Sabha first, where they enjoy a majority by themselves,” argued Chaturvedi.
There have been many proposals on how to roll out reservation for women. The draft bill said that by rotation, a seat will be reserved for women. In other words, a parliamentary seat will be reserved for one in three consecutive polls. Some parties had even proposed to add 181 Lok Sabha seats (one third of the existing strength of the Lower House) and earmark these seats for women.
“Personally, I think it is a very complex issue and very difficult to put into place, because different political parties want reservation within reservation and so on. Implementing reservation would require understanding between the government and the opposition,” says Sudha Pai, former JNU professor.
Parties like RJD, JD(U) and Samajwadi Party had earlier maintained that they are not principally opposed to the women’s reservation bill but the legislation must also allow a quota for women from underprivileged section. Backing this quota within quota demand, these parties had argued that there is no need for women from affluent section. “Did Sonia Gandhi or Indira Gandhi require reservation to come to Parliament?” JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav had once famously remarked.
The BJP had “committed” itself to the women’s reservation bill in its election manifesto in 2014 but has done little. The BJP’s ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) refrains from commenting on the issue, dubbing it as a purely political decision. Articulating the Sangh’s views on the issue, a functionary said, the organisation believes that women should be given a larger role in decision making and in development of the nation. As equals, they can contribute towards nation building.
The Congress, the largest Opposition party, has been a vocal supporter of women’s quota as it has been an unfulfilled dream of its late leader Rajiv Gandhi. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi maintained that “If you give women their rights, they can protect themselves.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too, time and again, has batted for women’s empowerment. After his party came to power in May 2014, the government’s vision for the women reservation bill was spelled out by President Pranab Mukherjee when he addressed the current Lok Sabha for the first time.
“My government recognises the important role our women play in the development of our society and growth of the nation. It is committed to providing 33% reservation to them in Parliament and state legislative assemblies,” Mukherjee said in his speech to the joint sitting of Parliament.
But beyond the President’s speech, the government hasn’t pushed the bill.
“The Bill was adopted by the Rajya Sabha in 2010. The distance between the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha is just a five minute walk. But the Bill has not moved for seven years. The Women’s Reservation Bill is a victim of patriarchal power to ensure the status quo of male entitlement,” said CPI(M)’s politburo member Brinda Karat.
She blames the government’s lack of political will for the delay in passing the women’s quota “This Government is a one-man band and the finger of accusation most definitely points to Mr. Modi.”
Before every Parliament session there are statements, closed door meetings and negotiations on many other bills. But the women’s reservation bill is not among these discussions.
The bill that was passed in the Rajya Sabha has also lapsed.