The display board in the Rajya Sabha read: Ayes 186, Noes 1. The Constitution (Hundred and eighth) Amendment Bill 2008, commonly known as the women’s reservation bill, was finally on its way, cleared by the House on Tuesday evening.
<b1>History had been made. “It’s a great step forward,” said an exultant Sonia Gandhi, who is largely credited with insisting on its passage despite opposition from some political parties and skeptics within her party.
“It’s a celebration of womanhood,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “We are rewriting gender history,” said Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
Sharad Joshi, an Independent MP from Maharashtra, cast the solitary negative vote. Other opponents of the bill had been either carried away by House marshals — all the seven suspended MPs of the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Lok Janshakti Party — or had walked out, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party MPs.
The Bill seeks to reserve a third of the seats of the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for 15 years on a rotational basis. It was first introduced in 1996, but took 14 years for another version of it to be put to vote.
Its passage — after 36 hours of high intensity politics in full glare of TV lights — leaves the ruling UPA precariously positioned in both Houses: two seats over the half-way mark in the Lok Sabha and a little short of a third in the Rajya Sabha.
And an angry ally, Mamata Banerjee. Her party MPs boycotted the voting. She was upset as she was not consulted on the voting and she didn’t like the fact that some MPs were physically evicted. She also wanted reservation for Muslims in the bill.
“I will be talking to her,” said Sonia. What about Lalu Prasad and Sharad Yadav (JD-U)? She said she hoped they would understand. The Congress believes it tried its best to keep the Yadavs on board, but they left them with no choice. Prime Minister Singh met them in the morning, but was unable to turn them around.
Banerjee too stuck to her guns. UPA leaders considered adjourning the House without passing the Bill. But Sonia was not about to give up now. She walked into a meeting of the Congress’s core group at 1.20 and left 25 minutes later — all smiles. The party had made up its mind.
It would not hesitate to have the unruly protestor physically removed from the house. It would not be scared by loss of numbers.
The Congress had earlier considered ramming the Bill through the House - without a discussion. But the opposition, which was supporting the Bill, insisted on one.
The House met at 2 pm, to be adjourned against until 3. In the hour in between Congress managers took on board the other parties. When the House reconvened, the seven suspended RJD, LJP and SP MPs refused to leave. They walked into the Well – the area just in front of the Chairman’s podium – and shouted slogans against the Bill and the government.
Soon they were carried away by the marshals. After a debate, the chairman put the Bill to vote. And the Bill was through.
It had been a nerve-wracking day and no one was backing down. The Congress saw in the Bill a chance to strengthen its claim on women votes, and the BJP was playing the same game.
For Lalu and Mulayam it was about getting back their Muslim votes. But the Congress was going for broke. “I was aware of the risks involved,” said Gandhi.