For 14 long years, the Women’s Reservation Bill has been one of the most controversial and bitterly contested legislations. That emotions about the Bill run high was seen in the unseemly fracas in the Rajya Sabha where it was introduced on Monday. But after all that kerfuffle, on Tuesday, chastened members returned to vote the historic Bill through. Now, the devil will lie in the many details. The old argument that it amounts to nothing more than tokenism will surface. In a country that ranks 114th among 134 in gender disparities, there was a need to create a level-playing field. But the big challenge now is to take the move forward and ensure that the benefits it was meant to bring about become a reality.
It has been seen from the panchayati raj reservation experiment that women leaders tend to pay more attention to issues of healthcare, education and other social development issues than their male counterparts. Many expect that this central reservation will bring about more focus on such sectors. However, the passage of the Bill should not mean that it will be left solely to the women who come into Parliament to ensure that social issues are taken up. Good governance is not gender-specific and ameliorative measures should be considered a work in progress. Perhaps this Bill would not have been necessary in the first place had political parties done more to encourage women within their rank and file. In ticket distribution, women lag far behind men. This despite the fact that five of India’s major parties are led by women.
At present, there is only about 10 per cent of women in Parliament — 59 elected women MPs in a Lok Sabha of 543 members. We would like to sound a note of caution about expectations that the Bill will automatically ensure the empowerment of women. We have seen that in states with women chief ministers, the status of women has not improved dramatically. This has been the story of South Asia that has produced more women prime ministers and presidents than any other region in the world. However, the passage of the Bill is a huge rhetorical push for the concept of empowerment. It will, hopefully, create a groundswell of aspiration among women to opt for politics as a career. But the Bill should be seen as a catalyst to let more women get a foothold in politics and not considered a right in perpetuity. Until now, those in favour of reservations have argued that India’s women should get their rightful political due. This will be vindicated if women coming into politics raise the bar of both governance and political discourse. Otherwise the tokenism charge will stick.