We have no time to lose on women’s quota Bill
Tokenism prevails in the struggle for widening the enfranchisement of women in India. Political parties nominate female candidates (some elected and then awarded positions of responsibilities) but at a broader level political power continues to be a male fiefdom.opinion Updated: Oct 12, 2017 12:28 IST
It is often assumed that India has gender equality in political representation. The Constitution offered an illusion of a nation with such equality, with rights guaranteed and political power distributed proportionally. It is not so: The 1st Lok Sabha (1952–57) saw over 43 women contesting and 14 being elected (out of 489 seats). Similarly, 82 of 216 women contestants for 3,000 assembly seats were elected in the 1950s. According to the United Nations, India now ranks 149th in representation of women in legislatures with just 11% of its parliamentary representatives being women. Bangladesh and Pakistan have double that ratio. The seeming inability of women to win in legislative elections remains a significant social constraint.
Tokenism prevails in the struggle for widening the enfranchisement of women in India. Political parties nominate female candidates (some elected and then awarded positions of responsibilities) but at a broader level political power continues to be a male fiefdom. Women remain mostly absent from internal party hierarchy, while women’s units associated with political parties have atrophied and are utilised for social events and campaigning. Bills for enforcing reservation for women have failed to be carried through in Parliament.
India’s women continue to have a struggle ahead of them. Unlike the West, women in our society are divided by caste, class, religion, language, region, dress, education and poverty. As such, women leaders have had halting progress in their endeavour to create a common consciousness about rights for women. We still await strong, liberal, female leaders, who can seek to address such stark inequalities and convert women into a political force. Until then, gender inequality is likely to continue, with women continuing to raise their voices in conversation with a deaf polity.
Reservation for women could offer a way out. It’s not a new idea: Sarojini Naidu led the All India Women’s deputation to Edwin Samuel Montague, former secretary of state for India, with a memorandum seeking that “when the universal franchise was extended to the people of India, women would be recognised as people”. They were disappointed quickly – Montague’s reforms for India (soon converted into the 1919 Act) continued to exclude women from the vote. Motilal Nehru condemned the government for its decision against women’s suffrage and hoped that Indian men would soon rise to “hasten the day of their enfranchisement”.
By 1927, the Madras State Provincial Legislature opened its membership to women. Between 1928 and 1937, Indian women sought to liberalise the terms of enfranchisement, while encouraging greater female representation in the legislature. The Lothian Committee (1932) sought to treat women in a manner similar to minorities and depressed classes, with a recommendation of 2-5% reservation of seats in provincial legislatures for 10 years. The draft National Perspective Plan recommended reservation of 30% of the seats at the zila parishad and panchayat level, along with local municipal bodies. A national conference on panchayati raj and women in 1990 saw the then prime minister promise an initial 30% reservation in Lok Sabha with a subsequent increase to 50% within two years.
The Women’s Reservation Bill has a bipartisan history: It was introduced by the United Front government in 1996, and then by the Vajpayee and UPA governments. A Bill like this would be a capstone to decades of struggle by India’s women for equality. This can be explored further by considering reservation within political party posts.
Even more important remains the quality of the candidate. A critique of the idea of reservation for women is that it would block deserving candidates while allowing feudalistic male leaders to continue to rule by proxy. The trend of a ‘sarpanch pati’, the practice of husbands of women sarpanches, has entered the political lexicon across rural India.
We need female leaders who are representatives of their community, who represent the struggle for enfranchisement of women, and who are willing to continue fighting for its rights. It is time to listen to their voices and empower them.
Varun Gandhi is BJP national general secretary and a Lok Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal