25 years on, bill seeking 33% women in Parliament awaits nod
Over a decade ago, former Union minister Kumari Selja found herself at the side of late law minister HR Bhardwaj, who was set to introduce the “new and improved” Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2008. The Bill sought 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state legislative assemblies, and promised a quota for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes within the ambit of the umbrella legislation.
But before long, there was bedlam in the Upper House. Samajwadi Party members attempted to snatch and shred the Bill, before it could even be discussed, with Selja finding herself protecting both Bhardwaj and his Bill.
“Ambika Soni (former Congress Union minister) and I were on either side of Bhardwaj as those from the opposition and even some of our allies were up in arms against the Bill,” said Selja, the current Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee president. The women, including Renuka Chowdhury, Jayanti Natarajan and Alka Balram Kshatriya, formed a ring around Bhardwaj to ensure the passage of the Bill through Rajya Sabha. The Bill was inevitably sent to the standing committee for review after which it was reintroduced and passed by the Upper House in 2010. However, it soon lapsed with the 15th Lok Sabha.
This was the fourth time the Bill was introduced in Parliament and failed to go through. First introduced in 1996, the Bill has witnessed a tumultuous journey in Parliament. It has been opposed on many grounds, from perpetuating a “proxy culture’’ or a similar concept of “sarpanch pati” to stressing the lack of merit. Those backing the Bill hailed it as a means to empower women who continue to remain marginalised in the political discourse.
On Sunday, it will be 25 years since the first time the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced in Parliament.
According to PRS Legislative Research, a non-profit legislative watchdog, “There are 78 women MPs in Lok Sabha today. This is the highest number in the history of the House. The first LS only had 24 women members.”
But both experts and opposition parties argue that even as India envisions a new egalitarian society that envisages equal rights for men and women, the reservation Bill remains crucial as its need has not diminished, especially considering that the rise in the number of women parliamentarians is marginal.
Women’s reservation: The logic, the history
First introduced in 1996, the Bill aimed to achieve 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies. The idea for the Bill originated from a constitutional amendment in 1993 that stated that one third of sarpanch (or council leader) positions in the gram panchayat should be reserved for women.
The Bill was opposed on many counts, with critics arguing it would underline the lack of women’s merit as they would enter on the basis of reservation. It was then reintroduced in 1998, 1999 and 2008. “Opponents argue that it would perpetuate the unequal status of women since they would not be perceived to be competing on merit. They also contend that this policy diverts attention from the larger issues of electoral reform such as criminalisation of politics and inner party democracy,” PRS Legislative Research stated in a research paper.
India globally ranks 148th in a list of 193 countries vis-à-vis women’s representation in Parliament, according to the global data on national parliamentarians by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). This despite the fact that the country’s present number of women parliamentarians is at an all-time high of over 14%, which still falls way short of the international average of nearly 22%.
The head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research, Chakshu Roy, said studies indicate political reservation has increased redistribution of resources in favour of the groups that benefit from reservation. “So far, there have been four unsuccessful attempts to bring a women’s reservation Bill in Parliament. On the last two occasions, copies of the Bill were snatched and torn in the House,” he said.
“Reservation for women in panchayats has also shown that women elected under reservation invest more in the public goods closely linked to women’s concerns. On the other hand, a women member in the constituent assembly argued that reservation of constituencies for women will result in them not being considered for general seats, despite their competency.”
Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI-ML) leader Kavita Krishnan said there may be technicalities in the Bill that could be examined but the essence of it is the need of the hour. “This is not the time to look at technicalities,” she said, adding, “There already is a draft Bill, it should be put to vote.”
Selja concurred with the sentiment. “In our time, there was a will but not a majority. Today, the ruling party has a majority but does not have the will, the situation is different,” she said.
Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Sushmita Dev said reservation of seats for women alone will not result in empowerment of women. “It would also have to be accompanied with other political reforms,” she said.
Just follow our model: BJP
Shazia Ilmi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, said the need for women’s reservation was unnecessary if one “follows the ruling party model”. “The BJP rewards people on merit, irrespective of whether it is men or women,” she said. “Look at the number of women ministers in the Union cabinet and even the number of women parliamentarians. It is the highest number we have ever seen. Moreover, even in the national executive, BJP has a significant number of women.”
Opposition party leaders, however, feel the BJP has aligned itself to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology that excludes women. Dev, who recently joined the TMC from Congress, said there was no space for women in the Sangh. “BJP and RSS ideology is completely against women…They do tokenism, which is counter-productive to women empowerment,” she added.
Countering the argument of proxy representation, Dev said women being subjected to such scrutiny was unfair as men never were evaluated on similar grounds. “How is that we always talk about incompetent women, aren’t there incompetent men?” she asked.
“This is a double standard. There as many competent women as there are men. Nearly 14 lakh (1.4 million) women are part of the panchayati raj structure, are we trying to imply they are all incompetent?”
She also highlighted that West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee led by example when it comes to empowering women in positions of power. “Look at the number of women MPs, it is greater than the percentage share of any party,” Dev said.