A post-dated Bill of rights ahead of polls
Nari shakti sloganeering across the political spectrum over the women’s quota is hollow posturing, and a cynical attempt to woo the woman voter
Competitive credit-taking is part of the cut and thrust of politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) boasts that passage of the long-pending “historic” 33% women’s reservation Bill in Parliament is because “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (if Modi is there, it is possible). Sonia Gandhi asserts that “Bill hamara hai” (the bill is ours) and harks back to Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution. While the two chief protagonists slug it out, the real reason why the women’s reservation Bill is finally becoming law is because the woman voter has come of age: The “mahila” vote bank is arguably the most prized across parties.
Armed with a full majority in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government had nine years to push ahead with women’s reservation. Yet, it chose to prioritise its core ideological issues, be it Ram Mandir or Article 370. Now, with just months to go before the general election, the Prime Minister (PM) is keen to be seen as a flag-bearer of “nari shakti” (woman power). So, what if the Modi government is conspicuously silent on grave sexual harassment charges made by India’s Olympic medal-winning wrestlers against BJP’s Uttar Pradesh (UP) strongman and Member of Parliament (MP), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The aim is to seize the narrative and encash the women’s vote bank ahead of the crucial 2024 polls.
The Congress was in power for a decade at the Centre as part of a coalition government. In 2010, the Congress-led government passed the women’s reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha but failed to pilot it through the Lok Sabha where intransigent allies, mainly Hindi heartland parties, refused to budge on their demand for a separate OBC quota for women. Now, a downsized Congress is desperate enough to reverse its stand and support an OBC quota too.
Take also K Kavitha, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader and daughter of Telangana chief minister (CM) K Chandrashekhar Rao, who has been agitating for women’s reservation. The BRS has released its first list of 115 candidates for the winter Telangana elections, but only seven of them are women. If Kavitha and the BRS were committed to women’s reservation, why didn’t they ensure more party tickets for women?
In fact, except for the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Trinamool Congress (TMC), no other party has walked the talk on greater women’s representation. The BJD gave a third of Odisha’s 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 to women while the TMC fielded 17 women in West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and gave at least 50 women tickets in the 2021 state polls for the 294-member assembly. That Mamata Banerjee is India’s only woman CM perhaps made it easier for the TMC to break the glass ceiling for women.
Contrast this with the BJP, which in the PM’s home state of Gujarat, fielded just 18 women in 182 constituencies in state elections last year. While Congress might have coined the “Ladki hoon, Lad sakti hoon” (I am a woman, I can fight) around Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s leadership by reserving 40% tickets for women in UP’s elections last year, the party gave just 11 women tickets in the 224-member Karnataka assembly this year, one less than the BJP. Clearly, caste and winnability took precedence over gender when the stakes were higher.
Which is why the nari shakti sloganeering across the political spectrum is hollow posturing, a cynical attempt to exploit the woman voter for instant electoral benefit. The significant rise in women voter percentage — from 46% in 1952 to a record 67% in 2019 — is perhaps the most striking demographic shift in Indian electoral politics. A more visible woman with an independent voter identity has forced political parties to re-formulate their election strategies. From toilets to bank accounts to gas cylinders to free bus rides to cash handouts, women are prime labhartis or beneficiaries of government welfare programmes, both at the Centre and in the states.
Ironically, while the woman voter is being wooed more aggressively than ever before, recent data suggests that women’s participation in the labour force is declining. According to a 2023 International Labour Organisation report, the employability gender gap in India is over 50% with only 19.2% women in the labour force compared to 70.1% men. Cash hand-outs to women by ruling parties cannot be a substitute for creating genuine gender equality in society.
So, will the carrot of women’s reservations transform a patriarchal political milieu? Not yet. By linking implementation of the new law to the Census and delimitation exercises, the government has only deferred resolving the pulls and pressures of reservation politics to 2029 and beyond. Perhaps the government fears a backlash from many male MPs who, for all their public statements of support, remain hostile to the idea of women’s reservation. This anxiety over reservations in local bodies and panchayats has led to the phenomenon of the sarpanch pati, where male relatives (often husbands) of elected women run the office in place of them.
Which is why the real political challenge lies ahead: The present legislation is drafted like a post-dated cheque which could eventually bounce if timelines are further postponed but which the BJP hopes to encash electorally right away by creating a buzz around the issue. If the BJP or Opposition parties are serious about women’s reservation, why don’t they give at least 33% tickets to women in the forthcoming state and general elections? That will be a true test of their intent beyond just grabbing headlines.
Post-script: Amongst the list of stalwart women leaders who spearheaded the women’s reservation movement, a standout name is the late Geeta Mukherjee, a seven-time Communist Party of India MP. As a tireless crusader for women’s rights, Mukherjee chaired the Joint Select Committee of Parliament on women’s reservation. It is the legacy of doughty Left-wing activists like her which is sought to be appropriated, ironically by a Right-wing government.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal