Making Parliament a more inclusive space
Women’s quota Bill was the highlight of the special Parliament session. But it also revealed that the Opposition has a limited role in setting the House agenda
While the special session of Parliament celebrated the shift of proceedings to the new building, the big-ticket event was the passage of the much-debated legislation mandating reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
There are many, including Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, who has talked about the new building marking a “new chapter” for Indian democracy. But, the new structure cannot mask the many infirmities of parliamentary democracy in India. Some of these have been around since the founding of the Republic whereas many have been accentuated since 2014. Indeed, the frailties were on display in the way the special session was called and conducted.
The government enjoys the prerogative of calling a session. However, keeping the agenda under wraps to fuel speculation and potentially generate a greater political impact was antithetical to democratic norms. While the Women’s Reservation Bill is a welcome step, the last-minute announcement of the legislation and rushed passage is symptomatic of the executive capture of Parliament and the institution being reduced to a rubber stamp.
Indeed, the control of the government in drawing up Parliament’s agenda is one of the persistent weaknesses of the institution. The existing rules and procedures have meant that Opposition parties have virtually no role in setting the agenda of Parliament, which is decided by the government, as well as voicing its demands.
The Business Advisory Committee, which is an Indian innovation and goes back to the first Lok Sabha, has the final say in determining the parliamentary agenda. Some scholars have argued that “control of the plenary timetable” is critical to the government’s agenda-setting in Parliament and this is very true in India.
The government usually has a majority in the Business Advisory Committee, which comprises 15 members, including the Speaker who chairs it. Though, in principle, agenda setting and allocation of time is meant to be “unanimous,” in practice, the government has significant control in determining parliamentary business aided usually by a pliant Speaker.
A former parliamentarian has gone so far as to say that Parliament had “practically no role” in “deciding when and for how long it will meet to conduct its own business”. One way to bring in the Opposition is to have Opposition days, as is the practice in the United Kingdom and Canada, where about 20 days are put aside every session for the Opposition to set the agenda. In India, the allotment every Friday during normal sessions for private members’ Bills has had little success.
The special session was also tailored in such a way as to also maximise the mileage for PM Modi in the run-up to the general elections. It has often been pointed out that the PM is a reluctant parliamentarian who only uses special occasions to address Parliament and by default, the nation.
This session once again validated this with the PM speaking on two successive days in the old Parliament building and then again in the Lower and Upper houses of the new building. While the content of the speeches differed somewhat with an obvious focus on India’s parliamentary journey, much of it was on the government’s achievements and very much in election campaign mode.
The unanimous passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill — or Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam to use the cumbersome official title — in the special session was historic. The implementation timetable though is a protracted one since the 33% quota for women will only come into effect after the Census results, which have been inexplicably delayed, are published and a delimitation exercise carried out. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had committed to passing the women’s reservation Bill in its 2014 and 2019 election manifestos, has also waited till the end of its second term to do so possibly with an eye on its impact on women voters in the next general election.
During the debate on the legislation, several Opposition parties pointed out these anomalies as well as the necessity for reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) within the women’s quota. However, the government ignored those demands and asserted that delimitation is necessary for identifying reserved seats for women and that the quota will be implemented only after 2029. The unanimity and decorum that marked the session were marred though by the communal comments made on the floor of the House by BJP Member of Parliament (MP) Ramesh Bidhuri against a Muslim member.
The quotas for women is decidedly a step in the right direction. The low representation of women in the Indian Parliament has been one of its glaring deficits. Though women’s representation has risen from 4.4% in the first Lok Sabha to a little over 14% in the current one, the share of women MPs in Parliament is still much lower than the current global average of 27% and the Asian average of 21%.
In fact, India currently ranks 141st among 185 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global rankings for women’s representation in parliaments with India’s neighbours, such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, ranking higher.
The low numbers have a lot to do with both the BJP and the Congress fielding few women candidates in elections. In the 2019 general election, the proportion of women candidates fielded by the two parties was 13 and 12% respectively.
The reluctance of political parties, with the exception of the Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal, to nominate women candidates is at a time when the gender gap in voting has narrowed considerably. Notably, the countries with the highest political representation of women are the ones where political parties have instituted internal quotas for women. Since this has not happened in India, the only way forward was to mandate reservation for women in the legislature.
Ronojoy Sen is with the National University of Singapore and author of House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy. The views expressed are personal