The parties that were bitterly opposing the bill are not in a position to obstruct it any more due to lack of numbers in both Houses.
As the Narendra Modi government is all set to celebrate its three years in power by organising “Modifests” all over India, this is perhaps the right time to question Mr Modi’s conspicuous silence on one of his key pre-poll promises — to enact the women’s reservation bill, ensuring 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state Assemblies. Though reiterated through the President’s address to both Houses in the first session of this Lok Sabha in 2014, no step has been taken by the government in the last three years, no major discussion initiated by the ruling party in Parliament towards fulfilling this promise. On the contrary, the statement of senior BJP minister M. Venkaiah Naidu that the government will pass the bill only when it gets a majority in the Rajya Sabha, which may never happen and if at all happen only in 2020, clearly indicates this was probably another “jumla” of the BJP; and the government has no intention of introducing the bill.
The Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced in September 1996 in the Lok Sabha by the United Front government headed by H.D. Deve Gowda. Since then, the bill had its turbulent journey in various avatars under different governments. In 1998, the NDA government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee introduced it in the Lok Sabha. It lapsed, and was again reintroduced in 1999, 2002 and 2003. In 2008, the UPA government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh introduced it in the Rajya Sabha as the 108th Constitution Amendment Bill. The bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010.
The bill generates heated debates, with both the proponents and opponents arguing the case passionately. Even parliamentarians are no exception. Each time the bill was introduced in Parliament, some of the bill’s opponents indulged in unruly behaviour and used unparliamentary language. In 1998, after M. Thambidurai, law minister in the Vajpayee government, introduced the bill, one RJD MP snatched it from the Speaker and tore it into pieces. During a debate in Parliament on the bill, JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav’s infamous statement about “par-kati mahilayen” — questioning how short-haired women could represent women from the rural areas — drew much flak. While introducing the bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2008, UPA law minister Hansraj Bhardwaj had to be flanked by women MPs from the ruling party to prevent attempts by its opponents to snatch the bill. Ms Renuka Chaudhury, then minister for women and child development, had to physically push away one Samajwadi member who tried to snatch the bill from the law minister. It hit a new low when some members opposing the bill tried to prevent the tabling of the bill by attempting to attack vice-president Hamid Ansari, the Rajya Sabha chairman.
The representation of women in the highest legislative body of the nation is just 11.4 per cent, abysmally low compared to the global average of 22.80 per cent. In terms of women’s representation in Parliament, India’s position is at 103 out of 140 countries. The representation in state Assemblies is even lower, at an average of nine per cent. Even Pakistan fares better than us in this respect.
In the third tier of the government, namely panchayats and municipal bodies, 33 per cent reservation for women was brought about successfully by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, followed by many states going in for 50 per cent reservation for women.
A major concern for women’s reservation at the panchayat and municipal body level is that political parties tend to prefer picking female relatives of local male leaders as candidates for elections. The constituencies are changed by rotation. If a constituency becomes a reserved one, the wife, daughter or sister of a male leader is given a ticket to contest. They thus become mere proxy candidates. It might be true to some extent, but a blanket generalisation would be absolutely wrong. A study by the ministry of panchayati raj in 2008 shows increased levels of confidence and greater involvement in decision-making by a large number of elected women representatives at the grassroots level. The benefits of reservation, which is an affirmative action of the State to address and remedy existing socio-economic and political discrimination, extends much beyond the direct beneficiaries. It positively impacts and empowers the groups and communities they represent by having a greater influence on the decision-making process, and in redistribution of resources in favour of these groups. Several studies indicate that whether in a corporate board or in political bodies, women bring in different perspectives on solving problems and crisis management.
India lives simultaneously in different centuries. This is nowhere as apparent as in the condition of women in India. While we have women achievers in every field, including a former woman Prime Minister and a former President, the vast majority of Indian women are victims of gender inequality embedded in the normative and structural codes of a patriarchal society. The principle of gender equality is enshrined in our Constitution, but the reality is different. This is reflected in the distribution of power within society and community, in unequal access to resources and life opportunities. The purpose of reservation is to ensure social justice and empower the marginalised. The current scenario provides a golden opportunity to pass the women’s reservation bill. Even if there is a doubt about the bill passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 having lapsed, the government can very well introduce and pass it afresh in the Lok Sabha, where it has a two-thirds majority. The parties that were bitterly opposing the bill are not in a position to obstruct it any more due to lack of numbers in both Houses. Instead of spending crores of taxpayer funds in celebrating the supposed achievements of the government in the past three years, if the Modi government passes the women’s reservation bill, the nation would have a genuine cause to celebrate.