On September 20, the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, 27 years after it was first tabled in the house.
Previous governments could not get the bill passed, as they lacked the requisite two-thirds majority in the House. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, despite having an overwhelming majority in Parliament over the past decade, decided to push for reserved seats for women in legislatures only now — months ahead of the 2024 general elections.
Titled the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (Salutation to Women Power Bill), the 128th constitutional amendment bill seeks to reserve 33 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha (which would amount to 181 of the total 543 seats) and in state legislative assemblies, including the Delhi Legislative Assembly, for women. It was passed with near unanimity, with 454 legislators voting for the bill and just two opposing it.
Since reservation of seats for disadvantaged sections such as the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) already exists, 33 percent of seats within these quotas will be set aside for SC and ST women.
The bill will now needs to be passed by the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, and then by 50 percent of the state assemblies.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off the proceedings in the country’s new Parliament building by tabling the long-awaited Women’s Reservation Bill 2023.
The introduction of the bill was shrouded in secrecy. The Modi government suddenly summoned parliamentarians to a weeklong Special Session of both houses.
Despite women comprising 49 percent of the Indian electorate, women’s representation in Parliament is dismal. Currently, the number of women in the Lok Sabha is just 78 or 15 percent of the number of seats in the house.
While the BJP is confident of reaping electoral dividends in the upcoming election — India is scheduled to vote in its 18th general election in April-May 2024 — by passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, women will not benefit from the increase in seats in these polls or any time soon.
As per the bill, a reserved quota for women can only be enacted after a decadal census takes place, followed by a new delimitation exercise to redraw electoral constituencies.
As opposition leaders repeatedly pointed out, the Women’s Reservation Bill appears to be more of an election “jumla“(gimmick) than a serious attempt at increasing women’s participation in the legislature.
Meanwhile, a battle for credit for the bill’s passage has broken out. “It’s ours,” former Congress President Sonia Gandhi said, underscoring her party’s contribution to the legislation. It may be recalled that the Women Reservation Bill 2008 was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power. However, the bill could not be passed in the Lok Sabha then, as the Congress lacked a majority on its own, and its alliance partners opposed the bill.
For some time now, the Congress has been demanding that the BJP government table the UPA-era bill in the Lok Sabha, as it had already been cleared by the Rajya Sabha.
However, the BJP was unwilling to share credit with the Congress and tabled a new bill. The government has spared no effort to publicize the passage of the bill, even roping in Bollywood celebrities to witness the event in Parliament.
While the opposition supports the basic tenets of the bill and voted in its favor, they are demanding the immediate implementation of the 33 percent women’s quota. Opposition leaders are against linking the women quota to the decadal population census.
The next census was due in 2021 but was not held, allegedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no clarity on when it will take place.
Before the quotas begin to take effect, the delimitation of electoral boundaries has to be done too. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government (1999-2004) had put the process of delimiting boundaries on hold till 2026.
So, the women’s quota will come into effect only after the Census is held and the post-2026 long-drawn process of delimitation is completed. According to political analysts, then, women’s reservation can only be implemented after 2029. Some have even pegged the date at 2039.
“The date of the next census and delimitation is indeterminate and reservation is highly dependent on these two factors. So, what is the date and timeline for this?” asked Nationalist Congress Party leader Supriya Sule, describing the bill as a “postdated cheque” by the government.
Incidentally, back in 2010 strong regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal-United had vociferously opposed the Women’s Reservation Bill. Upper-caste women would corner the quota benefits, they argued. Now in 2023, these opposition parties along with the Congress as part of the new INDIA bloc have rallied around in support of the Women’s Reservation Bill.
While extending support to the bill, they have urged the government to earmark a quota for women from Other Backward Classes (OBC) and minority communities. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the bill was “incomplete” without OBC reservation.
It might be recalled that it was the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who first attempted to bring in the reservation of seats for women in local governance in rural areas i.e., in village panchayats. This was turned into reality with the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution by a subsequent Congress government under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao.
However, the experience of women’s reservations at the grassroots level has been bittersweet. While it has undoubtedly increased representation of women, it has raised questions about whether it actually empowers women. Women are members of panchayats and head these bodies too. But there have been instances when women are just proxy candidates, with actual power being exercised by the husband.
Nonetheless, it is imperative to increase the number of women in Parliament and state legislatures to help prioritize developmental issues and concerns relating to education, nutrition, work participation, etc. on the legislative agenda.
Modi has described his government’s action on women’s reservation as a continuation of his initiatives to empower women.
Ironically, in the 10 years the BJP has been in power in India, there have been dozens of instances of the government taking actions or making decisions inimical to women, whether it be releasing the men who gang-raped Bilkis Bano during the 2002 Gujarat riots or refusing to act against their own parliamentarian Brij Bhushan Singh, who is accused by Olympic medal-winning women wrestlers of sexual harassment.
While the BJP may reap the electoral dividends of getting the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in the upcoming elections, women will not benefit from the increase in seats in these polls. They will have to wait for many more years to reap any benefits if at all.