New Delhi: On Monday, the Rajya Sabha will kick off a process that may change the look of Indian politics forever. Its members will take up a historic proposal to reserve one-third of all seats in the Lower House of Parliament, or the Lok Sabha, and state assemblies for women.
The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill 2008, commonly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, seeks to boost the representation of women in the country’s top legislative bodies—which has remained low despite women moving up in many other walks of life, including as a vote base for political parties.
If the Bill is passed, 179 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 elected members will be women, up from 59 in the current House. State legislatures will see similar increases in the number of women members.
The Bill has brought together the Congress party that heads the United Progressive Alliance government, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the Left parties and some regional formations. Together, they have the numbers to pull it through the two Houses.
But the 14-year-old proposal continues to face a challenge from parties that want it to include a sub-reservation for women of other backward classes (OBCs).
“No one except (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi and a few others are genuinely honest about the Bill,” said a Congress member of Parliament on condition of anonymity. “Most of the others feel threatened.”
With good reason. The Bill would ensure that more than 100 current MPs won’t return to Parliament after the next general election.
“Opposing the Bill will be politically incorrect, also there is a whip; but backing this Bill is suicidal,” the MP said.
Tathagata Satpathy, an MP from the Biju Janata Dal, another party that has declared support for the legislation, said the Bill won’t serve the purpose of empowering women. He is among those who say the decision to give more seats to women should have been left to political parties. “They would have (then) started grooming women leaders as winnability would be crucial.”
But a parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice, which submitted a report on the Bill in December, said the decision cannot be left to the parties. The panel backed the idea of reserving 33% of seats for women, and rotating the actual reserved seats election after election.
But critics say this only weakens the Bill. “The lottery system of allotment of one-third seats and rotation of it would in turn uproot many men and women candidates from their constituencies and would empower none. The very basis of representation of people would be violated,” said Madhu Kishwar, a women’s rights activist.
Parties that depend on OBC votes, such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party, among others, have called for a quota-within-quota, or a reservation for OBC women within the Bill.
“The introduction of this Bill is a conspiracy of the Congress and the BJP to reduce the representation of the backward castes and the minorities in the Lok Sabha,” Samajwadi Party general secretary and spokesperson Mohan Singh said.
In the current format, the Bill does make space for the constitutional reservation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs/STs), providing that if a reserved SC/ST seat comes up on the rotation chart of seats reserved for women under the Bill, then the candidates would have to be SC/ST women.