New Delhi: By first seeking to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill on Monday, International Women’s Day, and then, in the face of expected opposition from some erstwhile allies, abruptly deferring proceedings till Tuesday, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government may have put at stake both its political survival as well as credibility.
Though the Bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha, continuous interruptions by members of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) forced deferment of a vote. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a vocal supporter of the initiative first introduced 14 years ago, continuing to insist on a debate, it is not clear whether the Bill would be put to vote as yet.
Political fault lines deepened on Monday with both the RJD and the SP withdrawing their support, from outside the government, to the UPA, reducing the ruling coalition’s majority in the Lok Sabha.
That may turn out to be crucial since the government needs to get the Finance Bill, a money Bill, approved by Parliament for Budget 2010 to be implemented. Failure to do so would be tantamount to a no-confidence motion against the government and lead to its dismissal. To be sure, this is a remote possibility at this stage.
At the least, the UPA will become politically vulnerable, especially at a time when the government is busy fending off criticism for its failure to contain food price inflation.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was the key proponent of the Bill, may also be politically vulnerable if the UPA fails to carry the vote.
“The day’s developments have further endangered the women’s Bill. The government’s aggressive reform agenda could be derailed with friendly parties like the SP and the RJD withdrawing support,” said Badri Narayan, political analyst and senior faculty member at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
Further, the government is also receiving flak from other parties that support the Bill for its failure to anticipate the aggressive resistance from the RJD and the SP and put in place effective floor coordination.
“The government did not do any homework and came unprepared. They should have called an all-party meet and discussed the issue, especially when they knew that parties such as the RJD and the SP have been opposing it for the last 14 years... This just shows the Congress lacks the political will and social commitment to get the Bill passed,” said CPI leader and women’s activist Annie Raja.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley echoed the sentiment: “The government completely lacked a proper strategy on the floor of the House.”
In an attempt to curtail the damage, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called an all-party meet to discuss the Bill on Tuesday, even as the Congress refused to retreat.
“The Women’s Reservation Bill is a subject where the only question is when and not if. It is an idea whose time has come,” party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said.
Both SP chief Mulayam Singh and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad attacked the Congress for its move to “unilaterally” go ahead with the Bill which seeks 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. “This is political dacoity. We will not tolerate it. We are withdrawing support to the government,” said Prasad.
Some analysts believe there has been no proper discussion on the Bill.
“The deeper issue in the Bill is the rotation of constituencies which would mean there is democracy but no democratic accountability. Unfortunately, the RJD and the SP’s opposition on grounds of a quota for backward classed has completely hijacked the debate,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
The SP and the RJD, which were outside supporters of the government, have 22 and four seats respectively. Together with the Congress (208), the Trinamool Congress (19), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (18), the Nationalist Congress Party (9), the National Conference (3), and the Muslim League (2), the UPA has a total strength of 259 in the 543-member Lok Sabha.
PTI contributed to this story.