New Delhi: The country moved a step closer towards mandatory reservation for women in the electoral process after the Rajya Sabha approved the Women’s Reservation Bill by an overwhelming majority.
While it is a big political boost to the Congress party and particularly so for party president Sonia Gandhi, the victory carries a price tag: the majority of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will be wafer thin in the Lok Sabha, after two parties withdrew outside support to the government.
Political boost: Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg
Conscious of this, the UPA is unlikely to force the pace on the introduction of the Bill in the Lok Sabha. Instead, it may prefer to wait for the passage of the Appropriation Bill (which will authorize government spending till the Finance Bill is voted by Parliament) before 31 March.
Party president Sonia Gandhi signalled as much in an interview to NDTV: “The first step has been taken and the natural corollary is (that) the next step will also be taken.” On being asked if the legislation will be passed in this session by the Lok Sabha, she said, “I can’t say.”
After another day of acrimonious debate, which also led to the suspension of seven Rajya Sabha members, the Upper House voted for the legislation by 186 votes to a single dissent vote by Sharad Anantrao Joshi, an MP representing the Swatantra Bharat Paksh.
However, with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) withdrawing outside support (though the SP is yet to do so formally) over the issue and allies such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) publicly expressing dissent, the UPA could find itself on uncertain ground. While the principal opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Left, backed the women’s Bill, the UPA is unlikely to command the wide support that it enjoyed before the row over the legislation erupted.
To begin with, the government needs to get the Finance Bill, a money Bill, approved by Parliament for Budget 2010 to be implemented. Both the BJP and the Left have opposed the contents of the Budget. If the BJP does move a cut motion, the UPA would have a tough job proving its majority and the smaller members of the coalition are likely to wield commensurately greater influence.
In the 543-member Lok Sabha, the UPA has a total strength of 259, comprising the Congress party (208), the Trinamool Congress, or TMC, (19), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, (18), the Nationalist Congress Party (nine), the National Conference (three), and the Muslim League (two). Along with some outside supporters, its strength goes up to 280 plus.
All smiles: (left to right) Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, BJP leader Najma Heptullah and CPM leader Brinda Karat celebrate the passing of Women’s Bill in Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.Subhav Shukla/PTI
In the Rajya Sabha, which has a current strength of 233 members, the UPA government is already in a minority and now has its numbers further reduced after the withdrawal of support by the RJD and the SP. On its own, the UPA has 85-odd members including the TMC and had the outside support of the RJD (four), the SP (12) and the BSP (12), apart from some independents and smaller regional parties. The BSP opposed the government on this issue.
“The government has obviously put itself on a sticky wicket by rushing through the women’s Bill and has lost precious support of friendly parties,” said Vivek Kumar, associate professor at the Centre for Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The government will not be able to further risk itself by bringing it in the Lok Sabha.”
The Bill, which seeks to provide at least 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, was passed by the Upper House after two days of continuous interruptions.
Apart from the UPA constituents, the BJP, the Left parties, the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam voted in favour while those opposing it such as the RJD, the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) walked out. The TMC MPs were not present in the House. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) is split over the issue.
As a constitutional amendment, the Bill required the support of at least two-thirds of those present and voting, with at least 50% of the total House members present.
Discussions on the legislation began on Tuesday after interruptions by members of the RJD and the SP forced deferment of a vote on Monday. The day also witnessed drama as marshals evicted seven suspended members who a day earlier had created unprecedented pandemonium.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a “momentous occasion” and defended the Bill saying “it was not anti-minority or anti-SC/ST”.
“It comes as a step forward and as a giant step towards the emancipation of women,” Singh said. “It is a celebration of womanhood and our regard and respect for women.”
The BJP, which insisted on putting the Bill to vote only after holding a debate, extended unequivocal support. “The myth is that reservation creates a privileged section,” said the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. “My party and I stand one with the government on the Bill.”
RJD chief Lalu Prasad said he handed over a letter to the President on Wednesday withdrawing support to the UPA government while SP leader Mulayam Singh seemed non-committal.
PTI contributed to the story.