The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has finally managed—in its penultimate year in power—to introduce the controversial 12-year-old women’s reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. It is a very welcome step—as it stops the Bill from lapsing yet again, just like it did each time the National Democratic Alliance’s government—which first sought a 33% share for women in Parliament in 1996—introduced it in the Lok Sabha.
The event doesn’t mean the Bill will necessarily become law in the near future. Yet, it must trigger fresh debate on how greater participation in political institutions can lead to better “life chances” for women oppressed in multiple ways in Indian society.
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
It is no surprise that a 33% quota for women at the village panchayat and local government levels was approved in 1993 with little political dissent, but that the chances of consensus are low when it comes to the power hot spots —state and Central legislature.
The views of the UPA’s political ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the Samajwadi Party —a key reason why the Bill hasn’t been approved so far— have not changed. Both promise to staunchly oppose the Bill if it is not modified to reserve part of the women’s quota for backward castes and minorities. And this quota within quota is something the drivers of the movement for the Bill have been against. Many of them argue that the purpose of reservation is greater representation of women’s interests in politics and law-making—and that women-centric issues cut across caste and class.
It is easy to see that the powerful interest groups embedded in a deeply patriarchal society will not easily back off their position that minus “quotas within quotas”, women’s reservation will only lead to elitist representation. That this argument will become a handy, powerful “weapon” in the hands of such male elite is perhaps what the women empowerment movement has failed to anticipate. This leads us to a larger issue: How will higher visibility of women in politics lead to outcomes for empowerment of women per se? Will women in legislature cut across party lines—in a future of coalition politics—to push forward the agenda for gender equality and, indeed, justice? Will they be able to collectively improve outcomes of the plethora of women-centric provisions—such as the domestic violence law—in the absence of fundamental mindset shifts in Indian society and institutions? The debate on this Bill must hold up a mirror to those outside politics as well.
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