Coincidentally, the development comes a decade after a constitutional amendment guaranteeing 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies was stalled. The Women’s Reservation Bill, 2008, was approved by the Rajya Sabha, but failed to find support in the Lok Sabha.
The latest turn of events is set to revive the debate on women’s reservation. This time around, however, the pressure to change is coming from regional parties, while previously it was led by the Congress, a national party.
Only 65 members of Parliament (MPs), or 12% of the total 545 members in the 16th Lok Sabha, are women.
While announcing candidates for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections on Tuesday, TMC chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said: “It’s a challenge to all political parties in India. We had 35% representation last time, but this time almost 41% are women candidates."
On Sunday, Odisha chief minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik announced that the party would field 33% women candidates, calling the move a “historic step" for the empowerment of women.
The Odisha assembly last year passed a resolution seeking 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies. Patnaik, however, made the announcement only for Lok Sabha elections and not for state polls, even though they are to be held simultaneously.
West Bengal currently has 13 women out of its 42 MPs, while Odisha has three women Lok Sabha MPs.
Leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, while welcoming increased participation of women in politics, cautioned that it should not be restricted to being an election gimmick.
“This empowerment of women needs to be done beyond election time and needs to happen on a day-to-day basis. But we need to start somewhere," said Congress spokesperson Khushboo Sundar. “We should not use this as a political gimmick for brownie points. The women’s reservation bill should be revived, but that has not happened in the last five years even though the BJP is in majority in Parliament."
“BJP has always supported the idea of women’s reservation bill and more women joining politics. It has been part of the BJP manifesto. As a policy of BJP, at least 33% of organizational posts are given to women," said a senior BJP leader on condition of anonymity. “Empowerment of women is a major issue for the party and it is not limited to politics only."
Reservation of 33% for women in panchayati raj institutions was made mandatory after a constitutional amendment in 1993. According to the panchayati raj ministry, 19 states, including Bihar and Odisha, have increased that reservation to 50%.
“The move will certainly have a positive impact. As women voters are increasing, women’s representation in politics should also increase. It is high time the government stopped stereotyping women by distributing free chulha (gas connections) and focus on women’s participation in politics," said Ranjana Kumari, director at the Centre for Social Research.
“This decision if genuinely implemented will change the political landscape of Indian parliamentary politics. Women are emerging as a political force in Indian democracy as visible in the past two elections...with this, they will have (a) bigger voice in decision making. All the other parties which are paying lip service will have to follow; if not, will eventually lose their women base," Kumari added.
Continuing the battle for equal participation of women in politics, women activists from across the country in July 2018 launched a charter in the national capital, demanding the central government ensure that 50% seats in Parliament and legislative assemblies are reserved for women.
Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, in his study published in South Asia Research journal, termed women’s increasing participation in Indian electoral politics as a silent feminization.
“The increased participation of women in formal politics reveals a process of feminization of Indian politics with positive, people-driven developments that augur well for Indian women and for India. The political parties that played a destructive role in scuttling the Women’s Reservation Bill in the last Lok Sabha have become redundant after the general elections in 2014," Rai said in the study.
Gyan Varma in New Delhi and PTI contributed to this story.