After being in limbo for 27 years, the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed by both Houses of Parliament. Women’s increasing participation in elections year after year has forced all political parties, except two members of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Lok Sabha, to support the Bill. In Rajya Sabha, it was unanimously passed. All parties deserve appreciation and congratulations for this achievement, and not the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone.
Although many political parties, including the Congress, batted for its immediate implementation, the Bill was passed without the amendments proposed by different parties, and it will be implemented only after the next Census and delimitation of constituencies. Indian women may have to wait for another five more years to realize their dream of getting 33% reservation in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies. But a great hurdle is crossed with the passing of the Bill by Parliament. The whole nation can be proud because it is a watershed in the democratic journey of India.
More than the generosity of political parties, it is the increasing role played by women in various fields and their assertion through increasing participation in elections that has paved the way for the recognition of their due share in political decision-making. India can have inclusive development only when half of the population is involved in the decision process of governance. Currently women representation in Parliament and state legislatures is less than 15 percent whereas at the global level women’s representation in the legislative bodies is 24.5%.
The Prime Minister is not only an orator but also an event manager par excellence. He has proved it on many occasions. The way he organized the G20 New Delhi Summit with pomp and show proves his extraordinary skill for event management. Introduction of the women's reservation Bill in the new Parliament House without giving any hint about it while the agenda of the special session of Parliament was discussed in an all-party meeting, is another brilliant example of Modi’s capacity for creating surprises.
While speaking in the new Parliament House Modi declared, “For that work of ensuring rights of women and putting their power to use, and for many such noble works, God has chosen me. Once again, our government has taken a step in this direction”. What a grandiose statement.
The BJP and the Prime Minister presented the women reservation Bill under a pious title, “Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam”, as if it is their original invention. The Women’s Reservation Bill has been pending for the last 27 years. All political parties, including the BJP, are responsible for the inordinate delay in passing the Bill. The BJP cannot put the whole blame at the doorstep of the Congress for not passing it. The BJP had promised 33% reservation for women in 2014 electioneering and it was repeated in 2019. But nothing happened during more than 9 years it has been in power.
Bills to amend the Constitution to reserve seats for women in Parliament and state legislative assemblies were introduced in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2008. The first three Bills lapsed with the dissolution of their respective Lok Sabhas. The 2008 Bill was introduced and passed by Rajya Sabha in 2010 when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power. That is why Mrs. Sonia Gandhi said to a journalist, “it is ours”. As the Bill could not muster support in Lok Sabha, it lapsed with dissolution of the 14th Lok Sabha.
Although the 2008 and 2023 Bills have provision for giving 33% reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state legislative Assemblies, the most significant difference is its implementation. The 2008 Bill was to be implemented immediately after its passage. In the case of 2023 Bill, it will be effective only after Census and delimitation of constituencies. Based on the Census, delimitation will be undertaken to reserve seats for women. The reservation will be provided for a period of 15 years. In fact, women will have to wait up to 2029 for the realization of their dream of getting 33 percent reservation.
The second important difference is that the 2008 Bill says that one-third of Lok Sabha seats in each state/Union Territory will be reserved for women whereas the 2023 Bill states that one-third seats are to be reserved for women.
The third difference is with regard to rotation. As per the 2008 Bill, rotation of seats reserved for women will take place before each parliamentary election whereas the 2023 Bill states that rotation will be after each delimitation i.e., once in ten years.
All opposition parties welcomed the introduction of the Bill. But they have criticized the government because of the way it was brought to Parliament at the fag end of the second term of Modi government and the way it was presented as a magnanimous act of Modi for the women of India. They are doubly critical of the tactics employed in the Bill to delay reservation for women. The implementation will take place only after the next delimitation of constituencies and the delimitation will take place only after the next census, and God alone knows when the next census will take place. Uncertainty looms large on the implementation of the Bill.
Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra described the Bill as a sham and jumla. “The question of women’s reservation requires action, not the placebo of legislatively mandated procrastination”, she said. Asking whether women are any less than cows in the country, Mahua Moitra said “when the government wanted to protect cows, it did not count the cows but just built cowsheds. Are we women less than cows that we need to wait while you count and draw lines? We don’t need any more Vandanas. What we need is direct action. Honourable Prime Minister, this is your time to show us all that Modi hai toh mumkin hai” Moitra said.
Some political observers and many opposition parties are of the view that the Bill is introduced in a special session of Parliament as an election stunt to tilt votes of women in favour of the BJP in the upcoming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. If the BJP and Modi were serious and sincere about giving 33% reservation for women, they could have done it either in the first term of NDA government or at the beginning of its second term. In 2018, Rahul Gandhi had written a letter to the Prime Minister promising unconditional support of the Congress to pass the Bill.
DMK MP Kanimozi in her speech in Lok Sabha attacked the BJP for not consulting all stakeholders in the process of finalizing the Bill. She was also highly critical of the “veil of secrecy that shrouded” the drafting and tabling of the Bill and also the title of the Bill. She demanded the government to stop “saluting--- worshipping women” and allow them to walk as equals.
After 76 years of the acceptance of a Constitution that gives equal status and rights to women, women are unequal to men in many areas of social and political life in India. Indian society is still patriarchal and patriarchal norms and values are controlling many aspects of our socio- political life. The Prime Minister often speaks about women-led development, but women-led development requires equal participation of women in the decision making process. 33% reservation for women could be a turning point in promoting gender equality and women empowerment.
If 33% political reservation is to become an effective means in the empowerment of women in India, quality education to women, especially women of the underprivileged groups is a must. Only education that promotes critical thinking can liberate women from the shackles imposed by religion and society. As long as women remain as slaves of blind faith and superstitions, 33% political reservation may not be of much use.
The Hindutva ideology that the BJP promotes draws heavily from Manusmriti which doesn’t give equal rights to women and men. In verses, such as 2.67–2.69 and 5.148–5.155, Manusmriti preaches that as a girl, she should obey and seek protection of her father, as a young woman her husband, and as a widow her son; and that a woman should always worship her husband as a god and a man should consider his wife an embodiment of goddess. If the BJP wants to promote gender equality and women-led development, it has to address this dichotomy.