In an attempt to prevent the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) from taking credit for the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), Congress president Sonia Gandhi has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to use the BJP’s majority in Lok Sabha to pass the Bill that has been hanging for over 20 years now. Though the Bill was first introduced in September 1996, it was only in March 2010 that the United Progressive Alliance, led by Congress, could manage to get it passed in Rajya Sabha. Since then, severe opposition from Congress allies and other backward class leaders across different political parties led to continuous lapsing of the Bill in Lok Sabha. Interestingly, the BJP had welcomed the Congress’ move in 2010 to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill.
While Congress fears that the government might introduce the Bill at a time where it can gain political advantage in the 2019 elections, Sushmita Dev, the newly appointed president of All India Mahila Congress, emphasised that the government should work to pass the Bill “right now” and “without any delay”. In her letter to PM Modi, Sonia Gandhi has said, “You may recall that it was, in fact, the Congress party and its late leader Rajiv Gandhi who first mooted the reservation of women in panchayats and nagarpalikas in the Constitution Amendment Bills which the Opposition parties thwarted in Rajya Sabha in 1989, but were later passed by both Houses of Parliament in 1993, becoming the 73rd and 74th amendments.”
Discussing the Congress’ plans for its women’s wing, Dev told The Sunday Guardian said, “In Congress, our motive is to politically empower women. The idea is to not only to bring more women members, but prepare these women to be able to win elections. Vice-president Rahul Gandhi is keen to empower women in Congress, walking in the footprints of his predecessors. Therefore, it is important for us to remind the BJP about WRB. Clearly, they have been delaying it.”
In 2010, the WRB was seen as a huge success for Sonia Gandhi and the UPA government and a celebration for Indian women’s empowerment in mainstream politics. However, a look at the Bill’s journey through Parliament reflects that every time the Bill was introduced in Parliament, it confronted drama not as much from BJP, but from other regional parties and backward castes leaders. After the Bill faced severe criticism in 1996, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA government had re-introduced the Bill in 1998, but was opposed by the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD). Such was the drama that RJD MP Surendra Prasad Yadav snatched the Bill from then Law Minister M. Thambidurai, who was presenting the Bill, and tore it to pieces on the Parliament floor.
The NDA again introduced the Bill in 1999 and then in 2002, but nothing happened. In 2003, the BJP had said that it would see the Bill through, but amid opposition from regional parties, failed to do so. In 2004, before the general Assembly elections, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee held the Congress responsible for delaying the Bill. After the UPA formed its government in 2004, Congress along with its allies included WRB in the Common Minimum Programme to which BJP gave complete support in 2005. In 2008, the government tabled the Bill in the Rajya Sabha.
The Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet in February 2010 and passed in Rajya Sabha the next month. Since then, the Lok Sabha has not voted on the Bill. At present, BJP sources say the government might introduce the Bill in the Lok Sabha with some changes.