Sushma Swaraj, usually a calm politician, was so upset that she spontaneously blurted out “I will shave my head if a foreigner Sonia Gandhi becomes Prime Minister of India”. Luckily, Sonia Gandhi saved this embarrassment to Swaraj by intelligently and strategically thrusting Manmohan Singh (though a loyalist to the core of the Gandhi family, but on merit of his own), as Prime Minister in 2004, notwithstanding the protest from scores of Gandhi family loyalists.
Switch to March 2010 and you see a happy embrace by Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj in the precincts of Parliament. What happened in the interim for such close bonhomie?
Though introduced by Deve Gowda for the first time on 12 September 1996 in the Lok Sabha, no concrete action was taken by various governments to effectuate the legislation on Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament and the state legislatures. Everyone expected the legislation to be passed immediately. In fact, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral promised his earliest priority in passing this Bill but nothing concrete happened.
When the UPA government came to power in 2004, it announced that the Act would be its first priority. But instead one had total silence on the Bill in the President’s speech on the opening day of the Parliamentary session. This was an open and clear notice to the women activists that the Bill, which had been so proudly projected as a commitment to gender equality, has been quietly buried, and is not likely to be revived in conceivable future.
Every time from 1998 to 2014, whenever Parliament met, women representatives were assured in all solemnity by each major political party that it hoped to pass the Bill in that very session. In reality, this was a tongue-in-cheek operation. Lok Sabha membership can be easily increased to 750, with a provision that one woman candidate will mandatorily be elected from the double-member constituencies.
But then circumstances of steep price rise, political compulsions of polls in Karnataka and other impending polls made the then government to be a little wise and decide to refer the Bill to the Parliamentary Standing Committee. Though the innocent amongst the women groups were hoping that the Bill would become an Act of Legislature, nothing happened until 2010.
The Women’s Reservation Bill or The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008, is a lapsed Bill in Parliament of India, which proposed to amend the Constitution of India to reserve 33% of all seats in the Lower House of Parliament of India, the Lok Sabha, and in all state Legislative Assemblies for women.
The Rajya Sabha passed the bill on 9 March 2010. It was this event that made Sushma Swaraj and Sonia Gandhi embrace so emotionally. However, the Lok Sabha never voted on the Bill. The Bill lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014.
Every time from 1998 to 2014, whenever Parliament met, women representatives were assured in all solemnity by each major political party that it hoped to pass the Bill in that very session. In reality, this was a tongue-in-cheek operation.
That is why one feels that women should support the alternative of double-member constituencies which will meet both the requirement of ensuring one-third quota for women and, at the same time, will not disturb the present male seats.
Thus, Lok Sabha membership can be easily increased to 750, with a provision that one woman candidate will mandatorily be elected from those double-member constituencies, and, depending upon the votes received, it may be that even both elected candidate could be women. This law was laid down by the Supreme Court decades ago in former President V.V. Giri’s case. The same principle will apply in the case of elections to the state legislatures.
Space in Parliament is not a problem. Shivraj Patil, once Union Home Minister, is on record admitting that space is not a problem if Parliament decides to increase the number of seats.
The alternative of double member constituencies can be done by amending Article 81(2) of the Constitution by increasing the present strength, which can be easily done if political parties are genuine in their commitment to the Bill.
I know the Delimitation Commission has already marked the constituencies on the basis of single member seats. But I do not think it is necessary to redraw the constituencies to make it double.
By a rule of thumb the top one third of the constituencies having the maximum voters in each state could be declared double-member. If the legislators are sincerely genuine they could even submit an agreed list.
At present, of course, a fresh process has again to be initiated in Parliament, because the previous Reservation Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the previous Lok Sabha in 2014.
In the just finished election propaganda in Uttar Pradesh, not one party, including the so-called seculars, with the exception of the Socialist Party (India), included the item of reservation for women in their election manifestoes. Can such male chauvinism be allowed to exist in our country?
With the 2019 Parliamentary elections coming, is it not time for the women leadership in both the Congress and BJP, through Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj to jointly clench their fists and warn all the parties that they will no longer tolerate injustice and neglect to continue? They may legitimately continue their differences on other subjects in the light of their own respective programmes.
But let them give a rallying cry against the male chauvinists, like the one given by Spanish freedom fighters in the 1936 Civil War—“no pasaran, you shall not pass”, i.e. continuing this injustice by not passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, otherwise the joint fight will continue and openly. They should request Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati to join hands with them on the issue of Women’s Reservation Bill.
Let me recall that Dr Ram Manohar Lohia had opined that reservation for women was an instrument of social engineering—he could never have suggested splitting the strength of women’s quota by further splitting them in sub quotas.
Time is short. Only an effort by these four women political leaders will see through the Women’s Reservation Bill.