Rahul Gandhi, in his latest interview, has emphasised that women’s representation in Parliament should be prioritised. Similar determination has echoed by the BJP. But the reality on this subject belies the promises made by both parties.
This brings to mind the embrace between Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj in March 2010 in the precincts of Parliament, which has to be seen in the context of Sushma Swaraj’s earlier statement that “I will shave my head if a foreigner Sonia Gandhi becomes Prime Minister.” Luckily, Sonia Gandhi saved Swaraj that embarrassment by making Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister in 2004. So what happened in the interim for such close bonhomie between the two?
Though introduced by H.D. Deve Gowda for the first time on 12 September 1996 in the Lok Sabha, no 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 really happened.
When the UPA government came to power in 2004, it announced that this would be its first priority. But instead, there was 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, had been quietly buried, and was not likely to be revived in conceivable future.
But then circumstances of steep price rise, political compulsions of elections in Karnataka and other impending elections made the then government wiser and it decided 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, 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 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 the major political parties that they 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 seats. Thus, the 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 candidates 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.
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 elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat parties did not include 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, it is time for the women leadership in both BJP and Congress to warn all parties that they will no longer tolerate injustice and neglect. 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”, otherwise the joint fight will continue. They should request Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati to join hands with them.
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 women will see through the Women’s Reservation Bill.