Cynicism, Casteism Haunt Women's Reservation Bill
Since electoral considerations rather than a genuine desire for women's empowerment were behind the latest move to revive the 12-year-old legislation for reserving parliamentary and assembly seats for women, its fate may be no different from what happened earlier.
The very manner in which the measure was introduced in the Rajya Sabha, with several women MPs shielding the law minister from unruly critics when he tabled the bill, showed that its passage would not be easy.
Among the opponents of the bill in its present form are three allies of the Congress - the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the DMK and the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP); and one Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally - the Janata Dal-United (JD-U). Amendments are also sought by the Samajwadi Party (SP), which is close to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has given an extra twist by demanding quotas beyond the proposed 33 percent for Dalits and Adivasis as well as the other backward castes (OBCs).
It has to be remembered that these critics belonging to the caste-based regional parties are not against the reservations per se, but only against the possibility of upper castes benefiting from the move. In a colourful phrase, while opposing the bill during an earlier session of parliament, JD-U leader Sharad Yadav had sarcastically observed that only 'parkati' (wingless) women or those with bobbed hair will become MPs and MLAs if the legislation comes into force.
To avoid this, the regional parties want quotas for the OBCs within the 33 percent quota while Mayawati is in favour of raising the reservations to 50 percent. Considering that this tussle between the regional and "national" parties like the Congress and the BJP has stalled any progress on the measure for more than a decade, it will be na've to expect any forward movement this time even if a special session of parliament is called, as the Communist Party of India (CPI) has demanded.
Apart from the various demands and objections, the main reason why no progress has been made is that there has been no serious attempt to evolve a consensus on the subject. And the reason for this failure is that cynical calculations guide the parties with an eye on the electorate even as they pay lip service to women's empowerment.
Even the latest move falls in this category since the Congress waited till the very last year of its term before introducing the bill when there is little chance of it passing through parliament. The only positive aspect is that it will not lapse like the earlier measures with the dissolution of parliament since it has now been tabled in the Rajya Sabha. But no one knows when, or whether, it will be taken up by the next parliament.
If the parties have been reluctant to push through the legislation, the reason is not only the demand for caste-based quotas but also the unexpressed disquiet in the male-dominated political class of losing its pre-eminence to women. There are practical fears, too, like a male MP or MLA losing his constituency if it is allotted to women. To remove this apprehension, a suggestion of rotating the allocations was made. But the difficulty with such a step is that it will dissuade a legislator from nursing his or her seat if he or she is not sure of contesting from there in the future.
To ensure that the parliamentarians are not deprived of their constituencies, a suggestion was made to increase the number of Lok Sabha seats from the present 545 to 900. But this proposal too hasn't found favour presumably because the house will become far too unwieldy. It will be the same problem with the state assemblies.
Yet another suggestion was to make it mandatory for parties to nominate a certain percentage of women to contest elections. But no headway has been made in this respect either.
There is, of course, another proposal, that is, to desist from arbitrarily reserving seats for women since the parties may not be able to find suitable candidates. Instead, the women contestants should gradually come up from the panchayat level, where the percentages are already in force.
But the parties are apparently not interested in such a time-consuming process since they want to demonstrate how eager they are to empower women when, in actual fact, it is all a pretence since they are actually acting as road blocks.
It also has to be mentioned that there is a section, including women, who are against the very concept of gender-based reservations if only because it will create the impression that only women can look after their own interests. Arguably, it is this mindset which has made the caste-based parties like the RJD and the Samajwadi Party call for quotas for OBCs since the urban 'parkati' women may not empathize with their less privileged sisters.
It is a safe bet that it will take years, if at all, before a decision is taken.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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