The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government recently passed the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill — Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam — in a special session of the Parliament reserving 33 per cent of seats in the state legislatures and Lok Sabha. It brings an end to the 27-year tumultuous journey of the Women’s Reservation Bill.
This historic decision comes against the backdrop of the fact that the number of women in state legislature and Lok Sabha is at a historic low. Currently, women occupy only 15 per cent of seats in Lok Sabha and 13 per cent of seats in Rajya Sabha.
The situation in state Assemblies is far worse as states like Nagaland and Karnataka only have 3 and 4 per cent women legislators respectively, while the maximum representation is in Chhattisgarh with 18 per cent women in state Assembly.
Women, who almost constitute 50 per cent of the population, are severely under-represented in state Assemblies and Parliament. In this context, the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill is a historic step towards ensuring their appropriate representation.
Key features of Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam:
• Reservation of one-third (33 per cent) of seats for women in state Legislative Assembly, Legislative Assembly of National Capital Territory of Delhi and Lok Sabha.
• Within the 33 per cent quota, there will be sub-reservation for SCs, STs, and Anglo-Indians.
• The reservation will come into effect after the delayed 2021 Census is conducted and the delimitation exercise in accordance with the Census is done. This will cause a delay in implementing the reservation to 2029 General elections.
• The reservation will be initially provided for a period of 15 years after which it will be reviewed by the Parliament.
• Seats reserved for women will be rotated after each delimitation exercise subjected to Parliamentary review.
Decades of waiting to achieve the goal
The demand for women’s representation in politics has a long history in India, dating back to the pre-Independence era. The Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, endorsed the idea of reserving seats for women in the Constituent Assembly as early as 1931.
The same was put forward by Jawaharlal Nehru in the early years after India’s Independence. However, it took several decades for concrete steps to be taken towards achieving this goal.
The first proposal to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in the Parliament and state legislature was first proposed in the year 1996 by the then H.D.Dev Gowda-led United Front Government.
The Bill was a logical culmination of the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts in 1992, which reserved 33 per cent of seats for women in both rural and urban local bodies. Due to the fractured composition and subsequent fall of the government, the Bill lapsed.
This Bill was reintroduced in the year 1998 by the NDA government, but again lapsed due to the premature dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha. The NDA government again reintroduced the Bill in 1999 but failed to gain consensus. Subsequently, it was again brought to the table in 2002 and 2003, but the Bill again failed to pass despite assurances from the Congress and the Left parties.
As part of its common minimum programme, the UPA 1 tabled the Bill in the year 2008 in the Upper House of the parliament. After being recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, and getting clearance from the Union Cabinet, the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha with 186-1 votes in March 2010.
However, once the Bill reached the Lower House, it never saw the light of day, and with the dissolution of the House in 2014, it again lapsed.
The NDA government that came to power in 2014 failed to introduce the Bill during its first tenure. Meanwhile, in December 2022, a BJD Rajya Sabha MP proposed a private member resolution on the issue.
Despite being passed in the Rajya Sabha, multiple introductions in the Lok Sabha, and verbal assurances from several parties with significant representation in the Parliament’s Upper and Lower houses, the Bill kept on lingering for various reasons.
Reasons like lack of political will, technical complexities and constitutional problems had been cited for this imbroglio.
But the most important reason had been the vocal opposition to the Bill coming from identity-based regional parties like the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, and Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the Janata Dal (United), which argued for having sub-reservation for women belonging to the Other Backward Class (OBC) communities. There was also a demand for a minority quota within the women’s reservation which only compounded the problem.
While there had been a delay in passing the women’s reservation Bill at the Centre, a few political parties like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha fielded 33 per cent women candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections while the All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal fielded over 30 per cent women candidates in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 as well as in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections. Similarly, the Indian National Congress gave tickets to women in over 40 per cent of the seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections of 2022.
These decisions helped to strengthen the case for the formal introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill.
Will this be a game-changer?
Gender equality and women’s empowerment are fundamental principles of a just and progressive society. The Women’s Reservation Bill 2023, amid all concerns and criticism, represents a crucial step towards achieving gender equality in politics.
While it has faced its fair share of challenges and criticisms, its potential benefits are undeniable. Empowering women in politics is not just a matter of justice and equity. It is essential for the overall progress and development of the nation. It is a product of a long-drawn struggle.
The women-centric reforms in Panchayati Raj Institutions increased the participation of women in local politics and enhanced their decision-making and leadership qualities despite persisting shortcomings.
The 33 per cent quota for women in state Legislative Assembly and Lok Sabha is bound to bring more women into the political field and increase their participation and mobilisation, which in turn will lead to the development of more women-centric policies at both national and state levels.
The 33 per cent reservation for women has positioned India as a global leader in gender parity by setting an example for the world to move closer to the vision of a more inclusive and equitable society.
What do the critics say about this reservation?
Though every political party has supported the idea of the women’s reservation Bill, there have been criticisms to the entire idea of reservation from other quarters.
Critics have argued that reserving seats for women in Assemblies and Lok Sabha might lead to the stereotyping of women as ‘proxy candidates’ controlled by male family members, undermining their autonomy and credibility. This concern emanates from the experiences of Panchayati Raj Institutions.
Another criticism is that a fixed reservation may not accurately reflect the diversity of women’s experiences and may inadvertently favour women from privileged backgrounds.
They also say that reserving seats for women will limit the options of voters. Critics argue that instead of reservation, the government should focus more on electoral reforms, decriminalisation of politics and inner-party democracy.
Critics have also pointed out that the rotation policy may reduce the incentive for an MLA/MP to work for their constituency as she may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency.
(Dr. Bijayani Mishra is an assistant professor in the department of sociology, University of Delhi. Harsh Vardhan is a doctoral candidate in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.)