There’s a big buzz in the political corridors. It appears that this special session of Parliament will be indeed be special for two reasons. One, the move of the MPs from the old Parliament building to the new one – which will happen today (19 September) – and secondly, because it seems that the Centre cleared the Women’s Reservation bill in the Union Cabinet meeting held on Monday and is set to bring it for passage in the Parliament on Wednesday (20 September).
At the Cabinet meet that took place on Monday and lasted for more than 90 minutes, speculation is rife that it approved the Women’s Reservation Bill, which guarantees a 33 per cent quota in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies.
The news of the Cabinet clearing this long-pending bill came after Minister of State Prahlad Singh Patel posted on social media platform X that the the Cabinet had approved it, but deleted the post within an hour.
“Only the Modi government had the moral courage to fulfil the demand for women’s reservation which was proved by the approval of the cabinet. Congratulations Narendra Modi ji and congratulations to the Modi government,” the minister wrote on X which was later deleted.
While there’s no official confirmation on the legislation, we take a closer look at what exactly it is, its history and what it aims to achieve.
Women’s Reservation Bill and its history
First introduced in 1996 by the United Front government led by Deve Gowda in the Lok Sabha, the Women’s Reservation Bill seeks to reserve one-third seats in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies for women.
As per a report by India Today, the idea for this reservation bill came from a constitutional amendment which was passed in 1993.
Even though it was at a smaller level, the constitutional amendment stated a random one third of village council leader, or Sarpanch, positions in the gram panchayat should be reserved for women.
By introducing the Women’s Reservation Bill in the House, the Deve Gowda government aimed to extend this reservation to Lok Sabha and state legislative Assemblies.
It was unable to pass muster in the House and was reintroduced in 1998, 1999 and in 2008.
It was in 2008 that a significant push was made in regards to the Bill. The United Progressive Alliance government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, introduced the Bill on 6 May 2008 and dramatic scenes followed. There was snatching of papers, tearing down of papers and more. The Bill was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee.
It was finally in 2010 that the Bill saw a breakthrough. After two days of discussions and debates on 9 March 2010, the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill by over a two-third majority – the BJP and the Left, who were in the Opposition, supported it – with 186 in favour.
However, the UPA government didn’t show the political will to pass it in the Lok Sabha and it lapsed in the Upper House.
Hiccups over the Women’s Reservation Bill
Though most of the national political parties – the Congress, the BJP – have supported the legislation over the years, some resistance from within has held it from being passed.
Proponents of the Bill believe that reservation will ensure that women form a strong lobby in Parliament to fight for issues that are often ignored.
However, opponents argue that the legislation runs counter to the ideal of equality enshrined in the Constitution. They say that women will not be competing on merit if there is reservation, which could lower their status in society.
There’s also the argument that reservation in a deeply patriarchal society like India only translates into rule by men by proxy. According to PRS Legislative Research, reservation would restrict voters’ choices or “reduce the incentive for an MP to work for his constituency as he may be ineligible to seek re-election from that constituency” if the reservations followed a policy of rotation and his seat was to be reserved for women in the next polls.
There are also some MPs who oppose the Women’s Reservation Bill. They argue that women are not a homogeneous community, such as a caste group. Some have even demanded quota for backward classes and scheduled castes within the overall reservation for women – a key sticking point in the passage of the legislation.
Another challenge in implementing such a Bill in Rajya Sabha is the existing system of elections, which uses the single transferable vote method. This system allocates votes to preferred candidates, making it difficult to reserve seats for specific groups.
Women’s representation in India
Though women have made great strides in different fields, women’s presence in politics is dismally low. In the present Lok Sabha, 78 women members have been elected which account for less than 15 per cent of the total strength of 543. In Rajya Sabha too, women’s representation is about 14 per cent, according to the data shared by the government with Parliament last December.
Several state Assemblies have less than 10 per cent women representation, including Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Odisha, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura and Puducherry.
Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttrakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi had 10-12 per cent women MLAs, according to the government data of December 2022. Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Jharkhand led the charts with 14.44 per cent, 13.7 per cent and 12.35 per cent women MLAs, respectively.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, India has a fewer percentage of women in the lower House than its neighbours such as Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — a dismal record.
Al Jazeera further reported that India ranked 148th in a list of 193 countries based on the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments, as of June 2021.
With inputs from agencies