FOR some reasons, mainly male chauvinism, the Women Reservation Bill has not been passed by parliament. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1996 when the then Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, was in office. As in the past, the bill was marked by high drama and hit roadblocks in each of its outings in Parliament before the historic measure cleared the first legislative hurdle in 2010. The bill called for reserving 33 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and all state legislative assemblies for women. As per the draft, the seats were to be reserved for women on a rotation basis and would be determined by draw of lots in such a way that a seat would be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections. The draft said reservation of seats for women would cease to exist 15 years after commencement of the amendment Act.
In fact, the 108th Constitution Amendment Bill, or what was popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, completed 21 years of being in existence last week on September 12. In all these years, it managed to get only the assent of the Rajya Sabha, thus far. In the last two decades the bill has seen much drama in both houses of parliament, clearly aimed at scuttling the measure, with some members even attempting to physically attack the then Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari to disrupt its tabling. The battle for greater representation to women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies was routinely punctuated, thanks to frayed tempers and war of words among members which, at times, got physical ever since different governments tossed around the bill passed for various reasons without success. The bill, however, failed to get the approval of the house and was instead referred to a joint parliamentary committee. The committee submitted its report to the Lok Sabha soon after and in 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who headed the first National Democratic Alliance government, reintroduced the bill in the Lok Sabha. After M. Thambidurai, then Law Minister, introduced the bill in the House, a Rashtriya Janata Dal MP snatched it from the Speaker and tore it into pieces. Thereafter, the bill lapsed every time the House was dissolved and was re-introduced by the government of the day in 1999, in 2002 and 2003. Unfortunately, however, over the years a number of male parliamentarians have opposed the passing of the bill, leaving it in its current state. Even though the Congress, the Left and the BJP were heard openly pledging support for the bill, it just couldn’t be passed in the Lok Sabha. No doubt, the Vajpayee government was certainly dependent on other parties for survival in 1998 which many political observers often suggest was the reason for not being able to assert itself.
However, after the 1999 mid-term polls, even though Vajpayee came back to power, the mandate was for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which won 303 of the 544 Lok Sabha seats. This time Vajpayee was pushed into a situation where he had to keep all the parties together. Yet, given the support from the Congress and Left, the bill would have sailed through the House had it been formally put to vote. But that was not to be. Just before the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, Vajpayee blamed Congress for stalling the bill and said that the BJP and its allies would pass the legislation after getting a decisive mandate in 2004 elections. In 2004, the UPA government had included it in the Common Minimum Programme, which said: “The UPA govt will take lead to introduce legislation for one-third reservations for women in Vidhan Sabhas and in the Lok Sabha.” In 2005, BJP announced complete support for bill.
In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government introduced the bill in the Rajya Sabha. Two years later on March 9, 2010, a huge political barrier was overcome when it was passed by the House in spite of high drama and scuffles between members. The BJP, the Left and some other parties came together with the ruling Congress to help pass it in the upper house. Seven years have passed since that moment when top women leaders from the three major parties—Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat—gave a rare moment to media photographers by walking hand in hand in impromptu celebration of that historic occasion. And yet, in 2017, it has still not seen the light of the day, simply because the political will to help make it a law has been lacking in the lower house. The UPA II government, in spite of having 262 seats in the Lok Sabha, too couldn’t make it happen, citing the same excuse of being in a coalition.
Fortunately, the BJP does not suffer from that handicap. The party has the strength and can pass the bill. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also determined to get the legislation on his table. But I would be surprised if the bill becomes an act. Male parliamentarians in all the parties do not want to share power with women. When they do not treat them with dignity at home, they believe that women should not be empowered beyond a limit. True, Modi for the first time has made a woman as the country’s Defence Minister. This is a huge departure from the past.
Even an all-powerful Indira Gandhi could only manage the foreign affairs. But both defence and foreign affairs going to women is definitely a bold step taken by Prime Minister Modi. These are indications of a positive thinking by Modi. My only hope is that Modi would stay as determined as he is today to have the bill passed in parliament. Some people say that this is a measure only to get the votes of women with the 2019 general elections beckoning. Whatever the reasons, the women would be able to play an important role in the affairs of India if they are in substantial number in the Lok Sabha.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.