Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government marked the symbolic beginning of the new parliament building by amending the Constitution. It picked up the Women's Reservation Bill which reserves one-third of the total seats in Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women.
The move is set to change the politics of the country as women will be the largest block among elected representatives to come to the House through this affirmative action. The political parties will be forced to nurture and groom new women leaders to fill up 181 seats in Lok Sabha out of total 543. At 82, the current Lok Sabha has the highest number of elected women members, which makes for around 15 per cent of the total strength.
The actual change, however, will have to wait as the government put a rider that the law will come into force after the delimitation exercise, which is on freeze till 2026. Before the delimitation, a census has to be carried out. As the number of total seats may increase after this exercise, so will the total number of seats for women. The delimitation puts the implementation of women reservation till the 2029 elections, thus taking away some of the sheen off the powerful law, given the high build up before the special session as speculation swirled between early elections to change of country’s name.
History of the bill
The idea to reserve seats for women was first mooted during the Rajiv Gandhi government when it moved bills to reserve one-third seats for women in urban local bodies and panchayats. These could only became law during the P.V. Narasimha Roa government through the 73 and 74th constitutional amendments. The concrete attempt to reserve seats for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies came in 1996 during the Deve Gowda government when the women representation in Lok Sabha was merely seven percent, and then again in Manmohan Singh government in 2008. The bill was passed in Rajya Sabha in 2010, amid opposition from regional parties which wanted seats reserved for OBC women. The bill lapsed in Lok Sabha as it could not be moved.
With clear majority by its side, Modi government brought the legislation during a special session thus putting its firm stamp on this transformative step. “I have been chosen by god for this auspicious step,” Modi said in parliament as he talked about women rights. The party has ticked off another promise made in its election manifesto apart from building Ram Temple, doing away with the Triple Talaq and abrogating Article 370.
Emerging from from the successful conduct of the G20 summit, the women reservation legislation gives the BJP an effective campaign slogan of “Modi guarantee” to espouse the cause of women. Modi government has crafted women as a reliable constituency in the elections, with its several welfare schemes for them, starting from Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Ujjwala, to building toilets.
Political experience reveals that women beneficiaries of government schemes tend to override the anti-incumbency otherwise seen during the polls. Various state governments also make women empowerment as their running theme through welfare measures with an eye on votes. The women participation in polls has seen an upswing in the subsequent elections. In 2019, women voters exceeded male voters. Number of women voters has witnessed over 235 per cent increase since the 1971 elections.
However, in terms of women candidates contesting polls, it remained at nine percent in 2019 polls, while it was six per cent in 1999 elections. During the last Lok Sabha, the BJP had given tickets to 53 women candidates, while the Congress to 54. Even among the states, the percentage of women getting elected varied between zero to 14 per cent.
The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, titled, Narishakti Vandan Adhiniyam, will be in force for 15 years from the day of its commencement, and rotation of the reserved seats will be done during the next round of delimitation exercise.
According to the bill, new sections will be introduced where one-thirds seats shall be reserved for women in the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and Delhi assembly.
Demand for sub-quota
Unlike, the last time when rancour marked the debates, all the parties came out in support of the bill, though the Opposition demanded that caste census be done so that provisions be made for reserving seats to women belonging to the OBCs, SC, STs and those belonging to the minority community. Despite raising the demands for quota within quota, parties wanted to be seen on the right side of history as they pledged support. It will be one rare occasion where most of the political parties, including those from the Opposition, had called for bringing the bill, and the debate ranged from who should take claim for the new law.
The Congress and other members of the INDIA alliance hit out the government and questioned the delay in implementation to 2029. “Modi government has probably closed the doors of women's reservation till 2029,” Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said.
The Congress has been pushing for its enactment when the UPA was in power, but owing to opposition from the allies, and lack of numbers the bill could not see the light of the day. Sonia Gandhi made an emotional pitch saying the constitutional amendment to give reservation in local body election was brought by Rajiv Gandhi. “I stand here in support of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam. From smoke-filled kitchens to flood-lit stadiums, the Indian woman's journey has been a long one.” While, supporting the bill in Lok Sabha she pushed for sub-quota for women belonging to SC, ST and OBC communities, and flayed the delay.
“They don’t want to give reservation to women but this is a panic reaction to counter 26 parties in the INDIA alliance in the 2024 elections. They should bring caste-based census, but they will not. Though they have brought this bill, but people will see through their claims,” JDU MP Rajeev Ranjan Singh said. “We support the bill.” Samajwadi Party which has opposed the bill earlier also looked at the changed scenario as its MP Dimple Yadav supported the bill as even as she demanded that reservation for OBCs, and Muslim women.
BJD MP Pinaki Mishra who had pushed for women's reservation said its actual implementation will be delayed till after the delimitation, moreover, the reservation for Rajya Sabha and legislative council should have been included.
DMK also supported the bill; its MP Kanimozhi stated that no consultative process was followed before bringing the bill even though the government had promised it earlier.
Women and child development minister Smriti Irani recounted the efforts done by Modi government for women empowerment. She claimed that now when the bill is becoming a reality all were trying to claim its as their own.
The last Delimitation Commission in 2008 had set 412 out of the 543 seats as general, while 84 seats were reserved for Scheduled Castes and 47 seats for Scheduled Tribes. Earlier, the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes were 79 and 41 for Scheduled Tribes after 1976 delimitation exercise.
Former Lok Sabha secretary and constitutional expert, PDT Achary said it was unusual for the government to bring the legislation now when its implementation will be frozen till 2026. “After the census, the delimitation will be done. If they want to do before they have to bring an amendment and there is no time for next election as it needs a lot of work. So, Lok Sabha in 2024 will not have reservation. This step (bill) has been taken with political considerations. One has to wait for another five years, as one cannot introduce it in middle of the Lok sabha and change the composition of the House. They should have done in next Lok Sabha.”
Challenges on ground
But the delimitation exercise comes with another challenge for the government. As the exercise has to be carried on basis of the census and population, the Southern states may stand to lose due to its low population. The government has to make its stand clear as to how delimitation exercise will be conducted otherwise it will increase the north-south divide.
The road to actual implementation is still paved with monumental amount of administrative work. Achary said that the next delimitation will raise the number of seats between 800 to 1,000. It is a massive exercise which takes years. “The composition was frozen by Indira Gandhi based on the 1971 census. Otherwise it would have been inequitable for the south. One needs a national vision so that the southern states do not face discrimination.”
When the women's reservation finally takes shape, Lok Sabha and state assemblies will see influx of new and larger number of women leaders. This will help increase their participation in policy making and its implementation. Certainly, more women could become claimants to the post of the country's prime minister in the future.