Zero Hour | The BJP’s false promises on the Women’s Reservation Bill

In spite of the commitment to the Women’s Reservation Bill in BJP’s manifestos in 2014 and 2019, government hasn’t introduced it. Will this Budget Session be any different?

All parties in the Opposition have jointly taken a call. Unless the Union government themselves disrupt the functioning of Parliament, the debate on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address will begin in both Houses on Monday at 2 pm. Speakers from over 20 parties will skewer the Modi government: LIC, SBI and public sector institutions being forced to invest in questionable enterprises, which has led to massive losses. These public sector institutions are the custodians of the hard-earned savings of crores of the poor and the middle class. This scam of monumental proportions must be discussed on the floor of Parliament.

As is the convention, the President’s Address to both Houses of Parliament is written by the Union government. There were two miserly lines about the Northeast in the speech, and no mention of controlling prices, creating jobs, strengthening (fiscal) federalism, promoting communal harmony, or passing the Women’s Reservation Bill.

The second part of the session starting on March 13 will see Bills being introduced by the Union government. But will they introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill? Will the BJP keep its electoral promise? This will be the 29th session of Parliament with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.

The 2014 BJP manifesto stated, “…the BJP is committed to 33 per cent reservation in Parliament and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment.” The promise was repeated in 2019 “…the BJP is committed to 33 per cent reservation in Parliament and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment.”

Evidence has piled up to back the case for the reservation of women in Parliament and state legislatures. More than half of the countries today have introduced some form of electoral apportionment for women. India has lagged behind.

India has a female population of 59 crore (2011 census), which is 1.7 times the population of the US, the third most populous country in the world. Despite this, India has failed its women. Crimes against women increased by 15 per cent in 2021. Women’s economic participation is abysmally low at 32 per cent (PLFS data). Sex ratio at birth is still skewed in favour of males and has shown a decline since Independence. As per NFHS-5, the sex ratio at birth is 929. This number was 976 as per 1961 census.

One step that can contribute towards a solution has been stalled by Parliament for decades. The Bill to provide reservations to women in Parliament and state assemblies is still to become a law. Research suggests that political reservation for women leads to better representation of women-related policy concerns and an increased overall political participation by women. The Inter-Parliamentary Union has acknowledged the role of quotas in ensuring greater representation of women in Parliament: “Countries with some form of quota elected 31.9 per cent women on average to their lower or single house, while those without quotas elected only 19.5 per cent women overall.”

As opposed to the 26 per cent seats held by women in national Parliaments around the world, the 17th Lok Sabha has only 15 per cent women MPs, and an even lower 14 per cent of Rajya Sabha MPs are women (TMC already has 36 per cent of elected women MPs in Parliament). Across India’s state assemblies, the percentage of seats held by women remains below 15 per cent.

The share of women ministers in the central executive has declined from 23 per cent in 2019, to a disappointing 9 per cent in 2021. This has led to India’s rank in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 falling to 140 amongst 156 countries — the bottom 10 per cent. India’s rank in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Women in National Parliaments rankings has also dropped from 95 in 1998 to 142 in 2022.

The history of the Women’s Reservation Bill in India is a long and complicated one. The first draft of the Bill to amend the Constitution to provide 33 per cent reservation to women in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies (Why not Rajya Sabha?) was introduced in 1996, over 25 years ago, by the H D Deve Gowda-led government. This Bill lapsed on the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha. A new draft was introduced in 1998, which also lapsed on the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha. Since then, the bill has been tabled multiple times in Parliament, in 1999, 2002 and 2003.

The latest draft of the bill was introduced in May 2008 by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government. It was tabled in both Houses of Parliament amid protests by the SP, JD (U) and RJD. These parties claimed the Bill was disadvantageous to women from the SC, ST, OBC and minority communities. The Bill was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee. The panel presented its report in December 2009.

The Bill was taken up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010. Voting was deferred as the SP and RJD threatened to withdraw support to the UPA government. The next day, however, the Upper House passed the Women’s Reservation Bill with 186 members voting for it and only one opposing it.

The Bill then went to the Lok Sabha where the UPA had the numbers to get it passed with support from the BJP, the Left and other regional parties. However, it was never taken up for consideration and lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha (2014).

Former President Shri Pranab Mukherjee in his address at the beginning of the 16th Lok Sabha (2014) spelt out the BJP government’s stand on this: “My government recognises the important role our women play in the development of our society and growth of the nation. It is committed to providing 33 per cent reservation to them in Parliament and state legislative assemblies.”

This Budget Session of Parliament lasts for 27 days. Will the Modi government table the Women’s Reservation Bill this session? The chances of that happening are as low as me starring in a 2024 YRF film opposite Deepika Padukone.

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, February 3, 2023]