Prior to the Parliament’s Monsoon session in July 2021, Derek O’Brien, a member of the Rajya Sabha from the TMC, pressed upon the urgent need to enact the Women's Reservation Bill, thus, rejuvenating a long-standing debate in Indian politics pertaining to the enactment of reservation for women in India’s representative institutions. The issue of affirmative action for women in Parliament raises crucial questions regarding the space given to women in the political sphere.
The concept of ‘politics of presence’ has been postulated by feminist theorists such as Anne Philips as a means to ensure women’s access to full political participation and exercise of citizenship rights. The identity of political representatives is crucial to ensure that the political system is reflective of the diverse identities and experiences of the electorate. In India, demands for enacting affirmative action policies for women in political institutions are correlated to this concept of a ‘politics of presence’.
The Women’s Reservation Bill: A Brief Synopsis
The legislation proposes a 33% reservation of seats for women in the lower house of the Parliament and in the state legislative assemblies. It also proposes to allocate 1/3rd of the total number of seats in the aforementioned bodies, reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, to be reserved for women belonging to those marginalised communities. It further incorporates a measure of allotting reserved seats to different constituencies in the state or union territory on a rotational basis. The allocation of seats to come under the reserved quota would be determined by a Parliament-appointed authority. The Bill also states that the instituted women’s quota would cease to exist 15 years after the commencement of the 108th Amendment.
While the Bill was initially conceptualised in 1996 under the Deve Gowda government, the question of providing women reserved seats in representative bodies can be historically traced to the Constituent Assembly debates. Thereafter, the Bill has accumulated a long-drawn history of unsuccessful attempts to pass the legislation in Parliament amidst vehement opposition. Notably, it was re-introduced in Parliament as the 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill in 2008 under the UPA regime. Following the report issued by the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2009, the law was enacted by the Rajya Sabha in 2010. The passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha was heralded as a landmark accomplishment in the struggle for women’s equality in political representation. However, contrary to popular perception, the Bill was never voted upon in the Lok Sabha and has been subject to lapse.
Gender-based reservation in legislatures- A highly divisive issue:
Amidst intense uproar, the Bill has subsequently evolved into a subject of controversy and remains a polarising issue plaguing Indian politics and the nature of electoral representation. In the present context, the future prospects of the Women’s Reservation Bill appear grim. Even if passed by the Lok Sabha, other complexities would arise due to the need for ratification of the amendment bill by ½ of the state legislatures.
A report by PRS Legislative Research identifies three divergent perspectives on the question of a gender-based quota in legislatures. Firstly, exponents of the Bill stress the necessity of a reservation quota for women to re-invent the political arena, thereby improving women’s social condition and ipso facto making politics more reflective of gender identities and gendered experiences. Women leaders would be able to act as agents of change and foster community-level development. Furthermore, the Bill also assures reservation for women belonging to marginalised communities such as SCs and STs demonstrating its intersectional quality. Last but not least, it stands to reason that a reservation policy for female political representatives may significantly alter public perception about women’s role in politics.
Prior to the inception of the Women’s Reservation Bill, reservation of seats for women had been implemented in rural and urban local bodies through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts (1992-1993) which ensured decision-making power to women in grassroots-level governance. The intensifying need to extend a policy of affirmative action to all levels of political institutions to promote gender parity induced demands for the Women’s Reservation Bill. Proponents of the proposed amendment often reference the strides made by these Amendments in allowing women to occupy centre stage in grassroots-level governance.
In spite of the wide-ranging plausible merits of such a policy, the Women’s Reservation Bill has also garnered vigorous criticism. Opponents of a policy of gender-based criteria for reservation in central and state legislative bodies stress that such a policy would perpetuate unfairness by preventing equal and merit-based competition between electoral candidates. Critics term it as ‘pseudo-representation’, describing it as a paradoxical move likely to perpetuate greater gender inequalities and marginalisation. Some practices in the Panchayati Raj corroborate this fact; in certain instances, women’s reserved seats are filled by the female family members of politically affluent sections of the community and largely play figurehead roles. This renders a reservation quota for women in electoral bodies effectively moot.
Other viewpoints on the Women’s Reservation Bill underline the fact that a women’s quota allocated on a rotational basis across constituencies may de-incentivise political representatives from working for the welfare of their constituencies as they may be ineligible to seek the popular mandate in the next term. Furthermore, if women candidates are assured Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha seats based on reservation over individual merit, it would elicit a negative impact on their post-election performance and public accountability. In addition, the case may be made that voter-choice may be restricted in the event of a ‘quota system’ in elections for women. Politically affluent powers may misuse the quota system to field candidates aiming to seize reserved seats to maintain the status quo.
Why has the Women’s Reservation Bill failed to become a reality?
Between 2014 and 2019, women constituted 11.4% of the national legislature, a remarkably low figure in comparison to the global average of 22%. With the election of 78 women to the Lok Sabha after the 2019 elections, women currently account for merely 14% of the total numeral strength of the lower house of the Parliament, which is astonishingly an all-time high percentage. In 2021, India ranked 140th among 156 countries in Global Gender Gap Report 2021 by the World Economic Forum, attributable to burgeoning gender gaps in political and economic participation. These statistics reveal a consistent trend of poor ranks exhibited by India on an international scale vis-a-vis gender equality and women’s representation in politics. India’s social realities are indicative of a situation where a policy measure like the Women’s Reservation Bill is of dire necessity.
In view of the infinitesimal rates of women’s political representation and a consistently high rate of gender discrimination in India, it becomes essential to analyse why the fate of the Women’s Reservation Bill has been doomed. While affirmative action has been established for SCs, STs, and OBCs in education, employment, and legislatures, why has there been such staggering progress in securing reservation on the basis of gender in the political sphere?
Due to intense outrage in the Parliament surrounding the Bill, the scope for constructive debate on the features of the proposed legislation has been obstructed. The unabated patriarchal bias colouring the attitudes of a majority of decision-makers voting on the Bill explains why attempts to pass the legislation over a 14-year duration (1996-2010) repeatedly miscarried.
Due to the polarising nature of the Bill and the lack of a consensus, the issue fell prey to party politics emerging as a bone of contention between different political interests. National party-driven alliances (UPA and NDA) extended support to the Bill while a vociferous opposition to women’s reservation in Parliament was led by regional parties like Samajwadi Party, BSP, RJD, and JDU.
Calls for a sub-quota for OBC and other minorities within the proposed 1/3rd seats for women by OBC-Dalit parties signal that caste politics also factors in, further entangling the discourse. However, in light of the acceleration in subaltern representation in India’s political landscape, all parties employ tactics of fielding candidates from a wide variety of caste and social identities to maximise electability. Therefore, if the Women’s Reservation Bill were to be instituted, with or without OBC sub-reservation, parties may continue to be motivated to nominate candidates from diverse caste interests, thus, defeating the purpose of highlighting gender identities. Thus, even the proponents of the Bill are divided over the issue of reservation for SCs and STs within the one-third quota for women.
Moreover, the Women’s Reservation Bill was no longer pursued in the Lok Sabha following its passage in the Rajya Sabha after 2010 due to the lack of strong political backing. In spite of the BJP’s initial support for the bill in 2005, no tangible progress has been made on that front since the NDA alliance’s ascendancy to power and its capability to ensure the legislation’s passage, owing to its overwhelming parliamentary majority.
Exploring Policy Alternatives:
Despite having reached an impasse on this question, there is ample scope to revamp its features in order to alter the Bill into a more actionable version of itself. Other policy alternatives to the ⅓ rd seat reservation include introducing reservation for women within political parties and enforcing it through the Code of Conduct instituted by the Election Commission, exploring the possibility of multi-member constituencies with one mandatory seat for women, and removing the concept of rotating constituencies for reserved seats to incentivise candidates to focus on the long-term welfare of the people of their constituencies. The Joint Parliamentary Committee had also recommended extending reservation to the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Councils, and introducing OBC reservation within the seats reserved for women. However, the aforementioned recommendations were rejected when the Bill was reintroduced as the 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill.
In the wider context, the stance of either vocal opposition or indifference adopted by political parties in India towards the issue of women’s reservation in legislatures is reflective of the nature of India’s political system. Political parties and agendas are organised around caste, class or religious identities, not gender identities. The lack of gender-inclusive voices in the policy-making sphere has further amplified the problem producing a socio-political reality wherein women’s equal participation in politics lacks adequate policy focus.
This tendency itself provides the rationale for gender-based reservation criteria in politics. Legislation for equal political engagement of women can emerge as a policy priority with elected representatives identifying and advocating for such issues. Skewed gender ratios in public representation and the pervasive ‘glass ceiling’, inhibiting women in politics, highlight the dire need for reservation of seats for women in legislatures. While the fate of the Women’s Reservation Bill continues to hang on the fence, so do possibilities of gender equity in political participation and representation in India.
About the Author:
Shivangi Basu is a final year undergraduate student majoring in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. Her research interests include foreign policy, international relations, public policy and governance particularly pertaining to gender and social welfare. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.