Women’s Reservation Bill or The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, is a pending bill in India which proposes to reserve thirty three per cent of all seats in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament of India, and state legislative assemblies. The Bill says the seats to be reserved in rotation will be determined by draw of lots in such a way that a seat shall be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections.
This Bill has been passed by the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Parliament in March 2010. It needs to be passed by the Lok Sabha and at least fifty per cent of all state legislative assemblies, before it is put before the President of India for her approval.
Women already enjoy 33 per cent reservation in gram panchayats and municipal elections. In addition, women in India get reservation or preferential treatments in education and jobs. For instance, several law schools in India have a 30 per cent reservation for females. The political opinion behind providing such reservations to women is to create a level playing field for all of its citizens. The argument is that social norms strongly favor men and therefore, reservation for women would create equal opportunity for men and women.
Among the other benefits that the Bill is expected to provide is an increased participation of women in politics and society. Due to female foeticide and issues related to women’s health, sex ratio in India is alarming at 1.06 males per female. It is expected the Bill will change the society to give equal status to women. Women are supposedly more resistant to corruption, so this bill might prove to be a factor restraining the growth of corruption.
On the other hand, the passing of the Women’ Reservation Bill may cause bias in the democratic process. It may hurt the self-respect of women who have come up on their own ability, and may result in lesser respect for women in the society. It may also bring down the quality of leaders. It may create a new kind of hatred between genders as males may feel deprived of certain privileges, which in turn may create more social issues.
Another issue will be for the political parties, which will be forced to find women whether or not the women identify with the overall party agenda and the rest of the issues concerning all citizens, as opposed to just women’s issues. There are no provisions to prevent discrimination against men because of finding women who are inclined towards women’s issues alone, or, in other words, biased against men. Further, powerful male members of parties will be tempted to find female relatives to ‘reserve’ the seat for themselves. So, it is feared that reservation would only help women of the elitist groups to gain seats, therefore causing further discrimination and under-representation to the poor and backward classes.
Some leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Yadav have vehemently opposed the Bill in its current form. They are demanding a reservation for backward class’s women with the 33 per cent, i.e. they are asking for a reservation within a reservation.
Irrespective of whether the Bill comes into effect or not, the fact is that women are as ever underrepresented in the election fray and in party structures. Very little has changed at one level since Independence. The candidates fielded by the various political parties are still dominantly male: women account for only five to ten per cent of all candidates across parties and regions. This is the same broad pattern that has been observed in virtually all the general elections in the country.
This is the case despite the hullabaloo made over the Constitution (84th Amendment) Bill relating to women’s reservation even last year. The very parties that are most explicitly in favor of pushing for women’s reservation put up the same proportion of women as always in elections, and certainly not more than other parties that oppose the Bill.
What may be more significant in terms of political power than the proportion of women fighting the Lok Sabha polls is the importance of women in inner party structures. Here women are by and large even less represented, in all parties. Only in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) there has been a conscious move to bring many more women into decision-making levels and posts within the party.
In most parties, the women members are by and large thin on the ground if not invisible in the actual decision-making bodies and rarely influence the more significant party policies. Most often, indeed, they are relegated to the ‘women’s wing’ of the party, and made to concentrate on what are seen as specifically ‘women’s issues’ such as dowry and rape cases, and occasionally on more general concerns like price rise which are seen to affect housewives.
Despite all this, women are playing an important part in Indian politics today. This is most evident in the proliferation of women leaders and in the fact that, even though some of them may head parties that are relatively small in the national context, they simply cannot be ignored. What is even more significant is that in many cases these women leaders have not emerged through the familiar South Asian paradigm of dynastic advantage. Sonia Gandhi, obviously, is a clear example of a dynastic leader, with an almost iconic relevance.
Jayalalitha and Mayawati may have originally based their rise in politics on their proximity to particular male leaders, but they are now significant leaders in their own right, who can influence not only the decisions of their own parties but even the course of national politics. Mamata Banerjee, despite or indeed because of her controversial nature, is the leader of a party who can claim to have got where she is on her own, without male assistance in any of the more obvious ways.
Of course, one myth that is easily exploded by the role played by such women leaders is that political leadership by women is dramatically different from that by men. Indeed, the truth is that most of our women political leaders are no better or worse than men. What all this suggests, therefore, is that the political empowerment of women not only still has a long way to go, but it also may not have all that much to do with the periodic carnivals of Indian electoral democracy.
This is not to say that the electoral representation of women is unimportant, but rather that it needs to be both deeper and wider than its current manifestation in the form of the prominence of a few conspicuous women leaders. It is too early to say whether the Women’s Reservation Bill will serve the purpose.