The Women’s Reservation Bill proposes a 33% reservation of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and in all state legislative assemblies. The reservation of seats will cease to exist after 15 years of implementation of this amendment bill. In 1993, a constitutional amendment was passed calling for one-third of the council leaders, a Pradhan position in Gram Panchayat to be reserved for women. Since 1996, this bill has been tabled in parliament houses and lapsed due to the lack of political consensus. Rajya Sabha passed this bill in March 2010, but the bill lapsed after the dissolution of 15th Lok Sabha in 2014. Congress President, Rahul Gandhi wrote to the PM asking him to support the bill on July 16 and a person from BJP today has accused him of siding with those who opposed the bill. Both the statements are true but the latter is not a sufficient explanation of the former. Rahul Gandhi may or may not have risen above party politics for a greater cause. I hope his action at least gives way to a public discourse on women’s participation and role in politics.
Is it important to choose an ideal number of women who constitute half the population of this country for political representation, participation and decision making? Will the government closely representing the composition of the society probably make more stable policies? Women deserve a real opportunity to contribute towards the development and the governance of the country. The overwhelming number of women we find in election rallies and the turnout for voting does not transform into their attaining political office by participation in elections and there remains an inadequacy of women in the elected bodies. We need an effective and equal participation of women in leadership, decision-making roles and an active interest in political and community affairs: a gender-balanced administration, for the full development and advancement of the country.
Ours is a government dominated by men, which does not mean a total exclusion of women. But is it a type of democracy where women have an equal voice? The need is not just to include women but to ensure a broad representation. I do not support a quota system for ensuring women’s participation but what is the alternative to ensure an equal footing for women?
Let’s use numbers to understand the above rhetoric to make more sense. There have been about 16 Lok Sabha general elections in the span of 54 years starting from 1951. The number of seats held by women in the first elections was 22, making about 5% of the total, and 66 seats out of 543 in 2014 which makes it about 12%. There has been a slow gradual growth in the number of seats every year. But 11% is a far cry from the ideal 33% the Bill seeks to implement. Let me rephrase this – about 89% of the total seats were held by men in the last general elections. Out of the 8251 who contested, only 668 were women. This means 92% of the contenders were men. One-third of the 668 women were independent candidates.
No women candidates won in Haryana, Jharkhand and Meghalaya. Only one woman won in Rajasthan out of 27 women who contested across 320 seats. This lone woman won the seat which was previously represented by her father-in-law. 11 women won out of 552 seats in UP and 13 out of 42, the highest, in West Bengal. It would be important to understand that even the major political parties had a handful of women representatives: BJP – 37, INC – 57 and 574 others. In the 2018 Karnataka elections, the candidacy of women was only 8% and this is the highest ever in the state’s history. Do we see a systematic exclusion of the section that constitutes half the population?
I cannot leave here with my rhetoric and numbers without addressing some of us who cry about ‘competence and merit’ and some of us who cry about preferential treatment and discrimination against them among other ‘drawbacks’. I agree that candidates should be selected based on their education, the necessary knowledge and skills and not on the basis of their financial assets and registered criminal cases. Think of self-made politicians with an appetite for political change getting tickets, contesting and winning elections and the men of merit then advocating for safety, equality, health, education and even a fair involvement of women in politics. Did you say preferential treatment and discrimination?
Let’s try to define discrimination and preferential treatment. We rank 108 on a list of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index 2017 and 131 on the Gender Inequality Index. Maybe they found out about the sex ratio, mortality rate, and crime rate, the literacy ratio, the pay gap or the missing women in the workplaces among other things. Among the drawbacks or concerns that have been raised first is that the 33 % should also include women from minority groups otherwise it would only benefit privileged strata. This is fair enough given the fact that women more likely to benefit otherwise would be from political families backed by money and power or from a privileged class/caste. If the women representatives will not belong to diverse groups, just like our population, it will lead to instability.
Another drawback stated has been that it would help relatives of current politicians enter politics and defeat the purpose of the bill. This happens with or without the bill’s implementation. There are suggestions like reservation should only be at the level of distributing party tickets which is understandable, no? But who gets the 67% of the tickets then considering that women from all social groups are in the 33%? Never mind the fact that contesting doesn’t always translate to winning. There is another shameless statement that women in modern India do not need reservations. Modern India, please do not leave your women and minorities on the fringes as you move forward with your development and nationalism. Please confront the obstacles that inhibit women’s participation in all areas of public life.
Maybe this is the sign of the times as the global participation of women at the national level Parliament is 22.4%. But we don’t need to look up to the western democracies as they are bad role models, especially the superpowers. Their situation is appalling. One superpower has an all-male cabinet to preside over all issues related to women’s bodies. Another superpower has decriminalised ‘some aspects’ of domestic violence law last year. Maybe we should learn from countries with higher women representation in politics like France, Sweden, Netherlands, Rwanda, and South Africa as these countries are more socially advanced than the rest of us.
Participation and leadership are important for any democracy to function effectively. Increasing representation will empower young women in our country to participate in civil society and politics. I want to conclude this by adding that we not only need an increased number of voices from women but we also need to ensure that these voices are heard and their views and contributions are valued. But the involvement of women should not be limited to their engagement in women’s issues. An increased percentage does not necessarily mean substantive representation of women’s interests either. Male politicians don’t always exclude women issues and women politicians don’t always bring them up. Also, the concerns that exclusively/disproportionately apply to women need not always be addressed by women.