Herald View: Women’s reservation bill, 2023 – A phony deferred promise
The Delimitation Commission takes three to four years to put out its final report. Assuming that nothing else derails it between now and then, the reservation may see the light of day in 2039
By now you’ve read or heard about the mysterious circumstances in which the Women’s Reservation Bill 2023 was introduced in the just-concluded special session of Parliament.
In a departure from established tradition— which shouldn’t surprise us, given that we seem to be in such a godawful hurry to throw out everything enshrined in the Constitution of India—the Opposition was served no notice of the agenda for the special session till the eleventh hour.
At that late hour, we heard that in the legislative business planned for the session was a Bill on the appointment of the chief election commissioner and other election commissioners.
The provisions of the bill are alarming, to say the least, but then just as suddenly as it had been introduced, it was dropped from the agenda, and out popped a new jack-in-the box—the Women’s Reservation Bill, 2023. What, you may quite reasonably ask, is the common thread between these two pieces of legislation? See them in the context of the upcoming Lok Sabha election, and plausible hypotheses begin to take shape.
If the EC bill is a weapon of control, a way to convert the Election Commission into a quasi-government department, and hence a partisan player in the election exercise, the Women’s Reservation Bill is a blandishment to lure half the voters with the promise to give women their rightful place in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies.
But not just yet, so hold on to your champagne glasses—as the saying goes: there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip.
In the words of Clause 5 of the new bill:
‘Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provision of this Part or Part VIII, the provisions of the Constitution relating to the reservation of seats for women in the House of the People, the Legislative Assembly of a State and the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi shall come into effect after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken for this purpose after the relevant figures for the first census taken after commencement of the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Amendment) Act, 2023 have been published…’ (emphases added).
In other words, kick the can so far down the road that you don’t have to worry about it any time soon, but get all the political mileage the election-time jumla may be worth. Political analysts have varying estimates for the earliest it may be possible to implement the provisions, if we were to go by the letter of the bill.
Some media reports have optimistically said 2029, which is too far to be of any consequence now, but people who have seen the devil in the fine print have pointed out that the caveats in the bill make the promised reservation unfeasible till much later.
Here’s a snapshot of that argument: Yogendra Yadav, a psephologist in his earlier life, pointed out in a tweet that Article 82 (amended in 2001) bars delimitation prior to the publication of the first census figures post 2026. The next decennial census (assuming it happens) is due in 2031.
The Delimitation Commission takes three to four years to put out its final report (the last effort took five). In effect, assuming that nothing else derails it between now and then, the reservation may see the light of day in 2039.
Apologies, if that dampened your appetite for celebration. Had the exercise really been about affirmative action, about giving women their long-overdue space in governance at the highest levels, there was no reason to sneak in these caveats—and the reservations could have been given effect in the next Lok Sabha.
Nevertheless, the bill sailed through the Lok Sabha with 454 votes in its favour and only 2 MPs voting against. The support from the Opposition benches was no doubt qualified, because everyone sees the new bill for what it is—an insincere election gambit.
The name itself is a giveaway of the tokenism this bill is really about: the deferential word ‘vandan’ (obeisance) in the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’ is of a piece with the rest of the patriarchal guff the Sangh is so full of—in their words, they put women on a pedestal, so that in the real world, women can’t threaten their dominion as peers.