Women's Reservation Bill: Appeasement in election season

The caveats in the new reservation bill are a giveaway of the BJP’s insincere virtue-signalling ahead of Lok Sabha 2024

Congress workers celebrate the passage of the Women Reservation Bill and thank Sonia Gandhi for persistently raising the issue over the years. (Photo: Vipin/National Herald)
Congress workers celebrate the passage of the Women Reservation Bill and thank Sonia Gandhi for persistently raising the issue over the years. (Photo: Vipin/National Herald)

Shalini Sahay

The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam —envisaged, of course, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—is a “historic leap”, gushed home minister Amit Shah. The Lok Sabha had just passed the women’s reservation bill by 454 votes for and only two against. It will script a new and glorious chapter, agreed Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Modi himself expressed delight at the passage of a historic legislation.

Yet the Bharatiya Janata Party was less than delighted when the women’s reservation bill was first passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010. It was not taken up by the Lok Sabha then, at least in part due to disruptions by the BJP, then in the Opposition. The United Progressive Alliance was also a coalition, and several partners added caveats. BJP leaders lauded the RJD and Samajwadi Party MPs for ‘saving the nation’ by opposing the bill.

Several BJP leaders then were categorical in condemning the bill. “This bill will drown the Indian political system if it goes through,” Yogi Adityanath told the Hindustan Times at that time. If women developed masculine traits, they became demons, he said of women’s liberation.

“Dread the day when women’s reservation becomes reality,” tweeted Tejasvi Surya in June 2014—when the BJP had already committed itself to 33 per cent reservation for women in its manifesto! IT cell chief Amit Malviya was consistent from 2010 to 2013: “NaMo sees women as nation builders, Rahul Gandhi wanted to give them reservation!”

The Congress was equally persistent. Sonia Gandhi, as party president in 2017, and Rahul Gandhi, as president in 2018, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to use the BJP’s absolute majority in the Lok Sabha to get that same bill passed (for bills passed in the Upper House do not lapse).

In his letter, Rahul Gandhi wrote, “Mr Prime Minister, in many of your public rallies you have spoken about your passion for empowering women and involving them more meaningfully in public life… What better way to demonstrate your commitment to the cause of women than by offering your unconditional support to the Women’s Reservation Bill?”

Neither letter received a response. Reservation for women was never a topic on Modi’s monthly radio monologue Mann Ki Baat. His sphinx-like silence did not acknowledge the symbolic six-hour hunger strike of Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader K. Kavitha in March 2023 — she too sought early passage of the bill, first introduced in 1996 by the United Front government headed by HD Deve Gowda. More than 10 Opposition parties joined the protest, including the CPI(M).

Neither the 13 September listing of business for the special session of Parliament nor the revised list of 17 September mentioned the women’s reservation bill. Yet, suddenly, it was cleared at an unscheduled Union cabinet meeting on the evening of 18 September. It was introduced the next day and passed on 20 September.

The despatch with which the bill was passed demonstrates that the government could have done so any time these nine years. Why wait for a special session, barely eight months before the general election?

It is obvious the government only acted when it feared losing out in the popularity stakes. This was not a proactive move but a reactionary one. The economy has been mishandled; people’s resentment over inflation and unemployment is growing. The BJP finds itself on the backfoot in the five states going to the polls later this year. It needed an ‘achievement’ to tom-tom.

Another reason the BJP had to bite the bullet now is that more women are keen to vote. In the 2019 general election, women voters (67.2%) edged past men (67%) for the first time since Independence, showing they are too important a constituency for political parties to ignore.

It is not difficult to see why the BJP was lukewarm towards reservation for women either. Its key support base is the cow belt of north India, where patriarchy and feudal practices dominate—child marriages, honour killings, dowry deaths, domestic abuse, all crimes against women are markedly higher than in other states.

Reservation for women in panchayats and local bodies exists, but there the BJP fields the wives of dabang leaders like the infamous Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Still, finding women candidates who can win, who are allowed by their families to contest and campaign is a challenge.

This explains why in 16 states, the BJP has not a single woman as chief minister. In 2019, it fielded 53 women candidates for the Lok Sabha across 437 seats. But if a third of the seats are reserved, it must find 189 women! The BJP is possibly far less prepared for this scenario than others.

The Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, for instance, have many more women. The AITC claims 37 per cent of women among its MPs. In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, 40 per cent of the Congress candidates were women.

A related problem for the BJP, as the ruling party, is how to dump the large number of MPs and MLAs who are men used to wielding power. The pandering to patriarchy also explains the name of the ‘new’ bill, of course a move to appropriate and erase its history.

‘Shakti Vandan’, as the DMK’s Kanimozhi pointed out, puts women on a pedestal, distancing and invoking patriarchal standards of behaviour. Rather usefully, the cowbelt’s favourite goddesses tend not to upstage their men (be it Sita, Lakshmi or Ambika). They are not AITC MP Mahua Moitra’s Kali. They toe the party line, one might say.

The Hindi-favoured name is another clue (as with other recently amended laws) which gallery the BJP is playing to.

Patriarchy also explains why the BJP had to add riders to ensure the bill is not, conveniently, actually implemented—a census and a subsequent delimitation of constituencies. In the past, these exercises have taken five years or more to complete, meaning reservations must wait till 2029, perhaps even 2039 per some experts. (Except they won’t happen then, because reservation itself shall be withdrawn 15 years from the date of the Amendment, per the bill!)

Yet, a census is not required! It is a simple biological norm that women constitute half the population, and reservation is being offered to just 33 per cent. Nor is delimitation a hurdle: unlike for schedules castes and tribes, this reservation is not meant to be proportionate. And indeed, elections have been held without delimitation for decades.

Former Union minister Yashwant Sinha was scathing: “(This) is the greatest joke ever played on the women of India. Modi has proved once again that with the help of the godi media, you can prove that the earth rotates around the moon.”

But charges of of hypocrisy and opportunism are water off a duck’s back. The BJP expects its core constituency will amplify the ‘landmark’ only made possible by its one great leader.

That, it hopes, will win the 2024 elections.

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