On 9th March 2010, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, passed the bill on the reservation of 33 percent seats in the Lok Sabha, for India’s women representatives. This has been hailed as a historic step towards a constitutional amendment that would ensure significant representation of the women of India, in the parliament. Currently, a population of almost 500 million Indian women, is represented by less than 60 elected representatives, out of the 545 Lok Sabha seats. If this bill is implemented, the number of women representatives would increase three times to 181.

Despite severe opposition and threats from several UPA allies, news of dissatisfaction amongst the members of the BJP party who originally pledged support to the bill, and the appearance of a lack of strategy on the part of the ruling UPA, the bill was passed on March 9th by the Rajya Sabha. There was much to cheer for the women of this country, despite the shocking witnesses of misdemeanor of several MPs who opposed the bill, on the previous day.

That this fifty percent of the population is an underprivileged group, a fact that no political party in India can deny. The demand for the 33 percent reservation is modest compared to what would be the real bias free representation of 50 percent.

 •  Legislative brief on the bill
 •  Law with flaws: 2009 bill

The Women’s reservation Bill is one of the longest pending legislation in the Indian Parliament, since its inception. First introduced in 1996, the bill has remained enmeshed in controversy and unresolved for a period of over 13 years. The bill grabbed the headlines in the past with the intent of several governments, first the NDA in 2001 and then promise of the UPA government in 2009, to pass it. Unfortunately, amidst much resistance and criticisms from different political parties, the fate of the bill remained unclear.

The main arguments from the opponents of the bill are the following:

(1)The bill would benefit only women from the privileged strata of the society. Hence this reservation should contain 33% reservation within the women’s category, for SC and ST women.
(2)The bill would bring forth more relatives (wives and daughters) of current politicians into public space and hence destroy democracy.
(3)The concept of quota is morally wrong and stigmatizes those from the reserved category. Women in modern India do not need reservation.
(4)Women can only represent issues pertaining to gender development.
(5)Reservation should be at the level of distributing party tickets.

The single largest technical argument from the UP and Bihar regional political parties has been that this bill will only the women from the elite section of the society will gain access to power. Some of the political parties have demanded a quota of 33% of seats for women from SC/ST communities. However, in their arguments the definition of social “elites” is not clear. In some cases, it has been equated to forward castes and in other cases it has been associated with higher socio-economic backgrounds in the society. Several allusions from the three Yadavs (Lallu, Mulayam and Sharad) have been towards women with “privileges”.

A careful scrutiny of "privileges" in women will translate to those with higher education, who are financially independent, belonging to families that have been willing and able to support their career choices. (Interestingly, Sharad Yadav has referred to them as women with short hair!).

One, it is important to acknowledge here that those that have raised human rights awareness on gender inequalities in society, are often from amongst the educated “privileged” class. Madhu Kishwar, who spearheaded the anti dowry movement in India and Indira Jaisingh, who drafted India’s first domestic violence bill, would probably qualify as privileged class. And they have spear headed key development issues that are universal to the interest of the entire women fraternity.

It is also likely that a large section of women who have made their way into Indian politics would come from privileged family backgrounds and would have received higher education. Such women may also be born into families that are willing to invest resources into their daughters education and careers. It is possible that in the caste ridden society of India, there would be a strong correlation between caste status and women’s empowerment.

Dismissing this section of aspirant women as “elitist” and “incapable of representing” Indian women’s interest would defeat the very purpose of striving to educate and financially empower the women population of this country, irrespective of caste barriers. It would go against the very spirit of “progressive thinking” that can emerge from an individual who has “quality life”, education and economic independence.

Secondly, women represent a single fraternity. From the perspective of gender disparity, it has been well documented that these issues affect women irrespective of caste and economic status. Dowry harassments and domestic violence are prevalent across caste and economic boundaries. Female infanticide and feticide in India, that drew international concerns from UNICEF and WHO, is on the rise in metros, as much as in rural India.

Compared to the conditions of the Dalits in his times, Ambedkar was certainly “privileged” to receive the highest education degrees, which enabled him to gain public prominence, and brought him to a position to dictate policy level changes in society. It has never been debated whether Ambedkar could champion the interests of the un-educated from the lowest rung of the society. With respect to caste and religion based reservation demands, this “elitist” argument has not been raised by any political party.

Indeed, the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections brought forth the fact the average wealth of an elected MP in the current Lok Sabha is in hundreds of crores and has risen since the last time. Lallu, Mulayam and Sharad Yadav have themselves declared assets of this magnitude. The disparity of wealth of these MPs, with the people of their respective constituencies who they represent, is not questioned or remarked upon by any member of parliament, or by the MPs themselves.

A second concern raised in the arguments against the bill is whether women belonging to powerful political families would be elected to positions of power and decision making, by their ambitious parents. Those opposing the bill argue that the reservation policy will bring the wives and daughters of politicians to these positions of power. While the issue of political families in India holding power is true, this is prevalent across all political parties in India today. Many of the new faces amongst the younger politicians are sons and daughters of political families. This is also true of those who have raised this argument.

The opponents of the bill Lallu Yadav abused the position of the Chief Minister of his state by allowing the accession of his wife Rabri devi, a woman with little political experience or knowledge. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son holds the post of the party secretary on SP (youth) and his daughter-in-law was given a ticket to fight in the recently concluded elections. However, as Purandeshwari, the daughter of the late AP Chief Minister N T Rama Rao points out, this advantage may work for the children of politicians to launch themselves initially into politics.

However, to be re-elected from a constituency, the MP will have to prove his or her worth based upon performance in the grass roots work, irrespective of their political connections. Given that the MP is ultimately accountable to the people of a constituency who elect the person to a position of power, there are no shortcuts in the long run.

There is one fundamental question that has been asked time and again - Do women in India need reserved seats in the Parliament? Reservations at the Panchayati Raj or the village governance level are generally perceived as successful methods to draw out women, particularly the rural population, into a political space.

However, as many people pointed out that in such large numbers, there are both successful and unsuccessful stories. In many cases, women are merely puppet representatives of their men folk and return to their household activities as soon as their terms are over. However, even if the scheme has had less than 50% success, it is still no mere achievement to have over 2 million rural women who have led their panchayats, a feat that would never be accomplished without this affirmative action.

Many people question whether or not reservation at the topmost level of governance is necessary and will achieve the desired results of increasing women’s empowerment. The parallels are drawn with caste based reservations implemented in educational institutions and government jobs in this country. The argument against any reservation per se is that it compromises with the quality and merit. While some amount of reservation is necessary to empower the backward sections of society and bring them at par with the privileged sections, reservations are generally perceived as detrimental especially in the higher positions, where individuals should be admitted purely on merit and not any other social parameter.

Equally, a strong perception remains that quotas actually stigmatize communities, and that individuals who find themselves in positions of power through reservations feel discriminated and inferior to those who are from general categories. So reservation does not result in real empowerment. It has also been pointed out that women are increasingly finding themselves in high jobs in the corporate and business positions, without reservations. In these cases, women have been able to break stereotypes and compete with men, and have not needed any aid through reservations.

Women perform very well and often excel their male counterparts in level playing fields where merit is key to success. It is true that we find iconic role models amongst women in different corporate jobs and other high end professions. But politics is a different arena and not a level playing field.

In politics today, money and muscle power are key to success. India’s political scenario does not present an atmosphere where a number of women can excel, without an active collective effort to promote their participations. In fact it is well known that in India’s freedom struggle, particularly in the Indian national Congress under the leadership of Gandhi, women took part as actively as men. However, barring a few, most women were marginalised from participating in the government, post independence. Their representations in legislation were far lower than the numbers who participated in the actual freedom struggle.

62 years post independence, women representation is still hovering at around 11 percent, with only 59 of the current 252 seats held by the majority party in the current Lok Sabha, significantly lower than the average of 17 percent all over the world. This is despite the fact that women candidates have higher success rates in Indian elections. It goes on to show that without active affirmative action, the representation of women who constitute 50 percent of the population will not significantly increase in the years to come.

Another argument that has been put forward against reservation for women is that whether women MPs will be able to represent issues of national importance, other than those that affect gender rights. This argument is offensive and goes on to show the narrow mindset of male politicians. The interests of women in this country have remained in the hands of male politicians, so far. Particularly when experts in major social development like education, health, economics and even environment issues have all acknowledged that the main thrust for improvement can only come from an approach that acknowledges that gender discrimination underlies all these issue.

At the same time, in almost all professions, women have performed as well, if not better than their male counterparts. No questions can be raised about the competence of Kiran Bedi, Indira Nooyi or Barkha Dutt. Several states have chief ministers who have led their respective parties into power and have been competent in representing a diverse set of issues for her state, as any male politician.

The only argument against the current bill that holds some merit is that whether this reservation should go hand-in-hand, or even be preceded by reservations in the number of tickets given to women within each political party. This number is currently abysmally low and women are discriminated at the party level, from active participation. A quick survey shows that in most Scandinavian countries of the world where women’s representation on parliament is significant (greater than 33 percent), affirmative action is enforced at the level of issuing tickets at the individual party level, and has proved to be more effective than reservations only in the parliament. This ensures that women who come to power actually win the elections in a democracy and yet assures of adequate representation.

However, in the current political scenario of India, where a substantial section of politicians from UP and Bihar have actually opposed and even ridiculed this bill, this legislation may turn out difficult to be more difficult to implement. At this point of time, the BJP had the highest number of women candidates who fought elections under its umbrella, and the number was only 43 out of the 243 candidates fielded. In fact, this has remained a strong criticism of the Congress party, as to why, despite a woman as the president, have they not shown any affirmative action towards promoting women politicians to fight elections on the party tickets. No political party is barred from ensuring representation of backward caste women at the level of issuing the tickets.

The Women’s Reservation Bill in the Parliament is inherently different in both spirit and its long term implications, from all other reservation policies of the country. In spirit, this bill differs from all other minority reservation bills in that it seeks representation for half of the country’s citizens. Given that this fifty percent of the population is an underprivileged group, a fact that no political party in India can deny; the demand for the 33% reservation is modest compared to what would be the real bias free representation of 50%. While there is a justifiable concern that whether or not this reservation policy will bring any real benefit to women, there are no alternatives to affirmative action, in bringing empowerment to any underprivileged group in the society.

The acid test of this battle for women’s reservation in parliament will happen when the bill reaches the Lok Sabha for clearance. The UPA government will have to prove its real intentions to pass the bill, by formulating a clear cut strategy which aims towards mustering as much support for the bill as possible, including hearing out its allies like the Trinamool, who abstained from the Rajya Sabha vote. Clear deadlines have to be set, by when the government will place the bill in Lok Sabha.

The opposition parties of BJP and the CPI (M) will have to step across party lines and join hands with the present government to get a majority. A significant onus will lie with the 59 elected women to work together towards passing the bill. The civil society and the media will have mount the pressure on the government for its accountability and the delivery of its promise. Until then, we the women of India will wait to celebrate this as a legislative victory.