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Women Reservation Bill: A sustained hope or a missed opportunity?

 

We have come a long way from the times when only 38 women MPs were represented in Parliament (5.3%) to the current day when 12% of Parliament is composed of women MPs.

Yet, we are much behind nations like Iraq, China and even many African nations like Rwanda and Tunisia. Interestingly, these nations fare better than us in the UNDP inequality index too. Indeed, development of any nation is concomitant to development of its female population, which in turn is linked to their representation in the policymaking process.

The reservation for women in Parliament has been a long-standing issue that has transformed itself into a dormant political missile, which is brought out at the beck and call of political parties to stir up vote banks and then swiftly hidden away once a political purpose is solved. Talk of women’s reservation began for the first time in Parliament when the HD Deve Gowda-led United Front government introduced the Women’s Reservation Bill in Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996. It was not passed and since then, the ghost of this bill has been called upon a number of times by various parties, for one reason or the other.

The proverbial rally between the governments has continued ever since, and has stretched for so long that even Vicky Nelson and Jean Hepner’s record-breaking game would be put to shame.

The NDA government re-introduced the bill in the 13th Lok Sabha in 1999. It moved the bill again amid uproar in 2002 while Left parties and the Congress gave assurances to support the bill, if taken up. After having been introduced twice in that Parliament, it was considered best to send the genie of the bill back into the bottle rather than some protesting MPs to the well, who were, well, products of the Mandal days and were vehemently protesting against any form of further “reservations” around the well of the House. Just before the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, Vajpayee blamed Congress for stalling the bill and said BJP and its allies would pass the legislation after getting a decisive mandate in 2004 elections. That, of course did not happen, and here exactly was the trick – it was a claim that was not meant to be fulfilled.

In 2004, the UPA Common Minimum Program declared: “The UPA government will take the lead to introduce legislation for one-third reservations for women in Vidhan Sabhas and in the Lok Sabha.” In 2005, BJP announced complete support for the bill. Next, Uma Bharti and others objected to the bill and demanded a caste quota within the bill. The deuce continued as the House was adjourned ahead of schedule without taking up the bill.

During the UPA-II government, the bill was passed on 9th March 2010 by the Rajya Sabha yet no voting took place on it in the Lok Sabha – another U-turn! One can wonder, as to why it was not passed in UPA-II straightaway? Why was the opportunity missed? The answer was blowing in the wind and the obvious answer is: ‘elections’.

Yet, as political calculations go, this time, the UPA mandate was lost and the bill came back in the court of the BJP dominated 16th Lok Sabha.

The rally has now resumed. In the Women’s Legislators Conference, held on 5th and 6th March, I came across all Congress delegates again speaking about women reservations. Even Mrs. Sonia Gandhi demanded the same in Parliament on Tuesday in her Women’s Day address. It is now to be seen if the current government will support this bill, or will they put the ghost back into the coffin.

The bill is now 18 years old and must get its right of adult franchise. Amidst the mutual bickering of the parties, it is the women of the nation who have been at the losing end. The women of this nation now look with hope, yet again, eagerly awaiting their bill to be passed in Parliament they elected. We must hope that this time the issue of women representation will emerge as a victor of political consensus rather than as a victim of discord.

(The author is a Member of Parliament from Nizamabad. The views expressed are personal.)

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