By itself, the decision of the United Progressive Alliance government to increase the reservation for women in all tiers of the panchayati raj system from one-third to at least half is a progressive step. But seen in the context of the government’s part-inability, part-unwillingness to push through one-third reservation for women in Parliament and State legislatures, this initiative loses much of its gloss. The success of 33 per cent reservation for women in the panchayats should have been reason enough to extend it to the elected bodies at the highest political level. However, in the face of strong opposition from several political parties, including supporters of the government, the UPA clearly lacks the political will to do the bold thing. The experience of States that already have at least 50 per cent reservation in panchayati tiers is that the local administration becomes more gender-sensitive and accessible. An increase in the number of women politicians at the grassroots level directly and indirectly leads to women’s empowerment in several fields. Greater participation of women in decision-making fortifies the overall democratic process, and makes the functioning of the elected bodies more meaningful.
The increase in reservation for women in panchayats is to be followed by a similar increase in urban local bodies. What is involved is an amendment of Article 243 of the Constitution, which provides for caste-wise and gender-wise reservation. As Members of Parliament have no direct stake at the lower levels of governance, and as States have powers to decide on the extent of reservation in local bodies, the amendment to facilitate 50 per cent reservation for women is unlikely to face any hurdle. Although major political parties such as the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Left have voiced support for the Women’s Reservation Bill, a small group of noisy diehard opponents have formed an impenetrable wall. The two major parties must accept a major share of the blame for the non-passage of the Bill. In the name of an elusive political consensus, the Congress and the BJP let matters drift, pretending virtuously to be for the big change but going along with the no-changers. This stance suits their MPs and MLAs, many of whom, quite hypocritically, have opposed the Bill in private while toeing the party line in public. The benefits of reservation in a profoundly inequitable society such as India’s are evident to all. The Manmohan Singh government has no excuses left for staying with the soft option and not mustering the political will and the parliamentary numbers to see the Women’s Reservation Bill through.