The euphoria over the passage of the historic Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha has rapidly dimmed, with the second hurdle proving too much for its champions. It is now highly unlikely that the Lok Sabha will adopt this progressive piece of legislation in the second half of the Budget session. Not unexpectedly, a bitterly divided all-party meeting saw traditional antagonists such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the Janata Dal (United) holding firm to their stand that a separate quota for backward class women must be worked into the Bill. And with the Trinamool Congress demanding subquotas for Muslim women and the Bahujan Samaj Party seeking the same for Dalits, the group ranged against the Bill in its present form has grown much larger. Added to this is the Bharatiya Janata Party's growing ambivalence on the measure, which many of its MPs are known to be against. While it is perfectly all right to ask for a full debate on a game-changing legislative measure, the party's opposition to the use of marshalls to evict obscurantist MPs would effectively make it impossible to get the Bill past the Lok Sabha. It must not be forgotten that the 14-year-old parliamentary journey of the Bill has been marked by scuffles, the snatching of papers, verbal abuse, and worse.
The fact is that intense passions have been generated over a reform that everyone supports ‘in principle,' where the devil is supposed to be in the detail. Large numbers of male MPs and MLAs cutting across parties are not reconciled to women winning 33 per cent of seats, by rotation, in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. While the United Progressive Alliance chairperson and Congress President Sonia Gandhi must be commended for her initiative, in the face of opposition within her own party and alliance, in getting the Bill past the Rajya Sabha, the party's course is shaped by the immediate imperatives of the UPA government — to get the Finance Bill approved and then try and negotiate the passage of the deeply flawed civil nuclear liability Bill. With the RJD and the SP withdrawing support over the Women's Reservation Bill, the Congress-led government would be averse to risk straining the relationship with its ally, the Trinamool Congress, or its supporter, the BSP, over this issue. The fate of the Bill now seems threatened by two powerful factors — the exigencies of government survival and entrenched opposition from male legislators who constitute over 90 per cent of the Lok Sabha. Whether the Congress leadership is prepared to risk early introduction of the Bill in the Lok Sabha under the present circumstances will be closely watched.