In the President’s address to Parliament, the NDA government announced its commitment to enacting the long-pending Bill that seeks to reserve a third of the seats in Parliament and the State Assemblies for women. Recent reports suggest that with the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal — that had opposed the Bill in its present form in the past — now numerically reduced in the Lok Sabha, the government should have no problem in mustering a two-thirds majority to push through this contentious piece of legislation with the help of the Congress and the Left parties. This argument, however, does not factor in the reality that even during the UPA’s 10 year-long rule, the Congress, the BJP and the Left parties together had the numbers to pass the Bill in the Lok Sabha. The problem lay elsewhere: when the Rajya Sabha approved the Bill in March 2010, the UPA was forced to use marshals to physically check MPs who got unruly and violent, rendering the entire episode controversial, and acting as a deterrent to using the same tactics in the Lok Sabha. In 2014, the SP, the BSP and the RJD may have been rendered ineffective, but at least two of the BJP’s partners in the NDA, the Shiv Sena and the Lok Jan Shakti Party, have traditionally opposed the Bill and it is not clear whether they have had a change of heart since.
In the past, MPs belonging to the Other Backward Classes across all political parties — including the BJP — have argued vociferously that reservation for women in the legislatures would reduce the representation of OBCs who had fought a long and hard battle to get their share in Parliament, as women candidates would be drawn largely from the elite, upper-caste sections. This is a fallacious argument: for parties selecting candidates, men or women, generally factor in the caste composition of the individual constituency. Indeed, even in the 16th Lok Sabha, a third of the 62 women MPs belong to the OBCs, reflecting the increase in their numbers in the House over the years. The reason for the violent and rancorous opposition to the Bill springs not merely from the fact that many male legislators will lose their seats, nor from the fact that the rotation of seats every five years will ensure that MPs may no longer be able to ‘nurture’ their constituencies. The real battle is for political power: for, if the Bill does become law and at least 181 women sit in the Lok Sabha and corresponding numbers in State Assemblies across the country, it will result in a fundamental change in the power dynamics in an arena where it matters the most — decision-making in the highest echelons of the country. Will the BJP government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi address the women’s reservation issue with the seriousness and determination it demands?