Politics of Women's Reservation Bill

This photograph taken on March 10, 2010, shows Congress supporters celebrating the passage of Women's Reservation Bill in Rajya Sabha, in Patna, Bihar. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar  

Fourteen years and one small victory later, the Women's Reservation Bill has again begun to look iffy. In all this time, a lot many things could have been done independent of the fate of the Bill.

Those in the forefront of demanding greater political representation for women, such as women leaders of mainstream parties, could have made a beginning by amending their own party constitutions to allow a fairer share of party ticket to women. Those opposing the Bill on the ground that it overlooks the interests of women from the Other Backward Classes and minorities could have shown their commitment by fielding a significant number of women from these categories in successive elections.

Look at the shameful statistics. The Bill aims at placing one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and the State legislatures at the disposal of women. That is 181 in the Lok Sabha alone. Yet in the May 2009 Lok Sabha election, the Congress and the BJP, the two biggest champions of the Bill, fielded 43 and 44 women respectively. That is less than 10 per cent of the Lower House's strength of 544. And that is not even one-fourth of the one-third mark. The Congress is led by Sonia Gandhi, unarguably India's single most powerful politician. Partypersons hold her in worshipful reverence, granting her exclusive right over all party affairs. The BJP's Sushma Swaraj packs a punch, has always been in a decision-making role, and is currently leader of the Opposition in the Lower House. Was it beyond the means of these two leaders to ensure that women got their fair share during ticket distribution?

The naysayers, comprising largely the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and sections of the Janata Dal (U), stand equally exposed. In 2009, the following was the share of their women contestants. BSP:28; SP:15; JD(U): 3; and RJD: 2. Since these parties claim to represent the interests of the OBCs, Dalits and the minorities, it should be safe to assume that they would have chosen at least some among the women contestants from these categories. But in such pitiably woeful numbers?

Male MPs from these parties have brought Parliament to a halt demanding justice for OBC-Dalit-minority women. They have resorted to violence, and have been bundled out by marshals, all to make the point that the Bill is weighted against socially disadvantaged women. Yet given a chance to exercise their own free will, their parties showed contempt for these women by being unacceptably miserly in awarding them ticket.

If the Bill is to be saved, both sides need to show flexibility and accommodation. The SP, the BSP and the RJD ought to know that post-Mandal, parliamentary representation has shifted dramatically in favour of the subaltern classes. Women MPs and MLAs can defy this trend in the short run but the same forces that brought the OBC men in large numbers into Parliament and the Assemblies will, over time, inevitably tilt the balance of woman power towards the more socially disadvantaged.

Nonetheless, assume for a moment that the OBC, Dalit and Muslim-centred SP, BSP and RJD genuinely fear a wholesale takeover of the reserved seats by city-bred, ‘upper' caste-‘upper' class women. The way to deal with this doubt is to quash it. The Congress and the BJP could announce that they intend to allocate a large share of the reserved seats to women from the subaltern strata. They could go a step further and say women chiefs from the panchayats, representing underprivileged women from all castes and communities, will be given a share of the reserved seats in the Assemblies while Parliament, in turn, will source a section of its women candidates for the reserved seats from the Assemblies.

The logic of competitive populism will ensure that all parties follow suit. The last thing the social justice parties will want is the mainstream parties running away with their agenda. However, for some inexplicable reason, none of the proponents of the Bill has held out this assurance. A recent television interview saw Ms Gandhi adroitly skip this question. The Congress chief's attention was drawn to the growing battle cry for a “quota within quota.” She posed a counter question: “Who is stopping them from giving the ticket to OBC and Muslim women?” She could have instead said: “We will field OBC and Muslim women in large numbers. We will show that their claims are hollow.” Had she done that she would have effectively silenced the Bill's opponents.

For the opponents, a “quota within quota” is a fig leaf whose real purpose is to halt the Bill and prevent women from getting their due. Their case flounders at a very basic level. It stretches credulity that political parties will willingly throw away a critical number of seats — 181 of 544 in the Lok Sabha and 1,370 of 4,109 in 28 State Assemblies — by assigning them all to one kind of women, ignoring the social (caste, class, religion) composition of the electorate.

This is absurd. Even a rookie reporter will take care to be armed with caste statistics when visiting constituencies during an election. In teastalls and other mandatory stops for journalists, conversations compulsorily revolve round the local jatiya samikaran (caste composition). Parties, candidates and voters all know that caste and religion trump all other criteria in candidate selection. To suggest that an urban-bred, upper crust woman with no experience in grass-roots politics can be parachuted into a predominately rural, intensely caste-conscious constituency is to betray ignorance of the social dynamics of Indian politics.

To understand the changes in the Indian political landscape, one has only to look at the caste composition of State legislators over the years. A recent book, Rise of the Plebeians edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar brings this out. In the first Uttar Pradesh Assembly, formed in 1952, ‘upper' caste MLAs formed 58 per cent of the House strength. OBC MLAs accounted for only 9 per cent.

With the rise of social justice parties, the stranglehold of the ‘upper' castes began to loosen. This was reflected in the composition of the U.P. Assembly. In 1969, ‘upper' caste MLAs formed 44 per cent — a decline of 14 percentage points since 1952. OBC representation increased to 27 per cent — an increase of 18 percentage points compared to 1952.

The trend of ‘upper' caste decline continued, reaching a spectacular peak post-Mandal, which unleashed a subaltern revolution as it were. In the 1993 Assembly election, the SP and the BSP came together in a gesture so powerful, its impact altered the course of politics forever. The BSP fielded no ‘upper' caste candidate at all and only 10 per cent of the SP's nominees were drawn from the ‘upper' castes. Needless to say, the results were stunning. The OBCs formed 54 per cent of the SP's MLAs and 40.6 per cent of the BSP's MLAs. ‘Upper' caste representation in the House as a whole came down to 27 per cent.

It is a different matter that the two parties changed their tactic when they went their separate ways. The realisation that power can be attained only by fusing together forward and backward castes forced both of them to induct candidates from the other castes. From fielding no ‘upper' castes, the BSP progressed to sarvajan politics. Today caste building is the formula in vogue in U.P., with parties raiding one another's bases in an attempt to stitch together a rainbow coalition of castes.

What this tells us is that political parties are razor-sharp in their understanding of politics. They know that to succeed they need to harness divergent social and caste interests. None of them, not the Congress and the BJP, nor the OBC-Dalit parties, will mindlessly pick candidates for one-third of the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats. Certainly not in a competitive arena where every seat counts.

Caste dynamics will work itself out, if and when the Women's Bill goes through. The real danger today is from another quarter: The influence of big money and dynasty in electoral politics. A child of a wealthy politician-parent is undeniably better placed to win elections than a man or a woman burdened by poverty and obviously without the wherewithal to contest. But there is no major male-female differential in this. Nor do dynasts come only from the forward castes. In the current Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Deepinder Hooda, Jayant Chowdhary, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy and Akhilesh Yadav represent among them a diversity of castes. As do Supriya Sule, Agatha Sangma, D. Purandeswari, Jyoti Mirdha and Shruti Chowdhary.

The ranks of the elected rich are swelling.

According to a National Election Study, 68 per cent of today's women MPs are crorepatis compared to 57 per cent of male MPs. This ought to worry Ms Gandhi and Ms Swaraj. This ought to also worry all male politicians, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad included.


The third paragraph of the above report was “Yet in the May 2009 Lok Sabha election, the Congress and the BJP, the two biggest champions of the Bill, fielded 43 and 44 women respectively. That is less than 10 per cent of the Lower House's strength of 544. And that is not even one-fourth of the one-third mark.” A reader said that the elected strength of the Lower House is 543 and women candidates fielded by both Congress and BJP (43+44) form 48.06 per cent of the one-third mark of 181.

The writer clarifies: The Lok Sabha website gives the strength of the House as 544. Forty-three seats is less than 10 per cent of 544 and it is less than a fourth of 181. The same is the case for 44 seats.

The ninth paragraph was “It stretches credulity that political parties will willingly throw away a critical number of seats — 181 of 544 in the Lok Sabha and 1,370 of 4,109 in 28 State Assemblies ….”, which the reader said should have been 30 Assemblies including 28 State Assemblies, the National Capital territory of Delhi and Puducherry.

The writer clarifies: The figures 1,370 out of 4,109 total seats in the assemblies were sourced from the news agencies PTI and ANI. But variations of these are also in circulation. PRS Legislative Research gives the following statistics: Total seats: 4,020; Total (28 assemblies+Delhi): 4,090

SC: 590 (including Delhi): 602

ST: 553

General: 2,877

The total number of seats reserved in first round of elections: 1,345 (including Delhi): 1,368.

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