The Women’s Bill passed by Parliament is unlikely to be viewed as a landmark legislative exercise. In fact, it seems to be much ado about nothing, when viewed in retrospect. The government’s decision to keep the special session of Parliament secretive, despite speculation over the Opposition alliance naming itself I.N.D.I.A, raised questions. There were even rumours that the government might consider dropping “India” as the country’s name, retaining only “Bharat”. Instead of consulting with political parties, the government argued that announcing the session’s agenda in advance was not mandatory. Even the location of the short session in the new Parliament building was kept confidential. All this secrecy amounted to nothing.
It should have been evident to the government that no credible political party would oppose the Bill, especially with Lok Sabha elections approaching fast. After all, which party would be able to offend women who constitute 50% of the population? This became apparent when a record-breaking 454 MPs supported the Bill, with only two members opposing it. However, the urgency behind this would have made more sense if the government intended to introduce 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies starting with the 2024 elections. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that this reservation would be implemented even by the 2029 elections.
The Bill has several conditions to fulfil before coming into force, notably the requirement for at least 50% of state legislatures to endorse it, as it amends the Constitution. It is a different matter that the government could have forced the states to endorse the 128th Constitution Amendment Bill that promises reservation for women in a record time of, say, three months. If Parliament can hold a special session, state assemblies, too, can do the same. Regrettably, the government has imposed two mandatory conditions for implementation, one being a census. While the pandemic disrupted the decennial census, the need for a fresh one to grant one-third reservation to women in Parliament and state legislatures raises questions. Reservation could have been granted straightaway, no matter whether the population is 1.4 billion or 1.5 billion.
There’s an existing formula for determining Lok Sabha seats based on population. However, the number of seats was frozen to protect the interests of states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which successfully implemented the two-child norm. Otherwise, it would have favoured states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where family planning efforts were less successful, thus negating natural justice. There’s concern, particularly among Southern states, that greater representation for UP and other lagging states could enable a party dominating the northern states to hold onto power, disregarding Southern interests. Some believe that one reason for the Modi government’s new Parliament building was to provide more seats for North Indian states. The government also needs to address other issues, such as the absence of women’s reservation in the Upper House of Parliament and in the upper Houses of states, where they exist, as retaining such Houses as exclusive men’s clubs lacks logic. The Bill aims to provide reservation for women in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but it overlooks the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who already receive reservation in government jobs.
Most political parties, including the Congress, advocate for women’s reservation among the OBCs, which is a complex issue. Two Muslim MPs voted against the Bill to protest the exclusion of Muslim women from reservation. Rahul Gandhi pointed out that among the approximately 90 secretary-rank officers, only a few belonged to the OBCs, indicating their underrepresentation at that level. It is a different matter that he did not mention the minorities for fear of antagonising the BJP which would have cashed in on it in the elections. Resolving these multifaceted issues won’t be easy, even for a politician like Narendra Modi, who is approaching 75, which is the upper age limit he himself fixed for the BJP leaders to hold political office. Ultimately, the government’s focus is on claiming credit for the Women’s Bill in the 2024 election. That surely has whittled down the importance of the legislative exercise. What a tragedy!