That the Women’s Reservation Bill brought by the Narendra Modi government was passed and adopted is a spectacular achievement in itself, considering that nearly half a dozen earlier efforts had fallen by the wayside.
The bedlam that defined the earlier efforts to bring the long gestating and controversial bill to reserve one-third seats for women in elected legislatures was markedly absent this time when the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha debated and passed the 128th Constitutional bill—the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam—on 20 and 21 September, respectively, as the first legislation in the brand new Parliament House.
It is a historic achievement and a huge leap of faith towards a new beginning that would seek to ensure equitable justice, inclusive governance, gender-balanced legislatures and mainstreaming of the neglected half of India’s population into the electoral and political arena where their participation as voters has increased, while their numbers as elected legislators has declined. It stands at nearly 15% in Parliament and is often below 10% in most Assemblies.
That the bill brought by the Narendra Modi government was passed and adopted is a spectacular achievement in itself, considering that nearly half a dozen earlier efforts had fallen by the wayside. Perhaps even more significant was the full support that members across the political spectrum extended to the legislation in the two Houses of Parliament.
The Lower House, or the House of the People, adopted it with a near unanimous 454 to 2 votes, while the Upper House, the Council of States embraced it whole heartedly with all the 214 members present voting for the historic bill that had defied consensus, let alone unanimity, for over a quarter of a century as the pros and cons of such a bill were hotly debated.
Yes, there were heated exchanges, slanging matches and commotion over the bill that hopes to replicate the far reaching impact of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments brought by the Congress government in 1992. It has shepherded over 15 lakh women into the various rungs of local governance by earmarking seats for them.
In 2023, there was no sign of the kind of mayhem that would see slogan-shouting Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal members storm the well of the House to stall the introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill unless it included a sub quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities who constituted their core supporters, much like the one third mooted women in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe quota.
The Lok Sabha often turned into a battle zone when the United Front brought the first such bill in September 1996 or later when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime mooted it. In fact, RJD’s Surendra Kumar Yadav even snatched the purported papers from then Law Minister M. Thambidurai’s hands and tore it to prevent its introduction.
Why and how did it happen that the parties which had raised a ruckus earlier came round to voting for what they saw was a bid to shortchange their core constituents? Did they acquiesce to the latest legislation because of a change of heart?
They continued to raise this demand both within and outside Parliament, with two AIMIM Lok Sabha members voting against the 128th constitutional amendment in protest and prevent a unanimity. But parties like the SP and RJD went along with the others defying speculation that the women’s bill would drive a wedge in the newly minted I.N.D.I.A. It did not.
Indeed, the Congress, which had in March 2010 ignored this demand when the Manmohan Singh government got the women’s bill passed in the Rajya Sabha, joined in their chorus led by its top leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge.
Ironically, one major reason perhaps why the “social justice” parties may have shed their reticence is because of the riders woven into the latest version of the bill which becomes a law with the President’s assent to it. Though several Opposition parties have slammed the Narendra Modi government for not rolling it out it immediately, the possibility of a latter day implementation has perhaps helped the bill sail through the two Houses.
Clause 334A makes the legislation contingent on the holding of the census and the subsequent delimitation of boundaries. The determination of elective legislative seats is based on the analysis of the census data to ensure the maximum possible parity between the distribution of population and elective Lok Sabha and Assembly seats.
Both the census and delimitation involve an arduous, extensive, intensive and time-taking exercise so that even the government acknowledges that the earliest rollout of the law would be around 2029. Objectors would hope that it takes even longer. Some analysts believe it will stretch much beyond 2029.
Held every 10 years, the last decadal census took place in 2011 and the one due in 2021 was deferred because of the Covid pandemic. A revised schedule has not been announced so far. Similarly, there is a freeze on the delimitation of elective seats till 2026. In effect, while boundaries of constituencies have sometimes been altered there has been no change in the number of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats for several years now. The population of the country has soared from around 63 crore in 1975 to over 140 crore now (though not all are voters), the total number of elected Lok Sabha and state assemblies have remained stagnant at 543 (since 1971) and 4,123 (since 2002), respectively.
The possibility of delayed implementation has given a reprieve to parties demanding sub-quotas as they live to fight another day. Meanwhile, they are likely to up their ante for a report on the caste-based survey to fuel their stir for injecting sub-quotas into the law.
At another level, the post-census population-based delimitation has already raised concerns among some parties in the South, They fear while high population growth states like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar would gain in terms of seats, states like Tamil Nadu or Kerala, which curbed this growth, could stand to lose. DMK MP Kanimozhi, for instance, underlined this anomaly.
Various projections are already being made of the gains and losses. While the new Lok Sabha can easily house additional MPs and even host a joint session of about 1,000 members, there is anxiety that delimitation could create a reverse disparity among the northern and southern states.
But that is a story for another day.
Meanwhile, the debate on the legislation would shift from Parliament to the streets as the parties list their achievement and of the legislation ahead of the Assembly elections later this year and the Lok Sabha polls thereafter.
The Opposition, which has been listing the failures of the nine years of the ruling regime, would dub it as another promised imperfect and distant dream. But for the BJP and Narendra Modi it is an achievement that they would bundle along with other women-oriented initiatives like the Ujjwala scheme.
Saroj Nagi is a senior journalist.