It remains to be seen how much benefit the Congress gains in the 2024 elections.
In the new bill proposing 33% reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies, the Congress has made efforts to have a strong voice demanding amendments in collaboration with its coalition partners. Have Congress leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and party president Mallikarjun Kharge, shown more strength by demonstrating greater support from parties like Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar, and Akhilesh Yadav from backward classes, and dreamt of a monopoly on the votes of the backward classes? The Gandhi family is losing power at the Centre and in the states, with leaders like V.P. Singh and Laloo Yadav being wounded by the OBC reservation. While Rahul Gandhi seems directionless, have Sonia Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders followed Rajiv Gandhi’s ideas, efforts, and policies that were already discarded or have they committed themselves to new political alliances? Can they defeat Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party in the electoral arena with this strategy?
In 1975, Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, and a report called “Towards Equality” was published. It provided a detailed overview of the status of women in various fields and also discussed reservations for women. Most members of the committee that prepared this report were against reservations. In this context, it is pertinent to mention an interview given by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on 2 March 1985, where he did not seem to be in favour of expanding the reservation system while discussing this issue. This interview was published in Nav Bharat Times at that time and is still available in records. Rajiv Gandhi responded, “I believe that a comprehensive re-evaluation of the entire reservation policy should be conducted. This system was implemented 35 years ago to address social issues. However, in recent years, it has been politicized. On the other hand, our society has changed significantly over the years and has progressed. The development of education has taken place, so now it’s time for us to reconsider this policy and its provisions seriously. We must keep some reservations for the truly disadvantaged and the economically weaker sections. However, if it is expanded too much, qualified individuals will not have opportunities. We are encouraging very ordinary people (they even used the word “foolish”) and this will harm the entire country. This was a very sharp comment. If someone were to say and publish this today, it would create a controversy.
Rajiv Gandhi couldn’t reduce it (reservations), but on the Bofors issue, with the support of other parties, Vishwanath Singh, who came to power, played a big political gamble by giving reservations to backward classes. Not only that, he defeated Devi Lal, his Janata Dal rival. He certainly gained immediate benefits, but later this gamble backfired, and he lost power. The implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations faced opposition across the country, and Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress strongly opposed it. Rajiv Gandhi had spoken strongly against the Mandal Commission in Parliament, and that is all on record. In 1997, the Congress and the government of the third front had put an end to reservations in promotions. It was Atalji’s government that once again brought justice to the SC-ST community.
Yes, Rajiv Gandhi had attempted to pass a bill during his tenure as Prime Minister in the 1980s to provide one-third reservation for women in Panchayat and local body elections. However, state legislatures opposed it, arguing that it would diminish their powers. The Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced by the H.D. Deve Gowda government on 12 September 1996. The government introduced the Women’s Reservation Bill as the 81st Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament. Shortly after that, the Deve Gowda government came to power. However, leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav were against the Women’s Reservation Bill. In June 1997, there was another attempt to pass this bill. At that time, Sharad Yadav opposed the bill, saying, “How can urban women understand our rural women and what will they think?
In 1998, the 12th Lok Sabha saw the formation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government. During this time, Law Minister, M. Thambidurai, attempted to introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill. However, the attempt was unsuccessful. The NDA government made another effort to introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill in the 13th Lok Sabha in 1999, but it did not succeed.
In 2003, the Vajpayee government made another attempt to introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill, but it faced significant opposition and was not passed. After the NDA government, the UPA government came to power, and in 2010, it introduced the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. However, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) threatened to withdraw their support from the government.
Subsequently, voting on the bill was postponed. Later, on 9 March 2010, the Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Reservation Bill with a significant majority of 186 votes in favour out of a total of 244 votes. This historic moment was marked by the use of marshals in the Rajya Sabha. However, the bill got stuck in the Lok Sabha.
The BJP promised 33% women’s reservation in its election manifestos for the 2014 and 2019 elections. On this issue, it also gained support from the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, who was the leader of the parliamentary party, assured the government of her party’s support for this bill by writing a letter in 2017.
Similarly, after becoming the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi reiterated his party’s support for the Bill in a letter to the Prime Minister on 16 July 2018.
However, in 2023, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi received credit for this, the Congress attempted to create a storm by holding onto leaders like Laloo and Akhilesh regarding OBC reservation. Nevertheless, this law has been passed by Parliament; it’s a historic victory. After constitutional formality, census and delimitation, in 2029, one-third of the members of the Indian Parliament will be women. For now, it remains to be seen how much benefit the Congress will gain from the 2024 elections.
The writer is editorial director of ITV Network-India News and Dainik Aaj Samaj.