The Women’s Reservation Bill, or the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, passed the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha tests with an overwhelming majority but not before the Opposition slammed the Union government for delaying its implementation by tying the legislation to a Census, followed by the delimitation of constituencies.
Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi rightly asked, “For over 13 years, Indian women have waited to take their political responsibility, and now they are being told to wait for some more years. How many years, I want to ask – two years, four years, six years, eight years? Is such a treatment towards Indian women appropriate?”
Ever since the bill was finalised by the Union cabinet in a surprise move on the eve of the special session of Parliament, the Opposition hit out at the government for keeping it a secret. They questioned the need for such secrecy as a consensus on the bill could have been easily achieved. The government has continued with its non-consultative and autocratic behaviour even in a matter where prior discussions could have only smoothened the bill’s course, they said.
Moreover, Opposition parties alleged that the bill was another “election jumla” ahead of Assembly polls in five states, and is devoid of any honest intention to implement it. Their claim was backed by the fact that the 2021 decadal Census, delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, has now been postponed by the Union government. Resultantly, the delimitation of constituencies, which has to happen on the basis of Census data, cannot be carried out anytime in the near future. Having 33% of the Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies reserved for women, therefore, looks like a distant dream.
There were even cries from some quarters that the current script of the bill allows the Union government to postpone 33% reservation for women by at least 10 years. Many observers, on the other hand, saw the move as a ploy by the BJP to get leverage over the Opposition, which has been consistently demanding a caste census ― an issue that has emerged as a thorn in the eye of the union government.
Amidst the cacophony of the debate, however, Union Home Minister Amit Shah defended the bill and assured everyone that the next government will conduct the Census and delimitation exercise immediately after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, and claimed that the identification of reserved seats for women will be a “transparent process” done by the Delimitation Commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, a representative of the Election Commission and one member each of all political parties.
More importantly, Shah retorted by claiming that “the empowerment of women is a matter of principle, not a political weapon” for “our leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party”.
PM Modi, too, in his inaugural speech in the new Parliament building, had said that he had been chosen by the Almighty to take radical steps like the Women’s Reservation Bill, and asserted his resolve to strengthen women’s power. Many of his initiatives like constructing toilets in rural areas, PM Awas Yojana, or even the Jan Dhan bank accounts were spun by the BJP as schemes for women, in what was a clear attempt to carve out a dedicated voting constituency among women. In his Lok Sabha speech on Tuesday, the Prime Minister made similar claims.
In such circumstances, the doubts raised around the Union government’s commitment to implementing the Women’s Reservation Bill can only be doused by the BJP. That a greater representation for women in the Lok Sabha and Assemblies is seriously “a matter of principle” for the PM can only be ascertained if the BJP takes the decisive step to field women candidates in 33% of the seats it contests in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
By ensuring that 33% of its candidates are women, the BJP would not only assume moral superiority over its political rivals but also send out an unequivocal message to Indian women, who could be in a state of confusion over the government’s intentions regarding the current bill. Notwithstanding the speculations over the bill’s implementation, a political move by the BJP to nominate 33% women in the polls would also appear to be a natural precursor to what the bill originally set out to achieve, even if its implementation is delayed by a few years.
The Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik has already taken such an initiative. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, nearly 40% of its candidates were women. The Odisha chief minister had officially declared that the radical decision was meant to show his resolve to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in Parliament, and to let Odisha lead by example on the matter.
Similarly, the Congress had reserved 40% of seats that it contested for women candidates in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Priyanka Gandhi, who was then the state unit’s president, showcased the move as complementing the Congress’s women-oriented election campaign that was made popular by the slogan “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon (I am a girl, and I can fight). Some other Opposition-led governments, including Odisha, have also passed resolutions as advocacy measures for the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The Trinamool Congress, too, has a stellar record in representing women in the Parliament. After the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it had nearly 40% women MPs. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party fielded women candidates in 17 seats of the total 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal – nearly 40% of its total candidates. Similarly, the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) government in Bihar, apart from Naveen Patnaik’s government in Odisha, were among the first to increase the reservation for women in local governments to 50%.
On the other hand, the BJP has only a poor record to show on that front, with barely any women in top positions of the governments run by it and in its organisational set-up.
Will the BJP walk the talk? The nation seriously wants to know.