Choosing Sonia Gandhi To Lead the Women’s Reservation Debate Shows Congress’s Renewed Energy

The Congress party appears alive and kicking, and seems to have left behind its laggard workings after 2014. The Bharat Jodo Yatra may have truly proven to be the turning point.

New Delhi: The Congress fielded its former president Sonia Gandhi to lead the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill – or Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam – in the Lok Sabha. Her intervention on Wednesday (September 20) after a long gap was striking, to say the least.

She mounted an earnest criticism of the Union government’s move to tie the reservation for women in legislatures to a census and then a delimitation of constituencies. The 2021 census, delayed initially by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been postponed by the Union government, because of which a decision on the delimitation cannot be taken in the near future.

“Speaker sir, [the] Congress supports the Bill. We are happy to have the Bill passed but are also worried. I want to ask a question. 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,” she asked.

Over the last few months, perhaps buoyed by the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress has shown a renewed resolve to sharpen its responses and stances to combat the Narendra Modi government’s public relations overdrive on significant issues. At the same time, it has also fielded its leaders strategically to take on issues for which they are best suited at a given time.

The buoyancy is reflected in the swift decisions taken by party president Mallikarjun Kharge ever since he was elected to the top position. These include the show of organisational cohesiveness and unequivocal political messaging in the recent Congress Working Committee meeting in Hyderabad.

The Congress is looking different and responding differently, too.

For instance, on Wednesday, Sonia Gandhi, while asking pertinent questions to the government, recalled how her husband Rajiv Gandhi, as the prime minister, first moved a Constitutional Amendment Bill to reserve seats for women in the local governments. The move was defeated by seven votes, she said but was passed by the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government later.

She averred that because of such continued discussions spanning over three decades, on the important issue of women’s reservation in parliament and assemblies, a majority of parties have come around to support the legislation.

At the same time, she also demanded on behalf of her party that the Union government should also conduct a caste census to accommodate women from the Dalit, Adivasi, and OBC communities within the 33% quota under the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam.

The demand speaks of the consciousness that the Modi government’s move to bring in the Women’s Reservation Bill after remaining in power for over nine years may be an instrument to get leverage over the opposition’s consistent demand for a caste census.

The clamour for a caste census has only grown ahead of the upcoming assembly elections in five states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram – as a majority of the opposition parties have come together in the form of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).

Gandhi brings a moral certitude to the debate, as she is among those rare political leaders who have unequivocally supported the Women’s Reservation Bill every time it was discussed or tabled in the last two decades. By placing Gandhi to lead the party on the matter, the Congress has shown strategic thinking on its part, as even her opponents will swear by her commitment to the Bill.

For instance, recalling the passage of the last Women’s Reservation Bill in 2010, Brinda Karat, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote in the Indian Express on Wednesday, highlighting not merely a BJP leader’s attempt to thwart the safe passage of the Bill in 2010 but also Sonia Gandhi’s honesty on the reservation issue.

“When the Bill was adopted in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010 under the UPA government, I was an active participant in the discussions and a witness to the shenanigans of various players. One of the issues raised in the discussions in the Chairman’s chamber by a BJP leader was that a condition for passage must be “order in the House”. It seemed to me that this was a green signal to those who had already planned for “disorder” in the House to ensure that the Bill was not adopted and that the credit should not go to the UPA government. There were those in the Congress party, too, who were not keen, including a top leader who was in discussions with other constituents of the UPA on the issue. But the unequivocal support for the Bill of the then UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi ensured that the various plans being hatched to once again sabotage the Bill were blocked.”

“The firm position taken by the Rajya Sabha Chairperson Hamid Ansari was a critical factor in the passage of the Bill. An SP member sitting just behind me smashed a glass, cut his hand and, dripping blood, leapt onto the table protesting against the Bill. Many others opposing the Bill were loud and noisy. The unfazed Chairperson had all these gentlemen removed without further ado, the House was brought to order and the Bill adopted. A historic moment. When we walked out into the cool night air, there stood a beaming Sushma Swaraj, then leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, waiting for us. She hugged me and women MPs across party lines celebrated together. It was a wonderful example of joining hands for a bigger cause, so lacking today among the women leaders and ministers of the ruling party.”

It is pertinent to note that Karat’s party had by 2010 withdrawn its support to the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government and emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the UPA. Yet, that did not prevent her from acknowledging the role of Sonia Gandhi as one of the biggest advocates of women’s reservation in parliament and assemblies.

By demanding a sub-quota for the Dalit, Adivasi, and OBC communities within the 33% reservation for women representatives, the Congress has brought itself closer to its INDIA allies, such as the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, on the issue.

In 2010, the Congress failed to muster enough numbers in the Lok Sabha only because of the opposition from the Mandal parties that were demanding this sub-quota. However, the demand for a caste census among the INDIA parties has allowed the Congress to formulate a collective position on the Women’s Reservation Bill. A number of non-Congress leaders in the INDIA bloc have also acknowledged, although privately, the flexibility that the Congress – and especially Rahul Gandhi – has shown on different issues to accommodate the common interests of the alliance.

Joint opposition parties meeting in Bengaluru. Photo: Twitter/@kharge

Delegating responsibilities to take up several issues

If, as many observers believe, the Women’s Reservation Bill, at this juncture, could have allowed the Modi government to deflect attention from the issue of a caste census, then the Congress has acted wisely by using this opportunity to intensify its demand.

Not merely Gandhi, the Congress has used its bench strength to intervene in different matters rather smartly. Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a poster boy critic of the Adani group’s alleged financial fraud to highlight the apparent cronyism in Modi’s regime.

Kharge has consistently spoken about the issues of the marginalised caste groups and the poor as the party president, even while he has recalled the achievements of the Nehruvian model of development.

At the same time, the party has also empowered its regional leaders – both established and prospective ones. Gaurav Gogoi was placed to attack Assam’s BJP chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma when allegations of corruption surfaced against him recently.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who has been at the receiving end of raids by the Enforcement Directorate, was fielded to launch a larger campaign against the Union government’s misuse of investigation agencies against the opposition leaders.

Similarly, Ashok Gehlot and Siddaramaiah, chief ministers of Rajasthan and Karnataka, respectively, have been projected to propel the party’s social welfare vision.

The Congress made no bones about the fact that Hyderabad was chosen as an off-site destination for the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting to send a message to the electorate of the poll-bound Telangana, where the party is eyeing a shot at power. The spokespersons also said that the CWC will actively engage with issues concerning the state units of poll-bound states, while its senior leaders spoke about the need for rival leaders within the party to stop speaking against each other in front of the media.

The leaders also highlighted that the election of the party president in the Congress is unique and reflects the party’s democratic functioning, contrasting it with the BJP’s one-way high command. All of this comes along with a continuing organisational overhaul of the guidelines decided during the Chintan Shivir last year.

One of the party spokespersons, Pawan Khera, on the eve of the CWC meeting, said, “For the last year, you have seen that the Congress party has been literally on the roads of this country, picking up issues of the people, addressing the issues of the people, talking about issues, which unfortunately do not find to be in the mainstream of our narrative anymore for the last nine years…A lot of you had a complaint with the Congress party that we are not there on the streets of this country. I hope that complaint is over now. Shri Rahul Gandhi undertook the hardest 4,000-kilometre ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, which continues even now, as we speak, because ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ was a turning point in the way we do our politics.”

The Congress’s political and organisational messaging has been direct and to the point, which is quite unusual in the grand old party. The party appears alive and kicking, and seems to have left behind its laggard workings after 2014. How much this newfound energy will help the Congress to take on the BJP remains to be seen but the Bharat Jodo Yatra has truly proven to be, as Khera said, a turning point.