Will Women’s Quota Bill prove to be a game-changer for BJP?

Both Houses of Parliament have cleared the long-anticipated Constitutional Amendment Bill, which seeks to reserve one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, garnering near unanimous support from all opposition parties. A report by Mudit Mathur

The Indian Parliament, comprising both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, has at last approved the long-anticipated Constitutional Amendment Bill, which seeks to reserve approximately one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, including the National Capital Territory of Delhi.  Notably, the Bill garnered unanimous support from all opposition parties, except  the two Lok Sabha members of the AIMIM, Asaduddin Owaisi and Syed Imtiyaz Jaleel, who opposed it.

The reservation bill was passed 27 years after it was first presented in Parliament, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes a reality. The debate over the Bill by the both the ruling and the opposition parties was aimed at setting the political narrative to draw mileage in upcoming 2024 elections.

The women reservation shall come into effect after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken for this purpose after the relevant figures for the first census, taken after the commencement of the Constitution (106 Amendment) Act, 2023, are published and shall cease to have effect on the expiration of a period of 15 years from such commencement. Thus, no specific deadline has been given and women have to wait and watch for an indefinite period before they get to enjoy such empowerment.

At the fag-end of nine and a half years of his rule, Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid political speculation convened a special session of Parliament giving fresh boost to women empowerment. The move could prove to be a game changing exercise for the BJP in 2024 general elections and help it overcome anti-incumbency factor. However, opposition leaders questioned the government’s motive and seriousness due to vagueness in its implementation schedule as it is linked with the with population census and delimitation exercise which is not likely to happen before next elections.

The BJP’s 2014 Sankalp Patra (manifesto) had said: “Women’s welfare and development will be accorded a high priority at all levels within the government, and BJP is committed to 33% reservation in parliamentary and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment.” The 2019 Sankalp Patra repeated the same words.

Women have emerged as a politically significant constituency for the BJP, and the party has benefitted from the goodwill generated by women-focussed welfare schemes like the Ujjwala Yojna, health, hygiene, toilets and housing schemes. The Pune meeting of the RSS recently resolved to increase the representation of women in its organisations.

Just before the introduction of the Bill, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government was introducing the Constitutional Amendment Bill to increase the representation of women in legislatures, naming it ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (literally, Act to worship women’s power). Congratulating all “mothers, sisters and daughters”, Modi urged members to get the amendment Bill passed unanimously.

“Delighted at the passage of  the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023 in the Lok Sabha with such phenomenal support. I thank MPs across the party lines who voted in support of this Bill. The ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam’ is a historic legislation which will further boost women empowerment and will enable even greater participation of women in our political process”, tweeted PM Modi.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi while extending her party’s support to the bill in Parliament, said that a provision should be made for the reservation for OBC women. “It is the demand of the Congress party that the bill be immediately implemented… but, along with that, provision should be made for the reservation of SC, ST, OBC women after conducting a caste census,” she said. “On behalf of the Indian National Congress, I demand from the government that the ‘Narishakti Vandan Adhiniyam 2023’ be implemented as soon as possible while clearing all roadblocks in its way. Doing this is not only necessary but also possible.”

Sonia also lauded the contribution of leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kripalani, Aruna Asaf Ali, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and said they always ensured that the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Baba Saheb Ambedkar were realised on ground.

Earlier, speaking after the PM in Lok Sabha, Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said it was the Rajiv Gandhi government that had in 1989 provided 33% reservation for women in local bodies. He said that subsequent Congress governments had tried to get the women’s reservation Bill passed, but it had “passed in either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha” but failed to get it passed in the other House.

Objecting to his statement, Home Minister Amit Shah said that the Bill had never been passed in the Lok Sabha. He added that it had been passed in the Rajya Sabha under the UPA government, but lapsed in 2014 as it could not be passed in the Lok Sabha. Shah asked Speaker Om Birla to either expunge Chowdhury’s statement or ask him to show factual proof of his claim.

Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal tabled the historic bill in both the houses of Parliament and called it “a bill towards women empowerment citing the ancient history of dominating intellectual women saints and warriors” and said that once passed, it will take the number of women MPs in the Lok Sabha, as per its present strength of 543, to 181. The current House has 82 women MPs.

Supporting the Bill in the Lok Sabha during debate, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said it was “incomplete” without a quota for women from Other Backward Classes, adding that the legislation could be implemented immediately, without waiting for a census or delimitation. He also raised the issue of a caste census. “I think it is very important that a large chunk of India’s population and a large chunk of India’s women should have access to this reservation. And that is missing in this bill.’’

“There are also two things that seem strange to me. One is the idea that [you] require a new census to implement this bill. And the second is that you require a new delimitation to implement the Bill. In my view it is quite simple. This Bill can be implemented today, by giving 33 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha to India’s women,’’ Gandhi remarked.

Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah if they do not complete the process of delimitation and implementation of the Women’s Reservation Bill by 2029. “The Census of 2021 has not been done yet… Covid happened in 2021, and the United States, China completed their Census. Delimitation has not happened since 2021,” he informed.

Samajwadi Party’s Jaya Bachchan on Thursday, speaking on the women’s reservation Bill, demanded reservations for the OBCs and Muslim women. “We support the Bill, but we have some conditions. If you are really serious about giving tickets to 33% in the upcoming elections, especially to the minority community, which you have shown great empathy towards Muslim women by bringing in the Triple Talaq, now give them tickets,” Bachchan said.

The BJP MP from Khajuraho and for chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Uma Bharti, said: “My demand is that there should be reservation for backward-caste women also, as in the Panchayati Raj system. This should be incorporated in this Bill because women from the backward castes suffer the most.”

Stating that Indian women are playing a important and leading role in the fields like science, education and economy, BJP president JP Nadda said that the Modi government has taken several steps in the last nine years for women empowerment.

BJP president JP Nadda and Leader of Opposition and Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge exchanged heated argument in Rajya Sabha over the implementation of the bill in Rajya Sabha. Kharge wanted to know the timeline for implementation of the proposed law and also demanded reservations for OBCs. He urged the Government to bring amendments to this effect in the next session and assured the Congress party’s support. He said the Congress party supports the Bill, but this law should not become another “Jumla” like the promise of  “two crore jobs every year” and the “deposit of Rs 15 lakh in bank account of every citizen”.

While extending her party’s full support to the reservation bill in the Parliament, NCP leader Supriya Sule raised the issue of not extending the benefits of reservation to OBC women.“Let’s make a constitutional amendment and send a message to the nation that we are committed to SC/ST and OBC,” she said. Acknowledging the role of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for initiating the women’s policy in India, she also said that her father, Sharad Pawar, was the first one to implement the 33% reservation for women under the Panchayati Raj system.

Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien said Mamata Bannerjee has been demanding immediate reservation for women since 1998. She was also a member of the Geeta Mukherjee Parliamentary Committee set up for women reservation. “And when bills didn’t get passed, she gave 41% of tickets to women candidates in her party. Today 39% of TMC MPs are women. It is one thing to give tickets and another to give them winnable seats. The BJP president said this is the shortest way of bringing women to Parliament. No, you don’t need a Bill. Bring them to Parliament,” he said.

Participating in debate another fire-brand speaker of TMC, Mahua Moitra confronted the government over the women’s reservation Bill, alleging that it was deliberately delaying reservation for women and that the Bill should be renamed the ‘Women’s Reservation Rescheduling Bill’.

“When this government wanted to protect cows…you did not wait to count the number of cows,” Moitra said in a scathing attack on the BJP. “Forget 2024, this may not even be possible in 2029,” she added, questioning the motives of the government behind delaying its implementation. “This is not a historic Bill as it is being flaunted. It is a sham. The question of women’s reservation requires action, not the legislatively mandated procrastination,” Moitra noted.

DMK leader Kanimozhi said the clause pertaining to ‘after delimitation’ in the bill should be removed because it would lead to a delay in its implementation.”How long should we wait to see this bill implemented? It can be easily implemented in the coming Parliamentary elections. This bill, you should understand, is not a reservation but an act of removing bias and injustice,” she remarked.

Shiromani Akali Dal leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal criticized the ruling BJP in the Lok Sabha and accused it of misleading women of the country by bringing a reservation bill for them that will take a long time to come into effect.”You can do demonetisation in hours, pass GST, why can’t you implement women’s reservation bill in the next election?” she asked. Referring to former Wrestling Federation of India president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has been accused of sexual harassment by several women wrestlers, Badal said, “A minister from Haryana is accused of sexual assault, but is enjoying a cabinet status.”

“Women wrestlers, who brought so many medals, have been sitting for months but the Bahubali is still sitting here,” she said. Badal alleged that 305 MPs in the Lok Sabha had criminal cases like rape and murder registered against them, with 45 per cent being from the ruling party. “And these people talk about Beti Bachao,” she said.

AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi opposed the Bill on the ground that it had no quota for Muslims and OBCs. The two members of his party voted against the bill. “If the justification is that it is to give representation to women, then why is it not being extended to OBC and Muslim women? Muslim women are 7% of the population but their representation in this Lok Sabha is only 0.7%. This Modi government wants reservation for savarna women. The number of Muslim women has never gone beyond four in this House. This Bill will close doors for Muslim representation in Parliament and the Assembly. This is not inclusive legislation,” Owaisi said.

Responding to the Opposition parties’ demand for immediately implementing the Women’s Reservation Bill, Union Minister Smriti Irani questioned whether the parties wished to follow the constitutional process or not? “Is it the wish of opposition leaders that constitutional process is not followed? Should we not abide by the Constitution? Is that the position taken by the opposition parties?” she said.

Hitting out at the Samajwadi party for demanding reservation for minorities, Irani questioned if they did not know that reservation based on religion is “prohibited” by the constitution.

In a scathing attack on the Gandhi family, she said, “It was not one particular family which got the bill for reservation for women in local bodies, but the government of PV Narasimha Rao, whose mortal remains were not allowed to enter the Congress office here,” she said.