The Women’s Reservation Bill: Final Solutions

Concluding the three-part series on the Women’s Reservation Bill: history, its naysayers, and solutions.

WrittenBy:Kunal Singh
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In the first part of this three-part series on women’s reservation, we examined the history of demand for greater women representation in Indian legislatures and local self governments. In the second part, we took a more dialectical approach to examine the strength of arguments in favour and opposition of affirmative action on the basis of gender. In the third part, we will talk about specific details of the Women’s Reservation Bill that was introduced on May 6, 2008 as The Constitution (108th) Bill, 2008. The scrutiny of specific provisions of the bill is essential to ascertain whether the bill in its given form furthered the stated objectives of affirmative action. It has been observed that many people who are supportive of greater representation of women in legislative bodies do not agree with various provisions of this bill.

The bill seeks to reserve one-third of all seats in Lok Sabha – and the legislative assemblies of the states – for women. Such reservation shall cease to exist fifteen years after its first implementation. One-third of all seats already reserved for Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes shall also be reserved for women of the same groups. The most debated provision of the bill states that reserved seats will change by rotation after every five years, thus, in effect, covering all seats in the fifteen-year course of the Act.

One of the strong critiques of the bill emphasises that it does not address the issue of empowerment of women by restricting competition for entering the legislature between women. Many people argue that women entering legislature by defeating women serves no purpose; mechanisms must be thought of women entering legislature by defeating men. A related criticism is that the bill reduces the choice of the electorate in reserved constituencies. The reduction in choice might not augur well for our democracy.

Some commentators are sceptical about so many women leaders cropping up immediately all across the nation. The logical corollary, many claim, will be wives and daughters of male politicians contesting for elections. They will end up as proxy candidates, while real power will still lie with their husbands and other male members of the family.

Arun Jaitley, the then Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, while making his speech during the discussion on the bill on March 9, 2010 tried to dispel this perception of lack of enough women to fight the elections. He said, “The 73rd and 74th Amendment provide only 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayats and local self bodies. After fifteen years the reality is that there are 48 per cent women in these positions.” One cannot vouch for the veracity of information provided by Arun Jaitley. A study conducted by International Centre for Research on Women in 2012 puts the proportion of women in local bodies at 42 per cent. Though the exact credibility of the statistic provided by Arun Jaitley can be questioned, his broader point seems to be correct. Even if we assume the lower figure to be true, women win at least 9 per cent of non-reserved seats in the local self governments.

In fact, the entire perception of women being less winnable is a myth. According to a study of all the Parliamentary elections from 1984 to 2004 done by Amrita Basu, a professor of Political Science and Sexuality at Amherst College, women are more likely to win than male candidates. She therefore concludes, “The relatively small number of women in political office is thus more a reflection of biases on the part of parties than that of the electorate.”

The most debated provision, as I have earlier stated, has been the one related to rotation of reserved constituencies. The rotation might be a disincentive to a woman legislator who knows that she will not be eligible for reservation in the next term and therefore the likelihood of her retaining the seat will decrease. It might also be a disincentive to a male legislator who is not sure of his eligibility to contest the election from his constituency in the next term.

Let us now move to some of the solutions and changes that have been presented to counter the perceived flaws in the bill. The most prominently stated solution is to provide for reservations in candidature of political parties and not in constituencies. This solution does indeed resolve many of the problems. It removes the provision of rotation of reserved constituencies, about which even the supporters of the bill are ambiguous. It does not narrow the choice of electorate. If one party fields women candidate from a constituency, there will be other parties who can field either men or women from that constituency while fielding their requisite quota of women candidates from other constituencies. It will not create a legislature whose large number of women members have reached there just by defeating other women candidates. It is also easier to legislate because it will require an amendment to the Representation of the People Act which can be passed by a simple majority in both houses of legislature. The original bill (108th amendment) requires a constitutional amendment and hence a favourable vote by two-third majority in both houses, and a ratification by at least half the states.

There are downsides to this proposal as well. It might just not increase the number of women in legislature substantially. There is a widespread apprehension that political parties in this case will field women candidates from constituencies where they are unlikely to win. A regional party which is active only in one or two states might field women candidates from a distant state just to fulfil the quota of one-third women candidates. Parties might choose not to spend their resources on women candidates. Lok Satta party has an interesting but partial solution to this problem. According to them, a State must be considered the unit and party should field women candidates on one-third of the seats they are contesting in each state. This obviously does not solve the problem if a party fields women candidates from constituencies they are weaker in.

Arun Jaitley in his speech also touched upon this point. He took the example of United Kingdom which he said had lesser representation of women (at the time of his speech) after implementing reservation in political parties compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan which have electoral constituencies reserved for women. Arun Jaitley’s reasoning was fragile. A three-nation example is not sufficient to come to any conclusion. The fragility of his argument is proven as today United Kingdom has leapfrogged Pakistan in women representation.

Another suggestion that has often been given is the idea of dual member constituencies. A constituency can be represented by two legislators – one male and one female. This certainly opens a can of worms. Which member will the electorate hold accountable for performance? If one political party is strong in a constituency, won’t both the candidates from the same party win? What if two members belonging to different parties win from the same constituency? Will the fractious nature of our democracy and the cut-throat competition between political parties keep both representatives at cross-purposes (to the detriment of the electorate)?

One more suggestion that has often been given by parties opposed to women’s reservation is the inclusion of a sub-quota for women belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities. As Arun Jaitley stated on the floor of Rajya Sabha, such a provision might be constitutionally untenable.

The bill was also silent on increasing women representation in Rajya Sabha and upper houses of state legislatures. Since the members to upper houses are not directly elected by the people, introducing quota for women will be a lot easier. It will also be more amenable to political parties as the winnability of a candidate is not a criterion while electing members to upper houses.

If the Narendra Modi government wants to pass The Women’s Reservation Bill, it has to carefully consider the nuts and bolts of the bill. At the same time, one has to say that no bill, however carefully thought and delineated, can be perfect. The benefits have to be weighed against the drawbacks. Since there will always be some flaw in such a bill, the opposition to the bill will always use that to camouflage their inherent opposition to the principle of women’s reservation. The government should, therefore, not aim to create a uniformity of opinion across the political class. They should know that they cannot wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.


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