Forty-one per cent — 17 — of the Trinamool Congress’s candidates for the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal are women. Tuesday’s announcement by Mamata Banerjee came two days after Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) announced on Sunday that it would give a third of its Lok Sabha tickets to women. While Mamata’s announcement is a one-time ticket distribution decision, the BJD has become the first party to implement the longstanding proposal for women’s reservation in Parliament and state legislatures.
Odisha has 21 Lok Sabha seats, and the BJD will field candidates in all. The party won 20 of these seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 (BJP’s Jual Oram won in Sundargarh). Three of the BJD’s 20 MPs (one of whom, Jay Panda, is now with the BJP) were women.
The proposal to implement a quota for women in state and central legislatures has come up on several occasions in past decades. But it has only run into stiff opposition from various groups, including women’s organisations.
The idea of political reservation for women came up in the 1920s, but it was opposed on the ground that it was in conflict with the idea of universal adult franchise that sought to allow women to contest elections on the same terms as men. “The public, official language of politics especially before a colonial government, had to be a language of equality,” wrote Prof Vasanthi Raman in a paper published by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi, in 2002. This was the view of all major women’s organisations of the time, as well as the Home Rule League, the Indian National Congress, and the Muslim League.
The matter came up next in the 1970s when the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) published a report titled ‘Towards Equality’ that pointed to the lack of progress made by women across social indicators, as well as the discrimination they faced. “The report noted that in spite of equal rights and universal adult suffrage guaranteed by the Constitution, women’s presence in state and central legislatures had been declining steadily over 25 years,” Raman wrote. Consequently, the committee recorded several arguments both in favour and against women’s reservation in administrative structures. While women’s activists favoured reservations, it was opposed by women lawmakers.
Those in favour argued that reservations would allow women easy entry into male-dominated political parties, and would ensure enough representation of women at top levels to act as pressure groups highlighting issues specific to women. Those who were opposed argued that quotas for women conflict with the idea of equality guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the interests of women cannot be isolated from the economic, social, and political interests of the groups to which they belong. However, everyone agreed that reservations were needed for women in rural areas. Thereafter, the CSWI recommended the establishment of statutory women’s panchayats.
The debate around women’s quotas came up again in the 1990s when the National Perspective Plan (NPP) recommended a 30 per cent reservation of seats for women at the level of Panchayats and Zila Parishads. In 1993, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution provided for one-third reservation for women nationwide in rural and urban local bodies.
Before the general elections in 1996, women’s organisations asked all political parties to back reservation for state Assemblies and Parliament. While a majority of the parties supported the demand, the attempt to enact a law did not pass in Parliament. Similar attempts were made in 1998 and 1999, but were unsuccessful.
The UPA government proposed reservation for women yet again in May 2008 as The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill. It was passed by Rajya Sabha in March 2010, but was rejected in Lok Sabha. The debate resulted in political chaos. Those opposing the Bill argued that it would benefit upper caste women at the expense of the lower castes and Muslims, and that it would ensure that powerful men are represented by proxy. The Bill lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014.
In January, women members of Rajya Sabha urged the government to ensure the passage of the Bill in Lok Sabha. The BJD has promised take a step towards turning the longstanding demand into reality.