The flurry of political activity during the last few days over the Women’s Bill was a sure sign that it must be the last week of a session of Parliament. I have witnessed the repetition of this drama since 1996.
In 1996 I happened to be the first Member of Parliament to raise this issue during zero hour in the Lok Sabha. In 1997 I saw prime minister Gujral helplessly holding the bill in his hands for twenty minutes while being heckled and harangued by his own party members. During another attempt to introduce the bill there was a physical scuffle in the well of the House. By 1998 I was convinced that the bill in its present form would never be passed and began to search for an alternative.
One of the first things I had done in the 13th Lok Sabha in late 1999 was to take up the question of enhancing women’s representation in Parliament and in state assemblies. I decided to concentrate on the alternative I had been advocating since 1998, of amending the Representation of the People Act.
I wrote about my views in the print media. Many thought my proposal was very sensible. It would be easier to pass since it needed a simple majority unlike the Reservation Bill which, being a Constitutional Amendment Bill, needed a two-thirds majority. My idea took care of the flaws in the Reservation Bill.
Under the Reservation Bill women would fight women in all elections within the walls of reserved constituencies. In my proposal, women were put on par with men and given a more honourable way of entering Parliament and state assemblies than through the demeaning route of quotas. The Reservation Bill has the principle of rotation of seats. If that were to happen, the bond between the elected representative and the represented — a key feature of parliamentary democracy — would get disrupted and the incentive to serve one’s constituency would vanish.
Under my proposal parties would choose the seats for which they would nominate women and they could nominate as many women from the scheduled and backward castes as they wished. My alternative shifted the emphasis from reservation to enhanced women’s representation. On December 20, 1999, during the last week of the winter session, I was interviewed on the News Hour of a leading TV channel. I spelled out the details of my alternative proposal. I found an unexpected ally in the Election Commissioner, M.S Gill. He happened to listen to the interview I gave outlining my alternative. He himself came to News Hour on the same channel the next day, December 21, 1999, to say he fully supported my proposal and thought this was the only realistic alternative. I carried on my campaign on December 22, 1999.
Gill later called various political parties for consultation, but was unable to persuade them. I met him several times. He jokingly used to say, ‘‘We are a two-member party. If the political parties would listen to us there would be so many women in Parliament in no time.’’ Unfortunately, our political class is unthinkingly wedded to a reservations culture and is incapable of understanding or acting upon innovative ideas.
The old Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced once more in the midst of utter chaos on December 23, 1999, the very last day of session, so that it could again gather dust. And, of course, since a woman M.P. was hardly going to be given credit for proposing a thoughtful alternative, my proposal came to be dubbed the Election Commissioner’s formula!
I eventually introduced a Private Members’ Bill in the 13th Lok Sabha on the lines of my proposal on February 28, 2000. It is Bill No. 62 of 2000 and called The Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2000. The object of the amendment was to give women ‘‘fair representation in the legislatures’’ by making it ‘‘obligatory on the part of political parties to give fair representation to both genders to qualify it for registration’’ and ‘‘to cancel the registration of a political party if that party does nor field candidates at elections to Lok Sabha/Assemblies from both the genders proportionately’’.
I added a sub-section (5A) to Section 29A of the R.P. Act saying that every registered political party ‘‘shall ensure that there shall be not less than forty per cent of the candidates belonging to either gender out of the total number of candidates contesting elections to the House of the People or the Legislative Assembly of a State in the name of that association or body’’.
After section 29A I inserted a section 29B which read: ‘‘If any association or body which has been registered as a political party does not comply with provision of sub-section (5A) of section 29A, the registration of such political party shall be cancelled by the Election Commission forthwith.’’
I still believe that my bill is the best way to enhance women’s representation in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. How I wish the government of the day would adopt it instead of chasing after the mirage of the doomed Women’s Reservation Bill or pursuing cumbersome, unimaginative and unsatisfactory alternatives of the sort floated by the Home Minister Shivraj Patil in 2005!
I wrote to Atal Behari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi during the 13th Lok Sabha urging them to accept my proposal. I am pleased to see at the NDA’s meeting with Manmohan Singh the BJP has at last seen merit in the proposal I had been long advocating. The only difference is that they have talked about 33 per cent of the nominations being given to women instead of my proposal of giving at least 40 per cent to either gender. And the suggestion is now being described as Vajpayee’s formula rather than the EC’s formula! I do not mind if that gives it a better chance of being adopted.
But the CPM has objected that 33 per cent of nominations in each state by political parties will not yield 33 per cent representation of women. Let us not forget that women currently form less than 10 per cent of the members of the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. Even if political parties nominate women to the more difficult seats, 33 per cent of nominations should result in more than 25 per cent of women representatives. We should not allow better to become the enemy of the good.
I hope the amendment I introduced to the R.P. Act on February 28, 2000, will be adopted by the government and opposition in the first week of the next session of Parliament. It will dramatically enhance women’s representation in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies.
Krishna Bose was M.P. in the 11th, 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas and Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs, 1999-2004. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org