Political parties have once again promised to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill in their manifestos. However, with the release of each party’s candidates’ list, one can’t help but notice the lack of women candidates fielded by the national parties. As of April 3, 2019, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have given tickets to women on 13.7 per cent and 12 per cent seats respectively. Notably, regional parties outdid these national parties, with Trinamool Congress fielding women in more than 40 per cent seats and the Biju Janata Dal followed close with 33.3 per cent seats for women.
This raises the question: If political parties are serious about the Women’s Reservation Bill, then why not begin by giving tickets to more women? As a staunch feminist who has been advocating for more representation of women in politics for years now, I have had multiple variations of this question posed to me in the last few days.
India currently has 11.8 per cent women in Parliament, and the number is even more dismal in the state assemblies. Globally, in the last two decades, more than 100 countries have introduced affirmative action policies for women in politics after the World Conference for Women, held in Beijing in 1995. The exact goal of a gender quota is to ensure more representation of women in parliaments and state legislative bodies. There are three forms of gender quotas which are widely implemented across the world: a) Fixed reserved seats, b) electoral quota on rotational basis, c) voluntary political party quota. The Women’s Reservation Bill comes under the second category where 33 per cent of the seats would be reserved for women on a rotational basis. This would ensure that there are at least 33 per cent women MPs and MLAs in Parliament and legislative assemblies.
On the other hand, the voluntary political party quota model does not usually end up in more representation of women. Countries in Latin America, Africa and Europe which have adopted this policy widely have less than 20 per cent women in their parliaments. This is primarily because political parties generally tend to field women candidates in non-winnable seats, merely to fulfil the quota requirements. Often in these seats, women have no level-playing field. Studies have revealed that women candidates tend to receive less funds from donors when contesting against male candidates. Due to the entrenched patriarchy, women candidates are also considered to be less capable than their male counterparts by the voters. These combined factors result in unfulfillment of the end goal of greater representation for women.
Closer home, in the NSUI, the students’ wing of the Indian National Congress, of which I was a national office bearer for five years, there is gender quota for the internal elections for party positions. We often found it difficult to fill all the seats reserved for women. This was not because young women are not interested in politics, but because of the challenges that are associated with contesting an election.
The gender quotas need to be supplemented with capacity building. Political parties have a greater incentive in nurturing women leadership when it becomes an obligation to field women as candidates. This is what happened in Rwanda. In the 1990s, women made up just 18 per cent of the parliament. A constitutional legislation was brought about in 2003 to mandate 30 per cent reservation for women in elected positions. In the elections held in the same year, nearly 50 per cent women made it to the Rwandan parliament. In the subsequent elections of 2008 and 2013, the number of women parliamentarians have jumped from 56 per cent to 64 per cent, making it the highest in the world.
In the light of data from various countries and lived experiences, it becomes imperative that the Women’s Reservation Bill be passed. This Constitutional Amendment would act as an outside intervention to political parties, resulting in striving for gender parity within the system. It should also be mentioned here that India made a turning point in its gender representation at the grass roots level after the 73rd and 74th amendment. The representation at the local bodies grew from a mere 3-4 per cent to 43 per cent. This massive growth would not have been possible if it were just an intra-party reservation for women.
Indian democracy is in dire need of an exponential rise in representation of women in legislative bodies. Voluntary political party quotas are mere optics which might not lead to increasing representation at all. Whereas, enacting the Women’s Reservation Bill is the surest way of immediately achieving at least 33 per cent representation. It’s 2019 — if not now, then when?
— This article first appeared in the April 18, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Closing the Gender Gap’
The writer is a political activist and former national general secretary of NSUI