Updated: August 25, 2021 8:56:22 pm
Written by Akshi Chawla
“Gender justice is an important commitment of the government. The issue involved needs careful consideration on the basis of the consensus among all political parties before a Bill for amendment in the Constitution is brought before Parliament.”
– Ministry of Law & Justice, July 28, 2021, on reserving seats for women in legislatures
When Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi posed the question about the status of the women’s quota bill in the just-concluded Parliament session, the government’s response was not hard to guess. Not just in the sentiment, but also in its words. It was not the second or third time, but the 21st time in seven years, that the Narendra Modi government used the same phrases to dodge a serious question.
The bill to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in Parliament and state legislatures was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010, but it was never introduced in the Lok Sabha. Soon after it assumed power in 2014, the NDA government was asked in Parliament if it intended to do so. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the then law minister, replied that the issue needed “deep study” and “careful consideration on the basis of consensus among all political parties” before they could introduce such a bill.
Seven years later, the “deep study” is still going on. The “careful consideration” and “consensus” remain all elusive. What the government told Kanimozhi last month, it also told Rajya Sabha MP Amar Patnaik twice in the last two years. In fact, my research shows that the government said the same thing — “the issue needs careful consideration on the basis of consensus among all political parties” — in response to nearly each of the 22 questions it has been asked on the matter in Parliament since July 2014.
By having to claim commitment over and over again, the government has only betrayed a lack of it. No wonder, India ranks a dismal 146th in women’s representation in the national Parliament. At the turn of the century, it ranked 66th. The decline has come because progress has been piecemeal — several other countries have improved their share of women in Parliament far more rapidly.
Forget introducing reforms, the government seems to be in no mood to even draft a new, updated response to the question. The templated responses are baffling, especially since the BJP had claimed in both its 2014 and 2019 manifestoes that it was “committed to 33 per cent reservation in parliamentary and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment.”
Across its 22 responses in Parliament, the phrase “careful consideration” appears in 21, and “constant endeavour” in 16. But we don’t know what steps the government has taken, or if it has started the process. The question of consensus is even more perplexing: Nearly all parties have supported the bill in public (and in their manifestoes).
This is not to say that women’s reservation will be a panacea to our patriarchal politics, or is the only way to close the gender gap. The issue is a contested one among political scientists across the world. Yet, so many countries, through sheer political will, have been able to negotiate and take the lead in bringing reforms for greater women’s representation. But in India, the repetitive answers show a clear absence of that will. Worse, they show a mockery of Parliament itself, as the government repeats itself for seven years without being held to account.
When there’s will, reforms can take many forms, not just reserving seats — from mandating parity in candidate lists, to rules that check political violence against women or provide funding support. Take Mexico, for example. In 2000, women made up 16 per cent of the lower house of its Congress (and the country ranked 35). Today it has achieved near parity and ranks fifth. It managed to achieve this after first introducing quotas, and then a “parity in everything” reform in 2018.
As I write this, Chile is in the process of rewriting its constitution, and the assembly doing it comprises 50 per cent women and is led by a woman. In 2020, civil society groups in Kenya took the government to court for its failure to implement a constitutional provision that mandates that no more than two-thirds of the members of elected bodies be of the same gender.
In Switzerland, which completes 50 years of allowing women to vote this year, 42 per cent of those elected to the lower house of Parliament are women. The country has done this without mandated quotas, but some parties have adopted voluntary quotas in the candidates they put forth.
It has been more than a decade since India left the reform hanging. We have not seen any other attempts to improve women’s representation in our legislatures in the meantime. Nor have political parties, which claim to be committed to the bill, made any efforts on their own to have candidate lists with gender parity (or even with 33 per cent women) (The BJD and TMC were the only exceptions during the 2019 elections).
The BJP celebrated “Nari Shakti” after PM Modi named a new cabinet with 14 per cent women last month. What it needs to do is to get the work started on the bill if it is sincere about its commitment to it. Delaying it any further may not leave enough time within its current term for all the “careful considerations” and “consensus building” it has been referring to all this while.
Akshi Chawla runs #WomenLead, a platform dedicated to tracking the work and journeys of women in politics from around the world
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