Twenty-seven years after the government of then prime minister HD Deve Gowda introduced it, and 13 years after the Dr Manmohan Singh government passed it in the Rajya Sabha, the Narendra Modi government introduced the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, 19 September.
For a government that passed 22 Bills in the Lok Sabha, of which 20 were discussed for less than an hour during the recently concluded monsoon session, it would have been easy to introduce, pass, and implement the Women’s Reservation Bill to make it effective from the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
After all, where there is a will, there is a way.
The fact that the Narendra Modi government has instead chosen to burden the Bill that aims to provide 1/3rd or 33 percent reservation in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies to women with caveats of the decadal census and the delimitation process begs the question of whether the will is for enhancing women representation in legislatures at all.
What reinforces this doubt is the timing of the bill — just months before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, as if right on cue.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it was another women-oriented Bill, popularly called the Triple Talaq Bill, that was the talking point. This time, there is little doubt that the Women’s Reservation Bill will occupy space in Narendra Modi’s election rallies as he seeks re-election for a third time in office.
Brute majority in Parliament
For a government with a brute majority, that has bulldozed even problematic legislations in Parliament with absolute disregard for parliamentary procedures and dignity of debate, bringing in a Bill reserving 33 percent seats for women starting from Lok Sabha polls 2024 would have been a cakewalk.
Instead, the Narendra Modi government has come up with a Bill that makes it impossible to bring in women reservation before the 2029 Lok Sabha elections.
In effect, the Modi government has made it clear that it wants to talk big about the Women’s Reservation Bill in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, but it doesn’t want to do anything to make it a reality this election.
This when the Narendra Modi government has been in office for more than nine years. The Women’s reservation bill featured in the BJP’s manifesto ahead of 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Neither the 1996 Bill brought by HD Deve Gowda government nor the 2008 Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 by the Dr Manmohan Singh government mandated delimitation as a necessity to implement 33 percent reservation for women.
The Narendra Modi government, which has already delayed the decadal census (which was supposed to be done in 2021), wants women’s reservation to depend on numbers from the census conducted after the passage of the quota Bill — as well as the completion of the delimitation process based on those census figures.
The delimitation problem
Delimitation, albeit inevitable, is a highly contested issue with states — especially the states of the South — expressing concerns over losing political representation in a Parliament that is already numerically tilted in favour of the Hindi-heartland states.
The states of the South — that have successfully implemented population control measures and perform well on human development indices — have expressed concerns over being punished for doing well with a lesser political say in the country, while the Hindi-heartland states that haven’t implemented population control measures effectively will be rewarded by way of more political representation.
Delimitation solely on the basis of population is sure to be unfair and will compromise the interests of well-performing states.
By adding delimitation as a caveat to the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Narendra Modi government has simply complicated the process and deliberately delayed it. Delimitation is a process set to be taken up only by 2026, given that another extension is not granted for it.
Old Bill could have been revived
The 2008 Bill on women’s reservation passed in the Rajya Sabha hasn’t lapsed. It could have been revived, but why would a BJP-led government revive a Bill from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance era?
The current Bill has achieved its purpose of catching public attention.
It is sure to also find generous mention and credit-claiming by different political parties, especially the BJP, this election season. But the reality remains unchanged — 1/3rd reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies is still a distant dream.
The Women’s Reservation Bill is Narendra Modi’s big-ticket campaign plank for the Lok Sabha elections of 2024 — and, for now, that is all it will be.