Though we push for more diversity, inclusion, and reflection in politics, how can we ignore the blot on Indian politics, which has far fewer women in positions of power? Every year on March 8, as part of the worldwide celebration of International Women’s Day, India emphasizes women’s rights and their roles in positions of authority. Every media outlet will be discussing the Women’s Reservation Bill, which has been lapsed in the Lok Sabha for decades. But the important point to make is that, while men talk about women a lot in public discourse, are they willing to share power with women? In India, the race to include more women in politics, as well as the demise of patriarchal male-dominated legislative bodies, is nothing new. The ruckus in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 during the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill is the best example. Recently, in Kerala, Lathika Subhash, a former Mahila Congress President, made a daring statement by tonsuring her head for not allotting a seat in the Kerala State Assembly election even after decades of her hard work for the party. Women in India are limited to the Mahila wing of political parties and are underrepresented in the legislature. Political parties are hesitant to assign women to ‘winnable’ seats where the parties are unsure of their chances. This is particularly shameful in a state like Kerala, where female literacy is high, with a sex ratio of 1084 females to 1000 males, and women voters outnumber men.
Being a successful politician is much more challenging as women face many obstacles to holding a position of power in this country. Although some new legislation has improved women’s participation in politics, the socio-economic problems they face remain. The actual inclusion of women in the decision-making process is also a major point of contention for female lawmakers. Women who hold positions through reservations are chastised by using words as a proxy, whereas men who enter politics through nepotism are portrayed as strong figures. Women who are subjected to patriarchal norms are mostly associated with their families. They are observed and raised to care for the family. This burden on them is also a challenge for active politics. Another big obstacle is economic factors such as financing. Fighting in an election is costly, and since women are less financially stable than men, they must rely on family or friends for financial support. Today, we also see attempts to jeopardize the reputations of female politicians. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to face such issues. The number of women in Parliament is disappointing for the world’s largest democratic nation, given the never-ending challenges.
To state numbers, women’s representation rose from 4.4 per cent to 14.6 per cent between the First Lok Sabha (1952) and the Seventeenth Lok Sabha (2019). During the entire post-independence period, the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) has shown a similar pattern of low female representation. Considering the share of women (49.5%) in the total population of India, their representation in Parliament represents a skewed statistic, which does not befit the world’s largest democracy. According to IPU Parline, India’s performance on female representation in parliament is not adequate as compared to the global average of 25.4 per cent and the Asian average of 20.4 per cent. As per this data, India is ranked 148th, which is a very low global ranking, while countries like Nepal (43rd), Afghanistan (69th), Pakistan (116th) have a far better ranking than India. As of April 2021, Rwanda ranks first with 61.3 per cent of women representation in the lower chambers. If we look into the countries which topped the list, they have either reservations in Parliaments and Legislatures or party quotas. There thus comes the pressing issue of the Women’s Reservation Bill of India, which was first introduced in Parliament in 1996 and several times after that, in 1998, 1999, 2003, and 2008. The most recent version of the Bill was passed by Rajya Sabha in 2010. However, the Bill lapsed when Lok Sabha dissolved in 2014 as they refused to vote on it.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, 2008 reserves one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies. The allocation of reserved seats shall be determined by such authority as prescribed by Parliament. Of these, one-third of seats will be reserved for women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The reservation is on a rotational basis, which means different constituencies in a State or Union Territory will have reservations for every general election. The reservation only applies for 15 years when the bill is passed.
The Women’s Reservation Bill has been heavily criticized. When supporters emphasize the bill’s role in improving women’s conditions and promoting inclusivity in politics, opponents criticize it as legislation that establishes unequal status for women. Criticism focuses on the rotation, which limits candidates’ ability to run for re-election and, as a result, their ability to hold power. This can have an impact on MPs’ motivation. Other critiques center on the voters’ choice of candidates, which would be limited to women, and the fact that two female candidates would be competing, giving the impression that women are too frail to compete against men in an election. When women get reserved seats for contesting in an election, there are chances for fielding general seats for men alone. The Election Commission recommended that instead of adopting reservations, parties should commit 40 per cent of the seats to women to their electoral list. An important argument raised by the Rajya Sabha while passing the bill was regarding the exclusion of reservations for OBCs. The report examining the 1996 women’s reservation Bill recommended that reservations be provided for women of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) once the Constitution was amended to allow for reservation for OBCs. As this amendment wasn’t affected, reservation for OBC’s wasn’t realized. Supporters counter that the self-mobilization of OBC women in Indian politics is possible because seats in constituencies with a large OBC population and reservation are allocated to them.
The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India Act of 1992 ushered in a new era of opportunities for women to serve India’s villages and, as a result, make progressive decisions in local governments. Inclusion in politics would not be a concern for any democratic nation if gender quotas are successfully enforced, and the 73rd Amendment sets an example for it. Some of the states like Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar have extended reservations from 33 per cent to 50 per cent and it has helped to improve gender sensitization at the grass-root levels.
Studies show that having more women in parliament leads to more attention being paid to women’s issues. Women’s political participation is a necessary condition for achieving gender equality and true democracy. It promotes women’s direct participation in public decision-making and ensures greater transparency for women. More representation will eliminate systemic biases and structural barriers. Education, financial independence, and female labour participation will be enhanced. Many women in India are still concerned about the availability of female hygiene products and the high taxes levied on them. More women in legislatures can ameliorate such issues women face and can help to bring them into the mainstream.
Can a democratic country be called democratic even after 73 years of Independence, equal representation of men and women is not attained in law-making bodies and when inclusivity and intersectionality do not find a place in Parliament? Democracy is all about people’s voice and representation and when it is impossible to know their voice and growth, how can we address their concerns? To bring all kinds of representation, we need to make policies with them to ensure inclusive growth in the country. (Tara Krishnaswamy)
We need more women at the political table. Even if all of the criticisms of the Bill remain, India cannot afford to take such a casual approach to such a critical topic. It is also not an acceptable world to not have reservations, and in a world where we undoubtedly agree on fewer female representations, successfully introducing radical actions like women’s reservations is the need of the hour to correct the disparity.
Author(s) Name: Helna George (School of Indian Legal Thought, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala)
- Monthly ranking of women in national parliaments | Parline: the IPU’s Open Data Platform
- Elusive ‘Woman’: Feminism and Women’s Reservation Bill on JSTOR