Women’s Reservation Bill – A Win Win Bill?

The week went by, saw the Women’s Reservation Bill (Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam) being passed by both houses of the parliament in India thereby giving 33% reservation to Women in the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. There has been a huge brouhaha in the country particularly in the media which is understandable and yet bewildering.

Understandable because the bill has been going around in circles in the parliament for decades now without getting passed in both the houses. Political parties who professed support for the bill in principle would in the end vote against it quoting one reason or the other. The governments at those times didn’t have an absolute majority to push through the bill. The fact of the matter is, giving up a third of the seats to women was a big issue and therefore regional parties and even national parties were just happy to push back on the bill given a small window of opportunity.

Bewildering because, do the common women in the street feel the same sense of liberation/empowerment/excitement as the liberal intelligentsia? What is going to change for the aam aurat when she wakes up tomorrow or even after a year?  Seemingly nothing. Yet, I agree that representation in a democracy is critical and therefore, Women’s Reservation has its own merits in the long term, particularly in the realm of law-making and policy-making that has an impact on women’s welfare.

In the passage of it though, there have been a couple of googlies that have been thrown by the government which makes the bill implementable only after a few years or many years. While the bill is a reality on paper, this cannot be enforced for the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections. As per the clauses in the bill, the decadal census has to happen and then the de-limitation exercise has to be carried out after which the 33% reservation will be applied. The De-limitation exercise is in itself fraught with apprehensions by the South parties as they apprehend a reduction in the number of MP seats based on population. Frankly, I reckon that the De-limitation Commission may not be foolish enough to penalise states that are controlling the population effectively while rewarding the other states. As a give and take, at best, the present number of Lok Sabha seats may be maintained for the states that are doing well on population while adding seats to the other states. Be that as it may, these two clauses have effectively put the implementation of the Women’s Reservation Bill back by a few years.

Yet, while pushing for amendments, almost all parties barring one have voted in favour of the bill in both houses which is why I feel that the Women’s Reservation Bill has ended as a Win-Win Reservation bill for all. Let me explain.

For the ruling party – the BJP, it is of course a feather on its cap to have the bill passed finally almost unanimously. They would of course take political credit for the same for whatever it is worth. At the same time, truth be told, they don’t have to worry about dissent or unhappiness among its sitting MPs as far as the upcoming 2024 elections are concerned because the bill is not applicable for the same. Till it becomes effective, they can continue to milk the benefits in the state elections in the interim as well.

Secondly, by pushing in the clause of De-limitation, it might have to deal with the issue of shrinking seats for their sitting MPs as the overall number of MPs may increase with lesser acrimony. Someone said it is like a Post-dated Cheque that has been issued by the BJP. I would think that the Women’s Reservation Bill is a Post Dated Cheque that the BJP made the opposition to issue now with which it would do “Bill discounting” (pun intended) in the coming elections and get the credit by paying a small price. (Taking criticism for delaying the implementation)

For Congress and the other opposition parties, they have been sort of handed over a fiat accompli to vote in favour of the bill and they have. They have also raised objections for bringing in clauses that will postpone the implementation of the bill. Yet, it works for them because they too don’t have to worry about the seat allocation for the 2024 elections. Now imagine if the BJP had actually come up with the bill for implementation immediately, it would have set 543 cats among the alliance pigeons. The Opposition Alliance which already has its back against the wall would have got its challenges multiplied in finding worthy women candidates to fight in 179 seats against the NDA alliance. Now, in the form of these clauses, it has got some breather. At the same time, it has got an issue to beat the government.  By issuing a Post Dated Cheque, the opposition has got its back covered while getting time to pay up.

Now coming to the public, it is also a win-win. In the short term, we could get into a situation where we have proxy women candidates of the Rabri Devi type being propped up by MPs who lose their seats due to reservation. However, in the long run, as we have seen in the Panchayats, more and more genuinely interested women will come to the contest and it will have an impact on policy-making or so I hope.

The Women’s Reservation Bill therefore becomes a reality without much change in the status quo in the immediate term which makes everyone happy.  In the long term, well we are all dead.

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