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Why the vote on the women's bill is important

By Sheela Bhatt
March 05, 2010 18:42 IST
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Women, the largest minority of India, may get a delightful reason to celebrate on March 8, 2010, the centenary year of  International Women's Day, if the floor-managers of  the United Progressive Alliance government succeed in putting to vote the Women's Reservation Bill (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008 in the Rajya Sabha.

If and when passed in the Rajya Sabha the bill will go to the Lok Sabha. For such a bill to pass, the Constitution has laid out an elaborate procedure. So, even if the Rajya Sabha passes the bill its real impact will be felt only when it passes through the Lok Sabha.

The bill proposes to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. The path-breaking bill, also, provides that one third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall be reserved for women of those groups. A similar bill was introduced three times before in the Lok Sabha but could not be passed due to lack of consensus.

Today, Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat, the three formidable ladies of Indian politics are more than willing to get this bill through Parliament. Their parties are in process to issuing a whip to their party members in Rajya Sabha to vote in favour.

Political pundits, sociologists, political scientists, feminists and historians and almost everybody has said that if the bill becomes an act then it will be the biggest socio-political news since independence.

This will have the impact bigger than the Mandal Commission that gave reservation to lower castes and it will go deeper than the Ayodhya movement that attempted to ignite Hindu identity cutting across caste barriers.

Shekhar Iyer, associate editor of the Hindustan Times, who has reported the politics over it since the last 15 years says, "One is waiting for it since a decade. If and when the bill passes it will be a beginning of an epoch for Indian Parliament. It will bring quality and content, it will bring sensitivity and a wide range of new and serious issues of real India into Parliament."

The bill has a provision that the reserved seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies within the state. As it was in case of reservation on the basis of caste, lawmakers want women's reservation only for 15 years after the commencement of this act.

On March 8, however, it's difficult to say how the government will manage order in the Upper House so that members favouring the bill can vote without disruption or chaos created by opposing members.

The Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal-United are fiercely opposing the bill. In the lobby of parliament they are called the 'UP-Bihar wala OBC block'. These parties' leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Yadav want "quota within quota". Their critics say that they represent the 'feudal India' who do not want to allow women to share power in public life.

At same time, these leaders know that the bill is such an idea whose time has come. On March 4, Mulayam and Lalu again told Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India-Marxist member of the Rajya Sabha, "Why don't you have 20 percent (instead of 33 percent) reservation for women? We will vote in favour of it."  

Akhila Sivadas, executive director of New Delhi-based Media Advocacy Group, says, "Now, the worry is not about numbers but about order inside the House."

"Political astrology is a dicey business. One can't say what will happen," says Subhash Kashyap, constitution expert and former secretary general of the Lok Sabha.

Kashyap says as per the Constitution in such case out of actual strength of 245 members of the Rajya Sabha more than 50 percent must vote in favour of it and "two-third of those present in the house" if and when the voting takes place should vote in favour of it only, then, the bill will be passed.

Congress has 71 members in the RS, the Bhartiya Janata Party has 45 and the CPI-M has 15 members. Meaning, these three parties can manage a majority and also, the mandatory two-third members' approval when voting takes place.

If, now that is a big if, the members of the parties who are opposing the bill do not create pandemonium inside the House then the bill can pass through.

Already, the Business Advisory Committee has scheduled four hours of debate on the bill. After the debate, in normal course, voting should take place on Monday or later depending on the course of the debate.

But it's a question if the parties opposing the bill will allow the majority members have their say or not. A decade back when a similar bill was introduced Sharad Yadav had torn a copy of the bill.

The major arguments given by the supporters of the women's bill are that it is merely affirmative action till women get their deserved share in all walks of life. Also, there is a perceptive and pleasant change in country side where 33 percent reservation in panchayats has yielded positive results. Studies have shown that women not only pick up issues of children vigorously they also fight many social evils with vigour.

Those who oppose the bill are saying that by asking for reservation women are perpetuating unequal status for themselves. But, then supporters argue that provision of reservation for women is only for 15 years. The idea of reservation is to create a level playing field so that women can raise their share in politics and society and then, look for equal status.

Most members opposing say that it is better to create reservation of women in political parties than in Parliament. The provision of rotation of reserved states is also debated. It can reduce the incentive of the elected MPs to spend energy because he or she may not be able to re-seek the mandate from the same constituency.

Sonal Shukla, social activist and director of Vacha, an NGO that empowers the girl children living in Mumbai slums, says, "I have mixed feelings about it. We have to ensure the concerns of the male and under-privileged as well. Gender cuts across caste and class but, the concerns raised by opposition should be taken care of."

Shukla says that women having more power does not automatically ensure good governance and more democracy to the nation. "In 1975, Indira Gandhi had claimed that she is speaking on behalf of the largest minority of India and in same year she imposed the Emergency," Shukla said.

Many critics have said that the Congress is pressing for the voting on women's bill to break the opposition unity on the issue of price rise but, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley clarified on Thursday that such interpretation is the creation of the media and opposition unity will be, obviously, based on issues.

In the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is the Leader of the House while Leader of Opposition is Jaitley. If Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, along with Jaitley and Yechury can do some behind the doors diplomacy and some tactful management on the floor of the House, the women of India can move an inch towards to have a great leap forward to a society based on gender equality after living in for 5,000 years in a patriarchal  society.

Currently, the Rajya Sabha has 21 women members out of 245, the Lok Sabha has merely 59 women members out of 542. Imagine the day when Rajya Sabha will have compulsorily 83 women members in Rajya Sabha (out of a granted strength of 250) and the Lok Sabha will have 181 elected women members!

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi