The Women’s Reservation Bill: Encouraging Inclusive Representation in Indian Government

By Rita Roy
The Women’s Reservation Bill was passed on March 9, 2010, International Women’s Day. The male-dominated upper house of the country’s federal parliament voted overwhelmingly to set aside seats for women in the national and state assemblies. Several women have held and continue to hold leadership positions in Indian politics, including the late Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman Prime Minister; her daughter-in-law; Sonia Gandhi, current leader of the Congress Party; Pratibha Patil, President of India; and Sheila Dixit, the incumbent Chief Minister in Delhi.

Still, politics in India continues to be a male stronghold. The Guardian newspaper mentioned that India ranks 99th in the world when it comes to representation of women in government. In neighboring Bangladesh, women constitute 15% of parliamentary representatives, while this number is 30% in Pakistan. The literacy rate among women (55%) continues to be much lower than that of men (77%). Large numbers of women also continue to suffer from poverty and lowered social status.

The Bill, which aims to earmark one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha (or lower house of Parliament) and Assemblies, was first introduced in parliament more than a decade ago. Women currently hold only 10% of the seats in both the Upper and decision-making Lower house of Parliament combined. Once the Bill is passed into law, the number of women representatives in the lower house will rise dramatically, nearly quadrupling the number of women in the upper house (Indian parliament approves plan for women’s quota, Jason Burke, Guardian.co.uk, March 9. 2010).

WOMEN’S BILL: OPPOSITION AND SUPPORTERS

The National Congress Party supported the Bill right from its early days. Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), along with Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the BJP Party, both supported the Bill. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and leftist parties had also been longstanding advocates of women’s reservation.
However, the legislation was opposed by several male party leaders, who believed that the Bill’s passage would result in a loss of seats for their own party members. The “three Yadavs” posed a formidable barrier to the Bill’s passage: Mulayam Singh Yadav, a key player in the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav, a member of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Party, and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Udal (United) Party (a supporter of the pro-Mandal drive to reserve representation for the Other Backward Classes) all opposed the Bill’s passage. Luckily, the National Congress Party President, Sharad Pawar, later counseled the three Yadavs against stalling the Bill and informed them that the Bill could later be amended to address their concerns in respect of OBC (Other Backward Classes) and Muslim women. Pawar communicated to all three party heads that although they had the right to present their views, creating barriers to the smooth passage of this historical legislation was ill-advised (Just what the three Yadav’s don’t want, Shekhar Iyer, March 8, 2010, Hindustan Times).

Others argued for even more far-reaching reservation of political seats for ethnic, religious, and lower caste minority groups. Scores of women panchayat council representatives demanded a quota within the women’s quota. Panchayats already reserve a portion of their seats for women and this has reportedly provided women with much greater status within their own communities. Thus, over 50 village council representatives from the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh all fought for additional reservations (Women in Panchayat Councils Seek Quota Within Quota, Aarti, The Hindu, March 20, 2010).

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR WOMEN IN INDIAN POLITICS?

Now that the Bill has passed, what is to be expected of this legislation in the near future? The new statute is part of a larger effort to correct the great gender divide which still exists in India, particularly in the areas of education, healthcare, and poverty. In a recent Hindustan Times editorial, a “panchayati raj reservation experiment” showed that women leaders were likely to “pay more attention to issues of healthcare, education, and other social development issues than their male counterparts. Thus, it is hoped that the central reservation will lead to an increased focus on these issues.” However, as good governance is not gender-specific, it must receive equal support from male politicians on these issues as well (Editorial, Hindustan Times, March 9, 2010).

The introduction of quotas for women in politics appears to have had a positive effect as evidenced by the recent results and data from Mumbai’s municipal corporation elections. The corporation shows that municipal wards reserved for women in one election, but open to both genders in the next, are five times more likely to elect a woman than a ward that had not previously been reserved for women. Yet another study on women’s success rates in Indian politics was conducted by Stanford University political scientist, Rikhil Bhavnani. The study covered both the 1997 and 2002 Indian elections. Approximately 21.6% of the wards reserved for women in 1997, but left open for both genders in 2002, were won by women in the latter election. This figure turned out to be much lower during the second election when no wards were reserved for women during the earlier election. Overall, women won 3.4% of all open seats in 1997, which more than doubled to 8.6% of open seats in the 2002 elections. The results seemed to show that post reservation of seats, more women were successful seeking public office even after the quota ended (Women Win More Than Quotas, The Times of India, Rukmini Shrinivasan, March 21, 2010).

The overall effect of reservation or quotas seems to have been positive, resulting in an electorate that is far more willing to vote for women. As women are perceived capable of winning elections, other women are more likely to run for office themselves even when the reservations are withdrawn. Hopefully, the passage of the Bill will inspire more women to enter politics. And hopefully, the Women’s Reservation statute is the first of many measures that uplift Indian women and pave the way for more inclusive change.

Rita Roy is a lawyer working at Gowling Lafleur Henderson, LLP in Toronto, Canada with an interest in public international law, and a Vice Chair of the India Committee. She may be contacted by email at rita.roy@utoronto.ca.

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