As the 17th Lok Sabha meets for the second week, there is an obvious omission of a long standing bill that women MPs, political parties and civil rights activists have been demanding: The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008, popularly known as the women’s reservation bill.

From tearing up documents to ignoring street protests, the bill has been the subject of criticism, ridicule and power play for the last 23 years. The bill seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies.

First tabled in 1996, it has been frequently used by governments to score political points, and even to distract from the issues of the day. It has however never received enough support to pass both houses of Parliament. In its last attempt, the bill which was passed by the UPA government in Rajya Sabha in 2010, remained pending in the Lok Sabha and lapsed in 2014 when the lower house dissolved. For the legislation providing 33% reservation for women to see light of day, a new bill will have to be introduced in either house of Parliament now.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm political parties are recognising the importance of women representation. There has been a marginal increase in the number of women MPs increasing from 64 in 2014 to 78 in 2019.

This is because of a significant spike in number of women candidates fielded by political parties in election 2019. Data by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) found 724 women candidates stood for elections this year, up from 690 in 2014. Incidentally, the increase in women representation in the election has been in some measure led by regional parties like Trinamool Congress, BJD and Tamil nationalist party, Naam Tamilar Katchi, which has given equal number of tickets to both men and women.

How far have we come?

The first Lok Sabha in 1951 had 22 women MPs which increased to 66 in the 2014 Lok Sabha. In the span of 54 years and 16 LS elections it amounts to a three- fold increase in the number of women MPs that made their way to the lower house of the parliament. Yet 12% representation in Parliament is nothing to crow about.

India ranks 149 of 193 countries in women’s representation according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union 2019 ranking behind not just countries like UK, US and France but also neighbours like Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

While female representation is low in the Lok Sabha, representation in state assemblies is even lower, according to analysis by data news website Over five years to 2017, female representation in state assemblies was the highest in Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan (14%), according to the 2017 data released by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation. Mizoram, Nagaland and Puducherry had no elected women representatives in their assemblies. The national average of women in state assemblies and state councils (upper house of the state legislatures) was 9% and 5%, respectively.

India’s long democratic tradition and prominent women political leaders like Sarojini Naidu who became the first woman president of the Indian National Congress in 1925 and Indira Gandhi who was the first woman Prime Minister in 1966 are often cited as examples of high regard that women are given in politics. In fact, even the outgoing NDA government had two women —Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj — as ministers for defence and external affairs respectively. Yet overall representation of women in politics in the state assemblies and centre has been dismal.

Ranjana Kumari from the Centre for Social Research that is part of the National Alliance for Women’s Reservation Bill said the bill is unfinished agenda. “Giving women an equitable share of power goes against the very ideology of BJP that always sees women in the context of family, in their roles as daughter, sister and mother. To have women ministers that have no power or say in their ministry, is the difference between being an earner and being economically empowered. If you earn a wage but have no voice in how you spend it, you cannot be called economically empowered,” she said.

Why vote for women?

It makes economic sense, that’s why. Among the most common arguments given by political parties against the women’s reservation bill is that candidates are selected on the basis of their winning quotient and not gender. Analysis shows that in fact, women have a higher chance of winning than men. According to analysis by website the success rate for men was 18%, whereas it was 34% for women, which is twice that of men in 1971. In the outgoing LS, the success rate was 6.4% for men and 9.3% for women.

Not only do women make for winning candidates but as candidates they spur greater economic growth. An academic paper by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) in 2018 studied the impact of women politicians on economic performance in state legislative assemblies. The researchers examined data for 4,265 state assembly constituencies for the 1992–2012 period using night luminosity as a measure of economic performance. The paper estimated women legislators raise luminosity growth in their constituencies by about 15 percentage points per annum more than male legislators. They were also found to be far more effective at completing road projects and hence creating infrastructure for growth.

States show the way

While both national parties, Congress and BJP, have promised passage of the bill in their manifesto in 2014 and 2019, their commitment is suspect. In fact, activists are already looking towards regional satraps like Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjeewho have given 33% and 41% representation to women candidates respectively in the ongoing general elections.

CSR’s Ranjana Kumari says that there is little hope from the Centre since the NDA government did not move on the bill despite their overwhelming majority in LS. Besides the NDA, several opposition parties -- such as the Left, NCP, AIADMK and DMK also pledged support to the bill. Congress president Rahul Gandhi had written to PM Narendra Modiin July last year, two days ahead of the last monsoon session of Parliament offering his party's unconditional support to the bill. And yet the legislation was not even discussed.

All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) president Jagmati Sangwan says that the regional parties will probably lead the way. “We must strategically convince more regional parties to follow the lead of BJD and TMC and also make a woman’s candidature more attractive for voters,” she said.

Both Sangwan and Ranjana Kumari agree that women politicians must do more to lobby for their counterparts who are trying to make their mark. “Women politicians must do more advocacy work, push for higher representation within their parties,” Sangwan said, “This patriarchy must be brought down.”

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