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Women’s quota bill cleared by Cabinet

Sep 19, 2023 12:12 AM IST

The Union Cabinet on Monday evening approved a Constitution amendment bill to provide reservation for women in the national and state legislatures, officials familiar with the matter said, paving the way for the introduction of the landmark legislation in the ongoing special session of Parliament

The Union Cabinet on Monday evening approved a Constitution amendment bill to provide reservation for women in the national and state legislatures, officials familiar with the matter said, paving the way for the introduction of the landmark legislation in the ongoing special session of Parliament.

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Reserving seats for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies is a decades-long demand to bolster the number of female lawmakers, but previous attempts have stumbled in Parliament due to deep political divisions.

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Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Cabinet met in the Parliament House annexe around 6.30pm for nearly 90 minutes, departing from its usual practice of meeting on Wednesday.

Some Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries said that the new bill — whose contours are not yet known — will not be identical to the last iteration of the bill in 2010, and might expand the scope of reservation beyond the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

In the 2010 bill that was passed only by the Rajya Sabha, there was also no provision for subcategories of castes within the women’s quota — for example, separate sub-divisions for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes within the women’s quota — a key demand of many regional parties.

The demand for increasing the representation of women in legislatures through quotas is at least three decades old but has proved a politically and legally fraught process.

Ahead of the 2024 general elections, the bill is a significant political step by the NDA but the modalities (and the mechanism of implementing the quota) will be important to gauge its efficacy and impact. Previous attempts to institute grassroots reservations in panchayati raj institutions yielded mixed results — while some women found themselves empowered in taking political decisions about their village, others found their democratic power usurped by male relatives who installed their wives, sisters and mothers as political proxies.

This experience also held clues that quotas might be a welcome sign to signal political intent, women’s empowerment should encompass structural improvements in education, health and economic indices that need long-term investment and planning.

Since 1996, several attempts have been made to legalise reservation for women in legislatures but all attempts have failed in the face of staunch opposition by a number of parties. In 2010, the last time such an attempt was made, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government passed a bill to reserve one-third of seats in the national and state Houses in the Upper House but couldn’t bring it in the Lower House under pressure from allies. Eventually, the bill lapsed.

This time, the bill is likely to see a smooth passage through Parliament. The ruling National Democratic Alliance, its supporter Biju Janata Dal and key opposition parties such as the Congress, Trinamool Congress, Bharat Rashtra Samithi and Left have all publicly voiced their support for women’s reservation. Together, the bill is likely to enjoy the support of at least 431 members in the Lok Sabha and 175 in the Rajya Sabha.

In the Lower House, 131 of the 543 seats are reserved for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is no such reservation in the Upper House.

With four days left in the session, the Opposition is expecting that the bill might be brought latest by Wednesday. Parliamentary officials added that on Tuesday, no legislative business is expected in both Houses and the Chandrayaan-3 mission is likely to be discussed. “On Wednesday and Friday, the government is expected to push its legislative agenda,” said a senior leader, requesting anonymity.

Hours after the meeting ended, Union minister of state for food processing and Jal Shakti, Prahlad Singh Patel, confirmed the development. “Only the Modi government had the moral courage to fulfil the demand for women’s reservation. Which was proved by the approval of the cabinet. Congratulations Narendra Modi ji and congratulations to the Modi government,” he said on X. He later deleted his post.

When brought to Parliament, the bill will require an amendment to the Constitution and can become law if it is passed by a two-thirds majority in both Houses, and meets the approval of at least 50% states. In the UPA era, The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008 was passed only in the Rajya Sabha.

The bill also has the potential to divide the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. Outfits such as Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal — who had opposed earlier iterations of the bill — might push for sub-quotas for caste-marginalised communities.

“PM Modi’s Cabinet has struck a massive blow in favour of women’s empowerment by approving the women’s reservation bill providing for 1/3 representation for women in Parliament and the legislative assemblies,” Rajya Sabha MP Mahesh Jethamalani said on X.

The move came hours after Modi hailed the contribution of women parliamentarians during his speech opening the special session of Parliament. He made a point to identify two women Speakers of the Lok Sabha and said that the number of women representatives was approximately 600.

Outside the House before the session, Modi had said that the five-day session may be small in duration but a big occasion. “It is a session of historic developments,” said Modi, asking all members of the House to give maximum time to the session.

After the Cabinet meeting, BJP chief JP Nadda met Union ministers and some parliamentarians at his residence, leaders aware of the matter said. Among those present were information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur and education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the leaders said. “The PM is expected to brief women MPs on the contours of the bill on Tuesday,” said one the leaders cited above.

The idea of reserving seats for women is also backed by the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Last week at a meeting of the Sangh attended by heads of affiliates including Nadda, the Sangh backed the idea and said women should play a key role in all sectors.

Minutes after the cabinet meeting, the Congress tried to take the credit for its earlier push for women reservation. Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh posted Rahul Gandhi’s 2018 letter asking Modi to bring the women reservation bill and quoted Gandhi’s tweet that said, “Our PM says he’s a crusader for women’s empowerment? Time for him to rise above party politics, walk-his-talk & have the women’s reservation bill passed by Parliament.”

Ramesh said women’s reservation was a longstanding demand of the Congress.

“We welcome the reported decision of the Union Cabinet and await the details of the bill. This could have very well been discussed in the all-party meeting before the special session, and consensus could have been built instead of operating under a veil of secrecy,” he said.

Dramatic scenes had ensued in the Rajya Sabha when the bill was being debated in 2010. Marshals had to be called to remove RJD members from the House as they resorted to violent protests. Copies of the bill were torn as Hindi-belt regional parties were vehement in their demand for caste-based sub-quotas.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Saubhadra Chatterji is Deputy Political Editor at the Hindustan Times. He writes on both politics and policies.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

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