Women's political reservation matters, so does their vote - Hindustan Times
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Women's political reservation matters, so does their vote

Sep 22, 2023 07:08 PM IST

Will this bill make it more acceptable for women to occupy positions of power? Will this acceptability give more confidence to women voters?

Indian women today are voting in numbers equal to or higher than men in most elections. Their primary reason for voting enthusiastically is to exercise their constitutional right to be counted as citizens. During my research, ongoing since 2019, among women voters in Haryana, I often heard my interlocutors say that they voted because it is their adhikaar (right). Yet they lamented that there was no jagah (place) for women in the political arena.

Lucknow: Women celebrate after the introduction of the Women's Reservation Bill, in Lucknow on Tuesday. (PTI) PREMIUM
Lucknow: Women celebrate after the introduction of the Women's Reservation Bill, in Lucknow on Tuesday. (PTI)

The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (Women’s Reservation Bill) 2023 passed by the Parliament on September 21, seeks to correct this imbalance, and aims to make more places for women by ensuring that at least 33% of the seats in national and state assemblies are occupied by women.

There are two questions that this leads us to ask: Would this bill make it more acceptable for women to occupy positions of power? And, will this acceptability give more confidence to women voters of the country that they matter?

In recent years, women have voted in favour of parties and candidates that take their problems seriously. They have voted for men such as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar who promised prohibition of alcohol in Bihar, and in West Bengal put their weight behind a female chief minister, Mamata Banerjee whose government is associated with more programmes for women’s development. The expectation with this bill is that having more women candidates fighting state and national elections will make politicians more responsive to women as a voting group.

But we would be making a big mistake in thinking of women voters as a homogenous group or a unified voting bloc. Voters’ gender intersects with caste, religion, class, language, and ethnicity. These factors also influence who women vote for and thus, their gender may not be the single deciding factor. As such, women from across socio-economic and religious groups need to be represented in the reserved seats. While the bill does create provisions for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe sub-quotas, opposition members have already questioned the lack of sub-quotas for OBC and Muslim women, which might limit the desired emancipatory potential of the reservations.

Scholarly debates on earlier versions of the Bill raised similar concerns too. For instance, Nivedita Menon, in a 2000 Economic and Political Weekly article, drew on Meena Dhanda’s work and pointed out that reserving seats for an undifferentiated category of women seems like an upper-caste ploy to stem the growing numbers of lower-caste MPs in the parliament since the 1980s. Menon was also of the view that proclaiming the rhetoric of empowering women without actually changing the social order and gender norms has become a more acceptable form of gender politics for the state, which ignores the radical political changes that feminists fought for.

The Women’s Reservation Bill 2023 might go down that route too, where providing representation to women is deemed enough but misogyny continues to thrive in the sphere of electoral politics. Women have traditionally stayed out of politics because it is considered a dirty sphere where they dare not tread. Unless there is a big shift in a political culture where women feel safe when participating in politics and giving them election tickets becomes a regular practice, reservations alone would not go a long way.

Of course, reservations might normalise women’s participation in politics. For this to happen, the category of women needs to be punctuated by caste, tribe, religion, class, and ethnicity. Furthermore, for women voters to feel a part of the citizenry beyond exercising their right to vote, their presence in spaces of the state and government needs to be granted as their right, rather than as a favour bestowed on them. Reservations for women in the parliament and state assemblies as an intermediate solution would truly succeed only if that happens.

The Bill passed by the government seeking a re-election next year wishes to send out a message that the regime cares about women’s participation in politics. Despite seeking the crucial objective of rebalancing power in elected bodies, the bill’s introduction in a special session raises questions about timing. It will not be implemented until after the 2029 elections, and one wonders if it is a genuine commitment to reducing the gaps in representation or a strategy by the ruling party to win the support of more female voters even before the reservations are implemented. Nevertheless, one hopes that the bill’s emphasis on ‘women-led development’ might lead to a crucial shift where women will not merely be the targets of development but be present in enough numbers to influence and direct policies on development and beyond.

Lipika Kamra is an Assistant Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. She researches on women's participation in development and democracy in India.

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