Controversial Women’s Reservation Bill Strains Unity Among India’s Opposition Parties

The history of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which guarantees a 33 percent quota for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies and was reportedly approved by the union cabinet last night, underscores the divisions within the INDIA alliance of opposition parties. Sources indicate that the bill will be introduced in the Lok Sabha during the ongoing special session of parliament, and the ruling BJP has called upon its female MPs to be present when it is brought up for consideration and voting.

While the Congress and left parties are in favor of the bill, key constituents like Lalu Yadav’s RJD and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party have consistently opposed it in its current form. They have staunchly advocated for a reservation for women from backward classes within the 33 percent quota.

Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), which initially opposed the bill, eventually supported it in 2010, causing internal strife within the party as Mr. Kumar clashed with then-party president Sharad Yadav. JD(U) had joined forces with Congress and several other regional parties in demanding the Prime Minister’s introduction of the bill during the special session.

In 2010, when the Rajya Sabha passed the bill, these opposition parties obstructed its progress in the Lok Sabha. SP and RJD even withdrew their support from the ruling UPA government over the bill. With seat-sharing already proving to be a significant challenge for the INDIA alliance, differences over the women’s reservation bill will further test opposition unity ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Congress’ parliamentary party chief, Sonia Gandhi, declared on Tuesday that the women’s reservation bill “is ours.” She stated, “It is ours, apna hai,” when questioned about it while entering parliament today.

Introduced by the HD Deve Gowda-led government 27 years ago, this bill is now being presented in parliament for the fifth time.

This marks the fifth occasion in the last 27 years when a bill proposing reservation for women in Parliament and State Legislatures will be presented before Parliament. It was first brought for deliberation through the introduction of the Constitution (81st Amendment) Bill, 1996, in the 11th Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996. Subsequently, it was referred to the Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament.

The Committee submitted its report to the Lok Sabha on December 9, 1996, but the bill expired with the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha.

A similar bill, known as the Constitution (84th Amendment) Bill, 1998, was introduced in the next Lok Sabha term, but it also lapsed with the dissolution of that House.

Once more, another bill, the Constitution (85th Amendment) Bill, 1999, modeled after the earlier bills and introduced in the 13th Lok Sabha on December 23, 1999, couldn’t be considered due to a lack of political consensus. This bill also lapsed upon the dissolution of that House.

The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008, was passed by the Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010. When the upper house approved the bill, some MPs who opposed the move had to be escorted out by marshals. Since then, it has been in limbo, as it was never presented in the lower house.

Bills introduced or passed in the Rajya Sabha do not expire, which is why the Women’s Reservation Bill is still active.

The bill proposes that one-third of the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be earmarked for women from those groups. These reserved seats may be rotated among different constituencies in the state or union territory.

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, speaking during the discussion on the “Parliamentary Journey of 75 years Starting from Samvidhan Sabha – Achievements, Experiences, Memories And Learnings” on the first day of the special parliamentary session, pointed out the skewed gender ratio, stating that parliament comprises only 14 percent women, while their representation in legislative assemblies is a mere 10 percent.

In the current Lok Sabha, only 78 women members were elected, accounting for less than 15 percent of the total strength of 543. Similarly, in the Rajya Sabha, women’s representation stands at around 14 percent, as per government data shared with parliament last December.

State assemblies also have less than 12 percent women members, with some even having less than 10 percent women representation.

Jairam Ramesh, Congress’s communications in-charge, highlighted yesterday that the Congress party has long been advocating for the implementation of women’s reservation. He stated, “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.”


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