Pass women's bill in time for 2019

The women’s quota bill is in focus again, following Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s recent letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him and the BJP to have the bill passed by Parliament. The issue had been pushed into the background after the UPA government’s attempt to pass the bill failed in 2010. It has since found a place in the election manifestos of the major parties but no initiative has been taken by the government in the last three years to move the legislation. The bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but was stalled in the Lok Sabha. It has to be introduced again if the government wants to pursue the proposal. The bill proposed to set aside 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures for women. The idea of women’s reservation is over 30 years old and it should not be allowed to languish anymore.

The BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha now and so it can confidently push the bill forward. Support for the legislation was not lacking even in the past. The Congress, BJP and the Left parties had backed the bill in public. It was the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal which opposed the bill and created such unruly scenes in the House that the bill could not be taken up. Their demand for an OBC quota within the women’s quota was only a ruse to sink the bill. Many leaders of the major parties also actually did not want the bill to be passed as it poses a threat to the male-dominated political establishment. If the parties had sufficient will the bill could certainly have been passed. The argument that the bill is elitist and discriminates against men is wrong. In an unequal society which is biased against women, reservation is a means to empower them and to help bring about real equality between men and women. The contention that men would indulge in “backseat driving,” manipulating women legislators, is not entirely wrong. But over time, women will come into their own, as it is happening in local bodies where women’s reservation was introduced in 1993.

Only 12% of India’s legislators are women. They are better represented in legislatures in many other countries, including Pakistan. The government should introduce the bill and get it passed in the forthcoming winter session of Parliament so that there is sufficient time to make preparations for its implementation in the 2019 elections. It should not be seen only as a women-friendly measure but as a way to make our politics more inclusive and just.
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