In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the Congress actually gave 40 per cent of the party ticket to women candidates. That year, as the electoral battle was fiercely fought between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party, the State Congress’ campaign, led by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, was possibly making a point with the slogan “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” (I am a girl/woman, and I can fight).
In the course of travelling in the State, one saw several campaigns run by interesting women candidates of the Congress: there was Nida Ahmed, a former TV journalist; Asha Devi, the mother of a rape victim; Sadaf Jafar, an activist who had been jailed during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA); and Archana Gautam, formerly Miss Cosmo World (2018) and Miss UP (2014), to name a few.
Eventually, the entire initiative came to naught as only one of the 159 women the Congress fielded won—Aradhana Mishra Mona, a traditional politician and daughter of party veteran Pramod Tiwari. Also, the other women candidates’ performance was dismal, getting 1,500 to 3,000 votes. It was all a bit sad, considering that Uttar Pradesh had produced the country’s first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi; the first woman Chief Minister, Sucheta Kripalani (1963-67); and the only Dalit woman Chief Minister, Mayawati. Uttar Pradesh is one of the largest administrative units in the world and the nation’s most populous State, currently having 48 women MLAs in a House of 403 (11.9 per cent), which is actually an improvement on past numbers.
It can be argued that in 2022, had the BJP and the SP emulated the Congress and fielded more candidates, there would have been more women in the Assembly. Conversely, it can be argued that the Congress could freely distribute its ticket to women because the party knew it did not stand a chance in the contest. After all, the Congress did not do the same in States where it had real stakes, such as Karnataka, where it fielded only 11 women in the Assembly election it won this year. The BJP had fielded 12 women.
There are currently 10 women MLAs in the Karnataka Assembly of 224 (4.5 per cent). The south, which performs better than the Hindi belt States on most social indices, clearly lags behind in the matter of women’s representation in the Assemblies.
Such numbers reinforce the stark truth that without reservation, women would not get adequate representation in our political system, north to south, east to west.
Now they will. Some day. In the future. We do not know when exactly but we can speculate.
The passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in both Houses of Parliament on September 20 and 21 indicates that sometime in the future a third of representatives in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, and the State assemblies in the world’s most populated democracy will be women. That is certainly a step forward for humankind.
But reaching that point has also been made into something of an obstacle course. The first obstacle: the Bill passed by the BJP government links women’s reservation to the next Census. The Census has historically been conducted every decade, but after the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the BJP government at the Centre has inexplicably dragged its feet on giving the go-ahead to conducting it. Some analysts have opined that the BJP possibly wishes to avoid precise population numbers of OBCs and upper castes for purely political reasons, besides data that could suggest a decline in the birth rate among Muslims.
But the logical question to ask is: why should reservation of one-third of the seats for women, who make up half of the country’s population, be linked to the Census and the complex delimitation of constituencies that is to follow? Particularly since women’s reservation has not been linked to the caste census as demanded by the opposition?
“The south, which performs better than the Hindi belt States on most social indices, clearly lags behind in the matter of women’s representation in the Assemblies.”
The next big obstacle: reservation for women is eventually to be decided by the Delimitation Commission, which will be mandated with increasing the numbers of seats in Parliament after the freeze on the number of seats lapses in 2026. This in itself is a tricky and volatile issue as States with booming populations are expected to get more seats while States that have been able to control population growth, always an outcome of good socioeconomic indices, could find their relative numerical strength in the Union being reduced.
It is an issue that has the potential to increase north-south fissures as never before. Imaginative and out-of-the-box formulae would have to be found to make delimitation acceptable to citizens in all the many linguistic zones in which Indian democracy uniquely operates. The fact that the BJP regime has linked women’s reservation to delimitation is arguably because it can turn around and claim one universal benefit to society in what will be a very complex restructuring and increase in the number of parliamentary constituencies.
Legal experts have suggested that given the various obstacles on the route to real women’s empowerment, the reservation will not take place after the 2024 election but will happen sometime after the 2029 general election, if not later. This is because they expect delimitation to be tied up in constitutional and political wrangles.
This means that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be at the helm of affairs when women actually get reservation. He will be 78 years old in 2029. There is a rule in the BJP that candidates over the age of 75 should not be given the ticket. Of course, normal rules and traditions need not apply to Narendra Modi as the BJP and RSS have gained from the cult of the “Absolute Leader” that has been perpetuated around his persona. But this remains an open-ended situation as we do not know which party, Prime Minister, or coalition will be at the helm of affairs when one third of members in Parliament and Assemblies could be women.
But in the immediate aftermath of the Bill being passed, will Modi and the BJP benefit from in the 2024 general election? Well, the entire exercise has been designed in a way that they can take credit for having the political will to push through this legislation that had been pending for 27 years. It will inevitably be posited as an achievement of the Prime Minister in an election year, but how people will respond to this as an electoral issue is unclear.
The third prime ministerial campaign of Modi seeks new dimensions and scale to the personality cult already seen in 2014 and 2019; therefore, being projected as a friend and enabler of women power will be part of the pitch. The Prime Minister clearly wanted a dramatic cause for the shift to the new Parliament building that he has symbolically linked to “freedom from the colonial mindset” and voila, women’s reservation was reintroduced in a new avatar.
- Reservation for women is eventually to be decided by the Delimitation Commission, which will be mandated with increasing the numbers of seats in Parliament after the freeze on the number of seats lapses in 2026.
- Legal experts have suggested that given the various obstacles on the route to real women’s empowerment, the reservation will not take place after the 2024 election but will happen sometime after the 2029 general election, if not later.
- Since the BJP and Prime Minister Modi spoke so evocatively about empowering women, they could use the 2024 election as an opportunity to walk the talk by having more women candidates.
The Prime Minister made three speeches over the two days that involved shifting from the old Parliament building to the new one. While speaking for women’s reservation, he said: “Due to God’s blessings, I am ordained to do many special things for the country.” He was thus invoking a divine right to rule. This is a medieval concept used by monarchs and not by democratically elected leaders for whom Parliament should not be a performance stage but an organic lived instrument of openness and democracy.
The special five-day session of Parliament did , however, make history when the women’s reservation Bill was passed almost unanimously in both Houses, but for two members of the AIMIM voting against it in the Lok Sabha. There was also a fine debate in the Lok Sabha, with many women MPs from the opposition making outstanding speeches critiquing the intent and timing of the Bill, even though they and their parties voted in support of it.
K. Kanimozhi of the DMK pointed out that she had spoken on the Bill in the Rajya Sabha 13 years ago when the UPA passed it in the upper House. Now she was speaking in the Lok Sabha on the same Bill. She drew attention to the name now used— Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, which translates into “women power worship/reverence act”. She said that women “do not want to be worshipped and put on a pedestal but be treated as equals and have as much right to this Parliament as you do”.
She also flagged the apprehensions on linking reservation to delimitation and the endless wait this would lead to.
Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress said that this was a “women’s reservation rescheduling Bill” and a pre-election “jumla” of the BJP. Supriya Sule of the NCP called it a “post-dated cheque”.
Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Akali Dal, a former ally of the BJP, tore into the government, saying that in the “details lie the devil”, as it is linked to the Census and delimitation, and called it a “laddoo” for women that they cannot eat yet.
She also asked the Prime Minister that if he could suddenly implement demonetisation without notice, why could he not pass this instantly, as it is part of the BJP’s manifesto. She suggested it was nothing more than an election gimmick, since it has been brought at the end of a second term and just before a general election, with the actual implementation pushed into some unknown date in the future.
Be that as it may, some day we will have seats reserved for women and we all welcome that. Reservation for women already exists in several States at the panchayat level and in local bodies, and studies have shown that it has long-term benefits for society as a whole. There is also post-election evidence that women are a voting bloc with specific concerns and in some recent elections. For instance, in the West Bengal Assembly election in 2021, in which Mamata Banerjee retained power, data showed that women were more enthusiastic about voting for the Trinamool, while a greater percentage of men were inclined towards the BJP although more still preferred the ruling party.
Many well-meaning commentators have flagged the issue of men using their wives or family members as proxies for themselves in panchayats and corporations. True, it happens, and in fact there is a popular Hindi OTT television series titled Panchayat where the reverse happens—Neena Gupta plays the sarpanch or village head who is a stand-in for her husband. Yet, even if complete empowerment is a work in progress, it is better than having only men run everything all the time.
Interestingly, no one refers to the sons of leaders who inherit political parties as proxies, which is pretty much the same thing with some variations. Suggestions that there should be a clause that rules out wives standing in for men are legally untenable as our democracy is shaped by political dynasties at the national and State levels. Wives, children, brothers and sisters dominate some of the most influential political parties across the land.
History of trailblazers
India has a history of strong women politicians who blazed new trails, be it Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, or Mamata Banerjee, besides, of course, Indira Gandhi. Tough, strong, and solitary, but enjoying mass popularity, these women have defined Indian politics. They were exceptional figures who could rise to the leadership level, although each can be severely critiqued on several counts.
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Since the BJP and Prime Minister Modi spoke so evocatively about empowering women, they could use the 2024 election as an opportunity to walk the talk by having more women candidates. Parties punching holes in the BJP’s positioning could do the same; since they are demanding a caste census and a quota for OBCs within the women’s quota, they could offer more of the ticket to women from OBC communities.
Since no one knows when women’s reservation will legally come into force, in the immediate future we can only monitor ticket allocation by all parties across the ideological spectrum and see who stands where.
Saba Naqvi is a journalist and author. Her books include Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi, and Capital Conquest.