From BJP to SP, political parties remain fickle in their commitment to women's representation

Women activists shout slogans demanding the passing of the Women's Reservation bill in the Lok Sabha during a demonstration in New Delhi on 15 April 2010. K Asif/India Today Group/Getty Images
30 April, 2019

On 29 January 2018, Ram Nath Kovind, the president of India, delivered an annual address to both houses of Parliament, highlighting the government’s achievements in the previous year. Keeping with parliamentary convention, the Rajya Sabha discussed the speech, and on 5 February, a member of the house moved a motion of thanks to the president for his address. Subsequently, other parliamentarians put forth amendments to the motion, stating the failures of the government that did not find mention in the president’s address. Among these amendments, was one by TK Rangarajan, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), asking for the motion of thanks to include a statement expressing regret “that there is no mention in the Address about the Government’s failure to pass Women Reservation Bill.”

Rangarajan’s amendment referred to The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008, better known as the women’s reservation bill, which seeks to reserve 33 percent of all Lok Sabha and state legislative assembly seats for women. The bill also states that one-third of the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes candidates will go to women. The Rajya Sabha passed the bill on 9 March 2010, but it never came into effect as the lower house of the parliament did not approve the reservation. Eight years later, Rangarajan’s amendment was put to vote in the Rajya Sabha, and defeated—86 members of the house were opposed to expressing regret about the government’s failure to pass the bill and 57 members were in favour of the same.

While the vote reflected the house’s reluctance to regard the non-passage of the bill as a failure, it contradicted other moves political parties have made with respect to the reservation. A number of the parties that were against the amendment have professed their support to the bill—this includes the Bharatiya Janata Party which has had a majority in the Lok Sabha for the past five years, but not tabled the bill in the house even once. As for many of those that voted in favour of the amendment, including the Congress, their commitment to increase the representation of women is not borne out in their choice of candidates for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

In April 2019, both the national parties released their manifestos for the 2019 general elections, in which they promise to reserve 33 percent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies—an assurance both had made before the 2014 elections as well. Yet, their allotment of tickets to women for the 2019 election does not reflect this commitment. As on 21 April, the BJP had announced 432 candidates, out of which only 52, or around 12 percent, were women. Similarly, the Congress had only given 13.1 percent of its tickets to women—55 out of 419.

While political parties might project support for the women’s reservation bill during the election season, their stances have always been fickle and their actions seldom promote political representation of women. “Unless mandated to do so, it doesn’t seem like parties will end up fielding more women candidates on their own,” Tara Krishnaswamy, the founder of Shakti, a collective that lobbies for the bill, said.

Women’s reservation has faced various obstacles in the parliament. According to PRS Legislative Research, an independent non-profit organisation, versions of the bill have been introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1996, 1998 and 1999. But all three bills lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabhas.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government tabled the bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2008. It was then referred to a standing committee. Helmed by the Congress member Jayanthi Natarajan, the committee comprised 30 members from the two houses of the parliament, only five of whom were women. The committee supported the bill, though two of its members from the Samajwadi Party—Virendra Bhatia and Shailendra Kumar—moved a dissent note. Bhatia and Kumar said that they support reserving seats for women, but believed that the parties should only reserve 20 percent of their tickets for women, and that women from minority communities should get a quota within that reservation. The bill was finally passed in the Rajya Sabha on 9 March 2010.

Arun Jaitley, the leader of the opposition in the house at that time, reportedly described the day as “momentous and historic.” Jaitley’s celebration was both premature and seemingly disingenuous. Eight years later, when Rangarajan moved his amendment to the motion of thanks, Jaitley, now the leader of the house, tried to deter him from pressing for a division of votes—a procedure to record the stance of each parliamentarian on the amendment. “Ordinarily, we don’t have voting on the President’s Address,” he said. “Therefore, please don’t press it.” Jaitley added that he agreed with the bill “in principle” and that he would call a meeting with all political parties to “evolve a consensus” on the issue. Jaitley and the union minister of textiles Smriti Irani also questioned why the Congress did not implement the bill when it was in power.

Apart from Rangarajan, three other parliamentarians—V Vijayasai Reddy from the YSR Congress, D Raja from the CPI and Husain Dalwai from the Congress—had also raised amendments to the “motion of thanks” regarding the non-passage of the bill. But only Rangarajan pressed for a division. (Disclosure: I worked in Dalwai’s office as a legislative and policy researcher from June 2015 till January 2019.)

On 7 February 2018, 57 members—from the Congress, the CPI(M), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Biju Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party, among others—voted in favour of Rangarajan’s amendment. The 86 members who voted against the amendment included those from the BJP, the SP, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal (United). But on 4 January this year, many representatives of these parties participated in a discussion on the bill in the Rajya Sabha and seemed to support increasing the representation of women in the parliament. An examination of the positions of their parties made it clear that they have consistently changed their stance on the matter.

During the discussion, Jaya Bachchan from the SP said there is an incorrect impression that her party is against the reservation, and that she wanted to dispel this “unnecessary rumour.” However, the SP has been one of the most vocal opponents of the bill. In 2010, Mulayam Singh, who founded the party, had reportedly said, “The Women Reservation Bill, if passed in present format, would provoke young men to whistle in parliament.” He then contended that it would only benefit “rich and attractive women.”

On 4 January, Bachchan said that her party supported the bill, but had concerns over its modalities. “A provision of sub-reservation for Other Backward Classes and Dalit women should be added to the Bill with 33 percent reservation for them,” she said, adding that the party had already given “immense reservation and importance” to women. These claims are not reflected in the party’s makeup—of the 20 parliamentarians from the SP, only three are women. According to their website and Twitter account, as of 20 April, out of the 32 candidates they have announced for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only six are women—a meager 18.75 percent.

Along with the SP, the RJD and the JD(U) have also staunchly opposed the reservation for women in parliament. In 1997, Sharad Yadav, the president of the JD(U) at the time, said that “parkati aurtein”—or women with short hair, referring to those from affluent families—will not be able to represent all women. A year later, during parliamentary proceedings, Surendra Prasad, a member of the RJD tore up a version of the bill that was being introduced in the Lok Sabha. During the 7 February Rajya Sabha session, 11 members of the SP members and one of the RJD—Misha Bharti, its only woman parliamentarian out of nine—participated in the vote. Despite being in the opposition, all of them voted against Rangarajan’s amendment.

The JD(U), now a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, announced its support for the bill in September 2016. KC Tyagi, its general secretary, said that it was the party’s “wish” but “not condition” for the bill to have a sub-quota for the marginalised communities. But the JD(U) has eight parliamentarians across both houses of parliament currently, and only one of them, Kahkashan Perween, is a woman. Last year, all of its members in the upper house, including Perween, voted against Rangarajan’s amendment.

But during the Rajya Sabha’s discussion in January this year, Perween said that she supported the reservation. She further listed the achievements of Nitish Kumar, the party’s president the chief minister of Bihar, in empowering women in the state. In the 2015 state elections in Bihar, out of the 71 JD(U) candidates that were elected to the legislative assembly only nine were women, according to figures shared by the Haryana-based Trivedi Center of Political Data. According to data available on the Election Commission of India website, the party has fielded 17 candidates for the Lok Sabha elections in the state. Of these, only one is a woman.

The TDP and the AIADMK, other allies of the ruling NDA, also seem insincere in their commitment to women’s reservation. Both the parties had voted against Rangarajan’s amendment. The TDP quit the alliance a little over a month after the vote. “We feel that there is a need for women to participate and lead in all the sectors,” Thota Seetharama Lakshmi from the party said, during the 4 January discussion. Her party does not seem to have implemented this view. Out of the 21 parliamentarians from the TDP, Lakshmi is the only woman. In Andhra Pradesh, its stronghold, the party gave only three out of 25 tickets to women for the 2019 general election. Vijila Sathyananth from the AIADMK also expressed her support for increasing the representation of women in parliament. However, of its 49 parliamentarians, only six are women. The AIADMK has only fielded one woman candidate for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

While Sampatiya Uikey, a member of the Rajya Sabha from the BJP, also expressed her support for women’s representation, the party has 39 women parliamentarians out of a total of 342. Recently, Shaina NC, the BJP’s spokesperson in Maharashtra, said she was “upset and appalled” that most parties, including her own, have fielded less than 33 percent women candidates for the 2019 general elections. Krishnaswamy, Shakti’s founder, also said, “BJP has paid only lip service” to its electoral promise of passing the bill. She added, “Congress is no different.”

The Congress, and other parties that are opposed to the NDA, supported Rangarajan’s amendment in the parliament, and vocalised their support for the bill on 4 January as well. But their women parliamentarians are also far less than 33 percent: out of the Congress’s 95 parliamentarians, only 11 are women; the DMK has one woman parliamentarian out of four; and of the CPI(M)’s 14 parliamentarians, only two are women.

Shanta Chhetri from the Trinamool Congress was the only parliamentarian who boasted about the political representation of women in her party. “I am happy to inform you that 35 per cent of members from Trinamool Congress in Lok Sabha are women,” she said. The Rajya Sabha members from the TMC did not vote on Rangarajan’s amendment as they had walked out before the vote over another disagreement with the BJP. However, in the 2016 state elections in West Bengal, 211 TMC members were elected of which only 30 were women, according to data provided by the Trivedi Center for Political Data.

The 2019 general election still shows some silver linings. The Trinamool Congress has fielded more than 33 percent women candidates, and the Biju Janata Dal has committed to exceed the benchmark as well. Lalthlamauni, a 63-year-old who runs a non-profit, is the first woman to contest the election from the lone seat in Mizoram as an independent candidate. Eleven women will be contesting the election in Arunchal Pradesh, the maximum number the state has ever seen. Both the states have a majority of women voters. Even so, Krishnaswamy said, “The public will have to take a cautious approach and pressure them”—parliamentarians—“to pass the bill.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that by 22 April, the BJP had announced 432 candidates, of which only 52 were women. These were in fact the figures on 21 April. The Caravan regrets the error.