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Saturday, March 22, 2003

The Women’s Reservation Bill has once again made the headlines. Why is this bill which has been introduced six years ago, which seems to have the backing (public, not necessarily private) of most political parties and most parliamentarians and which definitely has the support of at least 50% of the population (women) not been enacted so far?

The answer is simple - because none of the parliamentarians or political parties who profess to support it really want it passed! They support it only because they are fully aware that the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav will actually prevent it from becoming a reality.

Now why are the politicians opposed to it and what are they likely to lose? Before we go into that let us know why the Bill was introduced in the first place. There exists at present an undesirable marginalization of women by political parties and a woeful inadequacy of participation of women in politics.

Unfortunately the remedy introduced to cure these ills could lead to problems worse than the disease. Not only will it not really empower the women but also it would open up a whole set of additional problems.

Let us look at the existing scenario (without such an Act in place). There are 15% constituencies permanently reserved for SC and 7.5% reserved for STs. With the latest census figures in, this percentage is likely to increase to 25%. For some time now there have been some difficulties with this permanent reservation of constituencies without rotation. In reserved constituencies, the other sections do not have an opportunity to contest elections and the SCs in general constituencies are denied representation.

Against this backdrop a bill had to be drafted to enhance the representation of women in legislatures. Because the percentage of reserved constituencies including those for women would now increase to 50.6%, and because it is just not politically feasible to permanently reserve that many constituencies, they made a provision for rotation.

Now why do the politicians oppose this bill? This rotation, while it solved one problem has introduced a new problem. When 50% of the reserved seats are rotated, incumbents in all constituencies get unseated. So every politician ends up giving up/losing his carefully nurtured constituency to somebody else. Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and others are using the excuse of reservation for OBC women to block this wholly impractical Bill. In any case, if this Bill becomes law, the male candidates replaced will nominate their female relatives as proxy candidates to keep the seats warm for them, and the women elected on their own will never be able to build a political base as they will lose the seats on rotation!

Fortunately there are sensible and time-tested solutions available. A close look at past elections shows that while 10% of all male candidates were elected, the success rate of women was higher at 17%. Among party candidates, only 26% of men were elected, as opposed to 32% of women! Clearly voters have never discriminated against women candidates. It is political parties which deny women the opportunity. A simple answer therefore is to have a law to ensure that parties nominate women candidates in one-third seats. Then there would be enough serious women candidates available in the field, and there will be no need for rotation of reservation, as constituencies are not reserved. Such party quotas have been mandatory in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany and France, dramatically increasing women’s representation.

Without taking into account the best practices elsewhere, our politicians indulge in distorted public discourse and politics of tokenism. And we keep on hearing of women’s reservation without any action. Let us hope this time around parties will adopt this model of party quotas as law, and ensure fair representation for women in legislatures.