In the many analysis and the noisy war of words that’s still continuing in television studios after the Gujarat and Himachal election results, an important aspect that has been conspicuously absent from the discourse is the abysmally low representation of women fielded as candidates by both major players — the BJP and Congress. In Gujarat, the BJP and Congress fielded 12 and 10 women candidates respectively out of 182. In 2012, the strength of women members in the Gujarat Assembly was just 15, now it’s further down to 13. Similarly, in Himachal, of 338 contestants, only 19 were women. The BJP and Congress together put up nine candidates, of which four won.
The total strength of women members in the newly-elected Assemblies is just seven per cent in Gujarat and five per cent in Himachal. Further analysis shows that in the Assembly elections in March 2017, of the total number of 690 seats contested in five states, only 55 are represented by women. The strength of women MPs in the current Lok Sabha is 11.41 per cent, while in the Rajya Sabha it’s 11.43 per cent, far lower than the global average, and even compared to neighbours like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The depressingly low representation of women both in Parliament and the Assemblies, and in party nominations, underlines the need to bring back the focus on the long-awaited and much-disputed Women’s Reservation Bill.
Introduced first in 1996 in the Lok Sabha, the bill has generated stormy debates and unruly behaviour inside Parliament. In its turbulent journey over 20 years, the bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 by the UPA government, but lapsed with the dissolution of the House in 2014. The BJP government, despite its pre-poll promise of passing the bill, hasn’t made any attempt to table it in Parliament in the last three years.
An argument against the formalisation of women’s representation through the bill is why can’t political parties create internal reservations ensuring the fielding of 33 per cent women candidates in every election. The fallacy of this argument is that internal reservations can’t be made mandatory, and can easily be breached by any party. And even if internal quotas are made mandatory, if seats are not reserved, most of the women would get the worst seats from which they wouldn’t be elected. Pitched against strong male candidates, the chances of such women losing are quite high. As winnability is extremely important in electoral politics, parties shy away from giving tickets to women. All parties must nurture and create women leaders from within their ranks by giving women more responsibilities and sufficient representation within their organisation at all levels so that they can take on anyone, irrespective of gender. But till that happens, it’s important to ensure a greater degree of women’s representation trough affirmative action like the reservation bill. This would also encourage more women to join active politics.
Another criticism of reservations is the assumption that there will be proxy candidates like wives and other female relatives fronting for male candidates. Even if that’s true, one can’t still discount the fact that even these female relatives are women. Despite a large number of such proxy candidates in panchayats and local bodies with minimum 33 per cent quota for women, studies have shown very positive effects of reservation towards the cause of women’s empowerment. A large number of women come out of the shadow of their male relatives, and develop and assert their leadership with time.
Another argument against reservation is that the proposed rotation of constituencies every five years will act as a disincentive to work in a constituency as no one would have a stake in it. It’s also considered not fair that after nurturing a constituency for five years, one has to let it go due to reservations. The same logic would apply to a woman representative as well.
If she fights from a reserved constituency, it’s certain her constituency would be changed in the next term. A similar system is there in panchayats too, but the stakes for the Lok Sabha and Assemblies are far higher. One way out could be to make the rotation every 10 years rather than every five.
Then the current representative will have the chance of renomination from the same constituency. A possible guarantee of 10 years should be more than enough in an ever-changing flux of the world of politics. Various suggestions are made for accommodating women through reservations without hurting the interest of the current setup, like increasing the total number of constituencies through delimitation and others. But to consider and debate these suggestions, it is necessary that the government should initiate the bill first.
The participation of women in electoral politics compared to men is exceedingly low. Politics is a full-time and taxing job. The risk factor is extremely high; and as it’s difficult to pursue another career while in active politics, one needs financial resources even for mere survival. Women also need support system to supplement her traditional responsibilities at home. Very few women have access to independent sources of sufficient income and support, primarily from her family. The uncertainty makes it even more difficult. A man too may face similar problems. But in a traditional society, families are much more willing to invest in a man getting into politics compared to a woman.
Only affirmative action like reservation can incentivise more women, particularly from non-political families, to join electoral politics.
The BJP has a clear majority in the Lok Sabha and the largest number in the Rajya Sabha. Mrs Sonia Gandhi had written to the Prime Minister reaffirming her support for the Women’s Bill, and Congress president Rahul Gandhi has reiterated that support. If the BJP and Congress join forces, no one can stop the bill’s passage. But for that the BJP must show political will and introduce it in Parliament as soon as possible.