The third session of the She Runs Government Dialogues: Women’s Reservation Bill titled ‘The Way Forward’ was held on 12th July 2020. In this panel discussion, the panellists talked about how progress with this Bill can be achieved in the near future. The need for ‘women empowerment’ was repeatedly highlighted. After its introduction in 1996, the Women’s Reservation Bill had to battle its way through the Rajya Sabha in 2010 and still did not see the light of the day in Lok Sabha. The Bill has now lapsed and the process towards passing it needs to start afresh.
(You can listen to it here.)
The panel discussion began with Ms. Annu Tandon and Ms. Shaina NC sharing their experiences of entering politics as women. Ms. Annu Tandon recognised and acknowledged her privilege that helped her enter politics but also highlighted that she too has experienced discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2004, when Ms. Shaina NC, also a fashion designer, lost her first election, she faced comments like ‘ ये तो साड़ी पेहनाती हैं, इसको राजनीति के बारे में क्या पात?’ (She puts a saree on others, what does she know about politics?). Since then, her undying grit to prove herself has resulted in her achieving the role of secretary, then the National Executive, the spokesperson of the BJP and now, the only ever woman treasurer the party has ever had in its history.
On tokenism and the need for conscience & consensus
The opening thoughts of the panelists with respect to the Bill revolved around how using the topic of women empowerment as a form of tokenism needs to end and the gap between conscience and consensus needs to be filled.
Ms. Shaina NC noted that there are very few leaders across the spectrum that have supported this Bill and the Congress is as guilty as the BJP is as is the Left who only pay lip service to the cause of women.
“Where is the political will where male political class is going to give up their space for women?” – Ms. Shaina Nc
Dr. Sasmit Patra noted that the call of the day is to not look at women’s empowerment as ‘tokenism’ rather than as a way of life. Chakshu Roy highlighted that very often political parties have agreed to support in the public domain but when it comes to support in parliament, it does not really happen. Thus, the link between conscience and consensus is missing and it is important to create a political consensus and resonance around the Bill. For the Bill to be effective and impactful, there needs to be a change in the mind-set of our current political class.
On intersectionality and quota within quota
Ms. Tandon endorsed the need for quota within quota and highlighted that “if we want to have the Bill passed, the purpose of which is fair representation of women in decision making, women from all castes must be party to it”. It is important that we recognise the intersectional biases that exist in our society before we discuss how to go ahead with it. While women of the ‘upper caste’ face gender inequality, there also exists a cushion of financial support for them.
The conversation then took to discussing whether some amount of nepotism is important to increase women’s participation. Dr. Patras mentions that every law needs a gestation period. For eg. in the Panchayat system, even though the first round started with Pradhan patis and Pradhan putras, it has still led to people talking about gender equality and gave an opportunity to women. Ms. Tandon voiced that we need the women to come out first and there is no denying that we need a certain amount of male support in it.
“If family members are supporting the woman, then why not. At this point, we need to accept what they are giving and we will prove our worth. Women come forward looking at other women” - Ms. Annu Tandon
“It is not an ideal but we cannot make ‘ideal’ to be the enemy of ‘good’” - Ms. Nishtha Gautam
On disproportionate representation:
Mr. Chakshu Roy clarified that 1/3rd of the reservation for SC, ST seats has some portion of it reserved for women too. It is not as if women’s quota will be over and above that. Some SC and ST women will get the reservation within the existing quota that is available.
Will increasing the number of seats in Lok Sabha or a dual membership in constituencies help?
The current strength of the Lok Sabha is pegged on the population of the country as per the 1971 census and this is supposed to change in the 2024 elections where the number of seats will be brought proportionate to the nearer census. While we can always divide larger constituencies and it is one of the solutions to satisfy the men in this situation as it will lead to more opportunities, having two MPs in one constituency also has the danger of conflict between the 2 people. Not only that, but as pointed out by Dr. Patra, it will also be detrimental for the women as “knowing the kind of men we have at the grassroots leading the political mainframe... they will feel threatened with a woman as an equal to them and as another member.”
Mr. Roy’s said that irrespective of what the strength of Lok Sabha is, the focus should be on the debate whether there needs to be a legislative mechanism for representation for women in parliament.
“If I look at the historical numbers since 1952 till now the number of women in Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha has never gone beyond 15%. The debate that we really should be having is that have we moved the needle on the question about gender equality that is enshrined in the constitution? Have we moved the needle since our first parliament started and how long will we wait for more years to progress to say that this is a conversation we need to have?” - Mr. Chakshu Roy
Thus, what we need is seriousness in this conversation that needs to happen in every parliament.
The Way forward
While Dr. Sasmit Patra bluntly put forth that “the passage of the Bill will be a possibility when all the parties and political leadership of the parties come together. It is a mandate for political will more than anything else”. Ms. Shaina NC emphasised on the need for women from across the board to be united in order to pass the Bill.
“A woman is never viewed as a threat, a priority or a votebank. We have to take on the cause in our parties first. We need to agitate in our individual parties” - Ms. Shaina NC
Having said that, Mr. Roy made an important point that when we speak about the Bill, the conversation should begin with how it will benefit the society. While the end result is that women will have reservation, the conversation must revolve around doing it because it will benefit India, as a society. Mr. Roy also pointed that reservation in the upper houses should also be discussed and not limit the conversation to just about reservation in the lower houses. He mentioned that one possible step to do this is to reserve certain days in the parliamentary calendar for the discussion of this issue. This approach could help build consensus and ensure that people are not afraid about representation of women and talking about what this representation would mean for the country.
Dr. Patra committed to his continuation of filing the zero hour and special mention petitions in the parliament and to encourage his fellow colleagues in the Lok Sabha to encourage it. He has also committed to develop a Private Member’s Bill which looks at reservation at Lok Sabha as well as Rajya Sabha and push the Bill in the parliament.
Ms. Tandon has committed to support the Femme First Foundation in this cause and help bring like-minded women together to create required pressures.
Lastly, it is important to note, as Mr. Chakshu highlighted, that political representation is not a bad thing and should not be a domain of the few. Thus, the youth of this country need to engage in the political processes by being more aware, reading about issues and talking about them.