Nine years after it was first talked about and conceived, the Parliament is scheduled to take up the Women’s Reservation Bill. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatteree on Friday expressed hope that the Women’s Reservation Bill would be passed by the Parliament. In September 1996, the United Front Government tried to introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill to give one-third reservation to women in Parliament. The euphoria in the treasury benches over the UPA decision on introduction of the women’s reservation bill in Parliament could be short. Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Sunday hinted that passage of the women’s reservation bill in Parliament would be an uphill task admitting that there was opposition to the women s reservation bill from `some colleagues in Congress and also some other constituents of the UPA. The All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) on Tuesday demanded the introduction and passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill.  Communist Party of India (Marxist) has asked the UPA government to take up the women’s reservation bill on a priority basis. The DMK president Dr Karunanidhi has made it very clear that DMK is for the women’s reservation bill. Samajwadi Party would oppose the Women’s Reservation Bill if it is tabled in the Lok Sabha in the present form and favours only 20 per cent reservation.

So does the Government have the will and the numbers to push the Women’s Reservation Bill through parliament this time around. Offstumped examines the numbers and the political divide on this issue. With the Congress introducing the bill under pressure from the Left one can expect atleast the 131 Congress MPs and the 59 Communist MPs to support the Bill. Which puts support for the Bill at the outset at 190 barring a revolt within the Congress ranks which cannot be ruled out. With the DMK coming out in support of the Bill it would take the tally upto 206. Firm Opposition for the Bill on the other hand from Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav’s RJD and Mayawati’s BSP puts the votes against the Bill atleast at around 80. If one were to go further and assume that all the other regional outfits and independents remain firmly opposed to the bill it would put the votes against the Bill at around another 200. So the fate of the Women’s Reservation Bill hangs pretty much not on where Mulayam, Lalu and Mayawati stand but on the BJP and its 131 members assuming Sonia manages to keep her flock intact.

Offstumped examines the question of where the BJP stands on this or rather where it should stand on the issue ?

BJP Leader Sushma Swaraj has been a leading proponent of the bill. According to Sushma Swaraj If the bill comes, it will again go to the Standing Committee given that it is a Constitutional Ammendment Bill, which means it will be in cold storage because the regional parties are not in favour of the bill in its present form. The Leader of the opposition LK Advani meanwhile was evasive taking refuge in the discord within the ruling coalition by adopting a wait and watch approach before taking a firm stand. It is not difficult to see the reasons behind Advani’s evasiveness based on V.K. Malhotra, deputy leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha remark that the Government consider requiring political parties to field women in one third of the seats.

The broad basing of the BJP over the years drawing in more OBC and SC/ST MPs into its fold has had curious political implications. United while they maybe on the issues of ideology and Hindutva, that consensus breaks down when it comes to economic and social issues. One could see that breakdown in consensus through the NDA’s years in power with the opposition to many a key economic reforms bills from within the ranks as well as the waffling over the women’s reservation bill with even old timers like Uma Bharathi taking a stance at variance with the bill in its present form. It now appears certain that the BJP is unlikely to force the issue on its ranks as it takes refuge in the discomfiture of the UPA. The BJP’s past formulations over increasing the number of Lok Sabha seats and introducing double member constituencies have little support outside of the party and can hardly be considered practical. Given the raucuous nature of the current 545 member lok sabha any further increase in it strength would only further render the legislature ineffective and dysfunctional. The left and some in the media are bound to make the BJP’s reluctance to come out in support of the bill to be about progressive liberalism.

Offstumped believes however that the lack of support for the bill maybe a blessing in disguise. The experience of 33% percent reservation for women in panchayats has had a mixed track record. As Offstumped had pointed out on earlier occassions how women lead panchayats in Sikkim had started making a difference in recording child birth registrations as a means to counter child mortality challenges or the case of the panchayat in Udaipur which sent out greetingcards to congratulate on the birth of a child and remind them of regitstration. But then on the other extreme you have the Rabri Devi model of rule by proxy and the more recent case in Tamil Nadu where the women sarpanch pretty auctioned their powers to the highest bidder.

Offstumped Bottomline: Much to the chagrin and ire of progressive liberals Offstumped is taking a stance against 33% reservation for women in the legislature.  Offstumped does not believe mandatory constitutional stipulations will lead to true women’s empowerment. Offstumped believes that a far more effective means to women’s empowerment would be to reform inner party democracy through election commission reforms for funding. By laying out campaign funding incentives to those Political Parties that institutionalize grass roots based elections and commit Diversity benchmarks in office bearer and candidate selection, true Women’s empowerment in our Democratic Processes can be achieved. The BJP’s suggestion that the Government should consider ways to make Political Parties put up more women candidates is thus far more progressive and meaningful than the reservation charade kicked up by the Left and its affiliated women’s groups.

Offstumped fully endorses any such moves where women’s empowerent is achieved by true grass roots democracy and incentives rather than forced Constitutional Ammendments which will only see more Rabri Devis.

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