After a seven year long stalemate, it seems the Women’s Reservation Bill finally stands a good chance of getting passed into an Act because for the first time the debate is not centred around the official Bill.

 

The deadlock around the official Bill was in large part due to the fact that those opposed to an enhanced representation of women in Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas would just not allow even a discussion to be held on the provisions of the Bill.

 

This meant that some of the glaring flaws could not be dealt with, nor improved ways for providing women a fair opportunity of representation be explored and discussed.

Now that the Prime Minister has openly declared his party’s commitment to break this stalemate and Sonia Gandhi has agreed in principle her party’s willingness to consider other possible ways of bringing in a critical mass of women into our Legislatures, the Alternative Bill drafted and canvassed for long years by Manushi in collaboration with Lokniti and Loksatta is finally on the table for discussion.

This proposal had received enthusiastic endorsement by the Election Commission way back in January 2000, because it avoids the many pitfalls inherent in the rotational system of reservation through which one-third of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha constituencies would be reserved for women in each election and compulsorily dereserved after one term to make way for yet another randomly selected lot.

This would mean compulsory uprooting of one-third women and one-third male legislators from their chosen constituencies. Such a system of reservation endangers the political fortunes of both men and women because it jeopardises the possibility of advance planning and preparation to fight an election by nurturing a political constituency and develop a strong base among voters. The main features of the Alternative Bill are as follows:

* Instead of reservation of constituencies, it provides for a 33 per cent quota in ticket allocation. This can be achieved through an amendment of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, making it mandatory for every recognised political party to nominate women candidates in one-third of the constituencies. Among seats reserved for SCs and STs also, one-third of the candidates nominated by recognised parties shall be women.

* In the event of any recognised party failing to nominate one-third women candidates, for the shortfall of every single women candidate, two male candidates of the party shall lose the party symbol and affiliation as well as all the recognition related advantages.

This way, parties will be free to choose constituencies where they have women candidates capable of offering a good fight. By contrast, the official Bill requiring rotational reservation puts all parties at a disadvantage because it forces them to put up women candidates in pre-fixed constituencies, whether or not they have viable women candidates in those constituencies.

* Our Bill also enables women political workers to select years in advance the constituency they wish to develop as their political base, something impossible to achieve if the reserved constituencies are being constantly rotated.

* To prevent a party from nominating women candidates only in states or constituencies where its chances of winning are weak or negligible, and to ensure an even spread of women candidates, the unit for consideration shall be a state or union territory. For the Vidhan Sabha, the unit shall be a cluster of three contiguous Lok Sabha constituencies which is roughly equivalent to 27 Vidhan Sabha constituencies.

Those who think that merely giving women party nominations to fight elections will not ensure a critical mass of women actually getting elected to Legislatures, need to look at the track record of female candidates.

While 32.43 per cent of women candidates of recognised parties have been elected to Lok Sabha since 1984, the success rate of male candidates of recognised parties is only 26.50 per cent. This is true of all general elections since 1984, except in 1989. Therefore, it is very likely that women’s presence in Lok Sabha will exceed one-third.

Most important of all, it will not be artificially frozen at 33 per cent, as would happen if the official Bill’s provision for reserving 33 per cent constituencies were to be implemented.

As per our proposal, if each party fields 33 per cent women candidates, theoretically women could even win the vast majority of seats all on merit since they will not be confined to the one-third ”women only” or zenana constituencies. The higher success rate of women contestants shows that voters do not discriminate against women candidates. The very low representation of women in Legislatures is due to the fact that party bosses shut the door to women at the very entry point of the electoral process by denying them adequate number of party tickets.

If this particular door is opened for women, we are likely to witness a substantial increase in the number of women MPs and MLAs.

* Another major advantage of the Manushi-proposed Bill is that it bypasses the need for quota within quota for backward castes – an issue which has so far obstructed the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

As per our Bill, parties are free to nominate women of their choice in constituencies of their choice, keeping the caste-community arithmetic and other social factors in mind. Thus, all those leaders concerned about enhancing the representation of backward caste women will have the option to give all, or as many tickets as they like, to backward caste women.

The OBC & BC castes have a huge numerical advantage in our one-person-one-vote electoral system. That is how majority of MLAs in our State Legislatures and MPs in Parliament are from OBC & BC castes without any quotas or reservations. The same numerical advantage is bound to work for BC women candidates as well. Thus there is very little likelihood of upper caste women cornering the women’s quota in ticket allocation.

The few upper caste women who manage to win elections despite the electoral arithmetic going against upper castes, will be those who have worked hard to win the confidence of OBC and SC voters in their respective constituencies.

* Finally, the most clinching factor in favour of our Alternative Bill is that this can be passed swiftly since it only involves an amendment in the Representation of People Act, requiring no more than a simple majority vote in Lok Sabha. By contrast, the official Bill necessitates a Constitutional amendment, requiring a two-thirds majority in Parliament and ratification by several State Legislatures.

This process can be stalled endlessly since no party commands such an overwhelming majority in Parliament, leave alone have the capacity to make so many State Legislatures do its bidding.

The Alternative Bill can go through if the two big national parties, the BJP and the Congress, make common cause for this one purpose. Both Vajpayee and Sonia have publicly committed themselves to enhancing women’s representation in our Legislatures. Our Alternative Bill provides them an easy way to honour their commitment and prevent smaller parties from endlessly stalling this urgently needed affirmative action for women.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and founder editor of Manushi.
 

By Madhu Kishwar

Courtesy The Indian Express, March 18, 2003

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