It would have been a revolutionary bill and a first for this part of the world. But whoever heard of parliamentarians voluntarily giving up their privileges? The Women´s Bill, reserving a third of the seats in Parliament and legislative assemblies for women, was cleverly scuttled by the very parties overtly supporting it.
Outwardly, of course, it was the two Yadav ex-chief ministers whose hooliganism won the day. Both Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav encouraged their supporters to create pandemonium in the House when the bill was introduced. One of them even went so far as to grab the bill, tear it up and hurl it at the treasury benches. The house was adjourned, an all-party meeting called in Parliament and the bill deferred “for the time being”. This effectively has put it in cold storage.
The Yadavs´ ostensible argument was that the bill did not provide for a quota for women from the middle-rung of the caste hierarchy, the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). It seemed to matter little that the bill reserved 7.2 percent of the existing 22.5 percent quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for women (which alone would guarantee at least 43 Dalit or tribal women in the next parliament, a number equal to the total number of female parliamentarians in the current House).
Both the Yadavs together command the support of only 37 parliamentarians in the 544-member Lok Sabha. How was it, then, that they were able to stall the bill on their own? The fact was that they received covert support from almost all the other major parties to kill the bill.
The Yadavs and their supporters argued that the total number of seats for the Dalits and Muslims should be increased by putting in an additional sub-quota within the proposed 33.3 percent reservation for women. This argument swayed a lot of parties because the OBCs form 27 percent of the electorate, while the Muslims form 12 percent. Besides, cutting across party lines, there are more than 200 parliamentarians in the current Lok Sabha who belong to OBCs. Women leaders like Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party or Uma Bharti of the BJP were opposed to the bill for this reason.
Sonia Gandhi, who had earlier offered total support to the bill, rescinded in part, saying her party favoured further reservations for OBCs. But she put the ball back in the bjp´s court saying the Congress would support the bill if it came up and then later push for an amendment. The BJP itself did not seem too keen to table it again. From supporting a resolution that said the bill would be deferred for two days, they suggested an indefinite postponement on the pretext of seeking a consensus. Only the left parties stood by their resolve of pushing it through.
In fact, Muslim and OBC women belonging to the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, a left-affiliated women´s group with six million members throughout the country, came out vocally in support of the bill as it was, saying they wanted no special reservations for themselves apart from those generally for women.
The real issue was not sub-quotas, of course, but that the reservation would have meant that men would have to step down from what have become personal fiefdoms. The bill envisaged reservations on a rotational basis so that all constituencies of the country were ultimately covered over three elections in 15 years, after which Parliament would have to vote once again to decide whether the reservations should be continued. This would mean men vacating their constituencies for at least one round, and being out of power for at least one term. This was quite unacceptable to male MPs of almost all parties. Many snide remarks were made regarding women and their capabilities and a lot of covert support was offered to the Yadavs.
Giving the Yadavs support were elite columnists like Tavleen Singh of India Today, who argued that the bill would only bring about more Rabri Devis, Sonia Gandhis and Jayalalithas, who acquired power only because of their male relations. If she had taken the trouble to travel in the interiors and seen what reservations have done for women in Panchayats and local bodies, she would not, perhaps, have raised this argument. Even after being put up as dummy candidates in highly chauvinistic states like Rajasthan, most women have come into their own and are active members in grassroots development to-day. Over a million women now sit as representatives in local bodies across the country.
From the near certainty of becoming a law when the session opened with support from the BJP, the Congress and the Left parties, to being unceremoniously dumped by most so-called champions of the cause, the bill traversed a rocky path before falling off a cliff. India´s 500 million women, making up 41 percent of the urban and 74 percent of the agricultural work force, have only a 7 percent representation in Parliament and a 6 percent representation in ministerial and sub-ministerial offices. Thanks to the Yadavs and their silent majority in Parliament, women will have to wait some more for their fair share of power.