Will women get their due or will it be only lip service?

by Advaita Kala

It is that time of the year when the customary announcements of passing the Women’s Reservation Bill appear in the news cycle, with politicians making promises to see its implementation through.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has pulled this rabbit out of the hat as he campaigns for the Lok Sabha election 2019. However, his words have not made the requisite impact because two regional parties have pipped him in the ‘women’s empowerment’ stakes.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has picked as many as 41% female candidates for the upcoming Parliament polls and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has promised 33% reservation for female candidates from his party for this election. These two masterstrokes have amply proven to all that one need not wait for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill to give women tickets; the rest is just lip service.

The Women’s Reservation Bill, which will reserve 33% seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies, is an issue which ostensibly has the support of all political parties but never comes to pass, which leads to legitimate concerns that this is nothing more than political double-speak. For, if political parties were so keen on the implementation of the Bill then why hasn’t it happened so far?

Thirty-three percent reservation for women in the panchayats was implemented in 1993 and in states like Odisha it has been bumped up to 50%. Surveys carried out in the years since this reservation was implemented have displayed that the participation of women in grassroots politics has had an overall positive impact on the self-esteem and decision-making ability of women.

In the upcoming elections it is expected that women voters will outnumber men. However, female representation in Parliament has been woefully inadequate. In 2010, the figure was at 10% and in 2014, it went up to 11%: imagine, in 4 years there was only a one percent increase.

Ironically, when the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, it must be mentioned here ( in part due to the notable efforts of Arun Jaitley, the then leader of the Opposition) it was the regional parties, like the Rashtriya Janata Dal that were its most vociferous opponents.

Ironically, caste-based parties that benefit from reservations found nothing hypocritical in denying reservations to women.

The lapsed Bill has seen no resurrection during the 16th session of Parliament, although the ruling party has said that it supports the Bill. So here we are again, at a point where the transactional offer of votes for the passage of the Bill has been made.

However, this time there is a difference: with the BJD and TMC actually doing what most have promised, the whole debate has moved beyond rhetoric to action. Both Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik have displayed immense political will and firm intention in feminizing the political landscape, unlike the others who are quick with the sound bytes but slow on action.

India is well behind the international average of 17% female representation in countries with elected legislatures and there is no valid reason for this. Unlike even the United States, the oldest democracy in the world, the Indian state decided that women had the power of the vote from the very beginning.

We were fortunate to not need a suffrage movement, unlike the women in the West. But our struggle for adequate representation still continues 72 years after Independence.

As Parliament legislates on issues that directly impact women and their bodies, like the Maternity Leave Bill, marital rape, surrogacy law, et cetera, it is tragic that women do not have enough voices to articulate concerns and issues especially related to their bodies.

It is a denial of ownership which is systemic. Whilst undeniably the 16th Lok Sabha has also seen landmark decisions on gender justice like the Triple Talaq Bill, which has corrected a 30-year-old wrong, the under-representation of women remains a burning issue.

And now with the TMC and BJD having taken the lead in displaying strong intent, it is a matter of time before the Bill will become an inevitability.

So who will make a virtue out of the inevitable, we will have to wait for the lists of the two national parties to do the math on how many women candidates they field. But the 17th Lok Sabha, I daresay, will see the passage of this Bill, irrespective of who is in power.

Advaita Kala is an author, screenwriter and a columnist.
The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. These opinions do not reflect the views of Yahoo.