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Double scare in women’s bill

New Delhi, Aug. 3: If political parties were afraid that the 33 per cent quota proposed in the original women’s reservation bill would encroach on a traditional male bastion, they have more to worry about now.

If a new proposal to have 181 double-member constituencies, resulting in an increase of Lok Sabha seats by the same number is accepted, it will mean that a party seeking to form the government at the Centre will now need to muster the support of 363 MPs instead of 272 at present.

The BJP and the Congress alike will find it difficult to mobilise the support of so many MPs.

Recently, Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi tried to break the deadlock over the bill by suggesting that parties agree to have double-member constituencies and increase the number of seats in the Lower House.

According to the original bill, 33 per cent of seats were to be reserved for women in Parliament and state legislatures. This meant that 181 Lok Sabha seats were to be reserved for women, with the remaining 363 falling under the general category.

Joshi proposed that 181 extra seats be earmarked for women, without upsetting the present status. This means that 181 constituencies would be considered double seats, where a voter would elect two MPs — one on an open seat and the other reserved for women.

If the proposal is accepted, the total number of constituencies would remain 544, but the number of Lok Sabha seats would go up from 544 to 725.

A revised bill on the new formula is unlikely to be tabled during the monsoon session of Parliament that ends on August 22. It was not discussed in the last two meetings of the Business Advisory Committee, which finalises the weekly agenda for Parliament.

The committee had met on Friday to finalise the week’s agenda, but the bill found no mention.

Neither senior BJP leaders, who supported the idea of double-member constituencies, nor Joshi, who took the initiative to evolve a consensus after the Centre failed to push the original bill through, seem to have realised that a party will now need the support of 363 MPs to form a government.

Opposition sources have said the Centre and the BJP appear to have woken up to the problem only now.

The Congress is happy that the Centre is having a rethink for “it could become a millstone around our neck also”, a senior party leader said.

With national politics heavily polarised and the BJP and Congress appearing unlikely to dramatically increase their tally in the next elections, mustering the support of 363 MPs would be a tall order. Even if the parties increased their individual tally by 50-odd seats, they would still have to rely on a number of smaller outfits to form a government.

At present, the ruling National Democratic Alliance comprises 22 parties.

The Centre failed to get the original bill passed during the budget session in May as it met with a lot of opposition from regional parties and backward-caste MPs.

Parliamentary affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had said at the time that the Centre would not try to push the bill through again unless there was a broad political consensus.

Joshi then picked up the threads and convened an all-party meeting which again failed to break the ice.

He convened another meeting on the eve of the monsoon session to discuss the double-member formula.

The Centre reckoned that regional outfits and backward-caste MPs would agree to the revised bill, which did not reduce the number of seats that men could contest, but the proposal did get overwhelming backing.

With no agreement at all on the original bill and the double-member constituency proposal also running into rough weather, the only way out appears to be accepting the Election Commission’s proposal of parties reserving seats for women.

The commission proposed 33 per cent reservation, but some parties said they were willing to accept the proposal if the quota was reduced to 15-20 per cent.

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