Our political parties and their legislators in Parliament are in search of a “consensus” on the women’s reservation bill. They say they are “serious” about it. If that is true, then serious questions arise about their motive of singling out this bill in the name of consensus.
Sushma Swaraj, Union minister for parliamentary affairs, clearly said at the beginning of the ongoing session in Parliament that “there would be no new initiative without consensus”. It is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s new stand on the bill. The party now proposes double membership for 33 per cent seats of Parliament and the state legislative assemblies. Obviously, not all parties support the proposal.
The BJP has conveyed its proposal to the speaker of the Lok Sabha. But everybody knows the bill will be allowed to die as the current session expires.
Bills are generally tabled in the house and put to vote if there is no consensus. But this simple process has been ignored for years by parliamentarians. They want to reverse the process for this bill. They want a consensus even before tabling it in the house. Yet other controversial bills like the disinvestment of public sector units are put to vote without the plea of a consensus first.
The women’s bill was first introduced in Parliament in 1996. Both the major political parties — the BJP and the Congress — had been willing to go along with the left in favour of the bill. Yet they allowed the smaller parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal and the Rashtriya Janata Dal to create a scene in the house. Thereafter, a consensus-building exercise began to cover up real intentions.
In this backdrop, the Election Commission had suggested that it be made mandatory for political parties to select 33 per cent women candidates. But this was not acceptable to the parties. The commission then proposed that parties should themselves take the initiative to put a larger number of women candidates for elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. That would make reservations for women unnecessary. The EC’s suggestion was not accepted on the ground that there was no certainty that women candidates would win.
Now, the BJP has put its weight behind the Lok Sabha speaker’s proposal to create 181 double member constituencies in the Lok Sabha to give increased representation to women. But if evolving a consensus on the bill in its present form has been so difficult, how is it possible to build a consensus on the much more difficult and time consuming task of having double member constituencies' It is a matter of surprise that the fresh proposal has reportedly found greater support from the opponents of the bill.
What is the reason for this' First, our leaders know it well that the task of achieving a consensus for the new proposal will be difficult to achieve. By the time something is done, the present Lok Sabha term will expire and the bill will die a natural death.
Moreover, it will be next to impossible to increase the membership in Parliament given that there is a freeze in the number of seats in both the houses. For one, this, even if possible, cannot be done immediately. Besides, even if we decide to increase the seats by a constitutional amendment, will it really increase the percentage of women members of Parliament in proportion to the men'
Second, if we decide to create double member constituencies, the size of the present Lok Sabha would go up to 725. If it is implemented by the states also, the number of legislators would go up to such an extent which may upset the already precarious financial condition of the states. Third, the voting pattern in the constituencies and in the houses would adversely affect the balance. We cannot discriminate between the Lok Sabha seats, giving some members the right to cast two votes.
The fresh proposal has the potential to open a Pandora’s box. The best way out is to table the bill in its present form and put it to vote. It should not be interminably put on hold simply because there is no “consensus”.