Perfect combination

By Sarmila Bose
  • Published 7.04.10

The women’s reservation bill should be abandoned because it is against the interests of both women and men, and damaging to India’s democratic system. It ghettoizes women, forcing women to contest only against other women. It excludes suitable male candidates from reserved constituencies. The reservation of constituencies for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes led to candidates of these groups being excluded from general constituencies, and the same is likely to happen to women. The provision for rotating reserved constituencies over three terms wrecks India’s electoral democracy, as it destroys the link between candidates and constituencies.

Far better alternatives are available. The fairest alternative was already introduced in Parliament as private member’s bill No. 62 in 2000 by a woman member of parliament, Krishna Bose. Bose contested four parliamentary elections in India, and won three terms in the Lok Sabha, beating both men and women opponents. Like other women MPs, she agreed that a quota to force gender parity was required, but was troubled by the flaws of the women’s reservation bill. Her alternative bill proposes just two lines of amendments to the Representation of the People Act, imposing a quota not on constituencies but on political parties. Crucially, it is gender-neutral, proposing that the proportion of neither male nor female candidates from each party should fall below 40 per cent. Its instrument for enforcement is simple — parties that do not have at least 40 per cent female (or male) candidates would be disqualified from contesting the elections.

These amendments to the Representation of the People Act can be passed with a simple majority in Parliament, not the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional amendments, reducing the need to placate diehard opponents of women’s rights. Bose’s proposals were publicly supported at the time by the then chief election commissioner of India, M.S. Gill.

Perfect combination

Similar criticisms of the women’s reservation bill were also voiced by Madhu Kishwar, Yogendra Yadav, Jayaprakash Narayan and Dhirubhai Sheth, who proposed a slightly different alternative, also amending the Representation of the People Act to apply the quota to political parties, but retaining the lower quota of one-third for women only, and adding constitutional amendments to extend quotas for women in the Rajya Sabha and in legislative councils.

There are two problems with this alternative. First, while Krishna Bose’s proposal is gender-neutral and set at 40 per cent, the alternative proposed by Kishwar and others retains the women’s only quota, and at the lower level of 33 per cent. Second, the extensive nature of this alternative involving constitutional amendments risks providing opponents of women’s rights further excuses for objections and delay.

The following combination of the proposals by Bose and Kishwar et al seems the perfect choice for India’s women. As a first step, amend the Representation of the People Act as per the Bose proposal, making it compulsory for political parties to have at least 40 per cent women candidates for election to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. The women candidates can be put up in any constituency and the proportion of male candidates cannot fall under 40 per cent either, making it fair to all, while leaving room for the exact number of women or men candidates to be slightly higher or lower from one election to another. As a second step, amend the Constitution as proposed by Kishwar et al, extending gender quotas to the Rajya Sabha and the legislative councils.