Women’s Reservation in the Lok Sabha

Voted into motion in the Rajya Sabha, the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) has embarked on the final leg of its journey. While the parliamentarians hogged the limelight by tearing drafts, breaking microphones and being expelled, sections of the media voiced complaints that an what was missing was an insightful and constructive debate. HT Blogs carried this piece today, criticising the compulsory rotation of seats for women on the grounds that in this way, no MP would be motivated to cultivate a relationship with his/her constituency. This also breaks the loop of performance and feedback between the elected and the electorate. Kalpana Sharma thinks that by merely rotating seats, we would end up with more proxy candidates, as women merely stand-in for the men when the seats are reserved for them. For a comprehensive overview of the WRB by PRS Legislative Research, see here.

Both these objections are well-founded and clearly require a proper debate. It is important that we do not establish a system that while providing representation to more women, erodes the basic character of a democracy. If Members of Parliament (MPs) do not feel the need to nurture their constituencies, they could become more corrupt in trying to watch out primarily for their self-interest. One question to ask here is – will the reservation of 33% seats happen randomly across the country or will it be implemented for the Lok Sabha seats in each state? This is important, since political leaders are quite well known within their respective states and as long as it is known that only a fixed proportion of seats within a state will be reserved for women, they can plan their time in office better. An elected member cannot get away with bad performance and can claim credit for good performance if he/she is campaigning from a constituency close to their previous seat. Sitting members could also plan their activities better, using their MPLAD funds for broader outreach, not limited to only their constituencies. If a state is too big, one can consider regional divisions and hold those divisions for the duration of the reservation policy.

Also, the WRB proposes that reservations will be in place for 15 years only, under the assumption that this period will witness three general elections. The three general election cycle implies that the sequence of reservations could be anticipated in advance and political parties could use the information to their advantage. Will there be an effort to strengthen potential women candidates? For instance, will a political party, knowing that a constituency A will be reserved in the next election, groom a woman leader for the forthcoming elections? Clearly, there is a lot that the 15 years of experimentation will reveal.

At one level, with the first-past-the-post system of elections in India, our options may be limited as it is. If the LS was constituted instead through a proportional representation system, we could have a law that stipulates that 33% of the candidates that every political party nominates to the LS have to be women. For political parties that get one seat, 33% of them (randomly chosen) would be required to nominate a woman MP. Any such proposal obviously expects a high degree of gender equity and inner-party democracy within political parties – a tough ask at the moment.

Also, what about a rule that a any candidate who wins from a reserved seat has to (if they decide to contest again) contest from an unreserved seat in the next election. This will prevent political parties from shifting the same candidates from one constituency to another and will give exposure to a wider set of women to become MPs.

One way or the other, the WRB is on its way. It remains to be seen if this will help our politicians break out of the easy trappings of symbolism and tokenism. But one thing is clear – the rules of the game are going to change. Everyone involved will have to adapt.

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