Indian Decade

Almost There?

The upper house takes a vital step toward increasing female representation in politics.

Just to pick up on where Shreyasi left off Tuesday on the Women’s Reservation Bill. After some unruly and tumultuous scenes, the Rajya Sabha has passed the Women’s Reservation Bill. The courtly but firm Vice-President of India, Mohammed Hamid Ansari, who chairs the Rajya Sabha, managed to steer the bill through despite the atrocious behaviour of a small handful of its members. The bill now has to wend its way through the Lok Sabha (lower house). This will only take place after the finance bill is passed. But once through, it will guarantee that women occupy a third of the seats in the national legislature.

The chances of the bill’s passage, naysayers notwithstanding, are good. The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government may not have enough votes on its own, but should be able to count on the support of the bulk of the opposition including the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communists. Few parties, barring those largely based upon caste affiliations, will stand in the way of the bill.

The arguments against the bill are familiar and specious. It will do little, opponents claim, to empower poor women. They also assert that it will marginalize lower castes and minorities. Both arguments, though superficially attractive, are flawed. Upper class women will no doubt be the initial beneficiaries. However, over time, the existence of this quota will necessarily open the doorway to women of other social strata. Also, the claim that minorities and lower castes would be adversely affected is also questionable. The Indian parliament today is a far more diverse institution and has long shed its caste bias. Guaranteeing women a mere segment of representation will do little to block that trend.

Some commentators will no doubt object to the very idea of reservations. Yet in the Indian context, despite its shortcomings, ‘positive discrimination’ has made political, social and other institutions more diverse and representative. It’s time to extend the principle to the nation’s highest law-making body.