WRB: When will it actually tick in

Something is better than nothing, I told myself, trying to balance mixed emotions at the passage of the women’s reservation bill (WRB, officially the128th Amendment to the Constitution). But it was hard to say what exactly was that “something”. I slipped into “wo intezar tha jiska, ye wo sahar to nahin”. But that was too gloomy. Finally, I fell back on my matrabhasha: “bhaagte bhoot ki langoti hi sahi”. How do you translate that into English!

This was a farcical way of enacting one of the most far-reaching democratic reforms in post independent India. Thirteen years of silence followed by an inexplicable mad rush to pass things with no time to correct obvious drafting errors. Avoidable mystery over the agenda of the parliamentary session. The last minute delimitation twist in the tale. Lifeless debate with speakers lining up to recall what their party or leader had done for women. The law minister fumbling and failing – and the home minister imperiously refusing — to respond to the issues raised by the opposition. Secrecy wrapped as transparency. Gestures of magnanimity covered with heaps of pettiness. Every historic event carries a farcical taint. This one was drenched in bad faith, disingenuity and hypocrisy.

For the deep patriarchy that rules Indian politics, the name of the game was exactly what it has been for the last 27 years: how not to give up my seat while appearing not to do so. The rules of this game have also not changed during this period. It’s all about expression of intent and not about assessment of the design. Neither the foes nor the friends of WRB have cared to think through the political consequences of the institutional design that they advocate to achieve greater representation for women. No wonder, what we finally have is a clumsy design that fails to answer basic questions about it achieves for women’s reservation: What exactly has been instituted? How would this be achieved? And when?

In a sense, we all know what has been guaranteed: one-third seats for women in the parliament and state assemblies. But the BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab pointed out a critical ambiguity even on this score in this hastily drafted Amendment. Unlike the earlier version, the final Act simply says that one-thirds “of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election to the House of the People shall be reserved for women”. It does not specify that one-third quota shall be calculated for each state. So, presumably, one-half of Lok Sabha seats can be reserved for women in one state, while another state may not have any! Faced with this absurdity, the law minister was flummoxed. The home minister just brushed it aside, saying the Delimitation Commission will resolve such issues.

The Act is unclear about how one-third reservation shall be achieved. This is not new. Inattention to the mechanism for achieving the stated objectives has marked the WRB debate right from the beginning. Just as caste-based reservation has become the only tool for social justice, geographical reservation has become our reflex demand for gender parity in politics. For well over a quarter century, the advocates of WRB have not responded to well-known objections to the mechanism of territorial reservations. If the constituencies reserved for women are not regularly rotated, it’s very unfair and arbitrary. If there is a rotation, it would mean that two-thirds of the elected representatives will be free of accountability to their electorate, unless elected women belong to a political family that can be held accountable.

It is less than precise, sub-optimal and uncertain. But the history of such reforms tells us something: once enacted, it cannot be rolled back. It can only be fine-tuned and strengthened. 

There are alternative mechanisms, but these were not taken seriously. One option was to make it mandatory for recognized political parties to give one-thirds tickets to women in each state. This was not an instant guarantee of one-third women among the elected representatives, but this was better suited to develop independent women’s leadership. I had advocated it (with Jayaprakash Narayan of Loksatta and Madhu Kishwar of Manushi), but we found no takers. Then I thought of what I still consider to be a much smarter design: a simple elect-one-get-one-free scheme. Every party will be able to nominate additional women legislators in the same proportion as the ones that got elected on their ticket, till the number of women legislators reaches 33 percent. (This might look silly, but just think for a couple of minutes about its political implications and you would know why it would work better than anything else). But this was even more difficult to communicate. So, reservations of seats may be sub-optimal method, but that’s the only template we understand. So be it.

The final version does not do justice to even this available template. The version passed by Rajya Sabha in 2010 provided for geographical reservation with a neat mechanism for regular rotation. It said the parliament would enact a law to finalise the details. The seats to be reserved in the first round could be decided, presumably, by a simple lottery. The present version says nothing about how the seats to be reserved will be decided. On the one hand, it limits women’s reservation to 15 years. On the other, it stipulates that rotation shall take place only after each delimitation, which happens these days only once in 20 to 30 years. So there would be rotation, but actually no rotation!

Finally, the big trick on the issue of when women’s reservation might kick in. Clearly, there was no legal or logical necessity of linking this to the next census or to the next delimitation. The home minister’s justification, that Delimitation Commission was brought to ensure transparency, makes too much of demands on one’s credulity. It is also clear that only a miracle can ensure its implementation by 2029. Even if the next government carries out the Census at the earliest, in February 2025, it would still face a constitutional hurdle of Article 82 that won’t permit next delimitation till the “figures for the first census taken after the year 2026 have been published”. That would mean the 2031 census. Its final figures cannot possibly come before 2032. And the Delimitation Commission cannot take less than 2 years (last time it took five and a half years). Then all the electoral rolls need to be revised before the next election. So, realistically speaking, unless we have some extraordinary constitutional device, we are looking at 2039 as the year of implementation.

Let’s see this provision for what it is. The absurd precondition of the census and delimitation fits into a design. This is political equivalent of a future deal in business. Women’s reservation is a deal to redeem the pledge of one-third seats for women at an unspecified time in future. The male leaders that make the pledge get the credit and the assurance that this act won’t affect their personal political interests in the foreseeable future while those who come later take the consequences. The deal reminds us that notwithstanding all the parliamentary rhetoric, this was a necessary condition for the patriarchy to loosen its stranglehold over political power.

Yet, we must not allow this sordid context to make us forget that something significant has been achieved. The fact is that women have been seriously under-represented, not merely compared to their share in population, but also compared to the rest of the world, including some of our neighbours. The fact is that while there has been a tiny improvement (especially after the debate on WRB began), there is no way women’s share in the parliament or assemblies would have reached one-thirds even by 2039. A legal-constitutional binding mandate was required. And we have one now. It is less than precise, sub-optimal and uncertain. But the history of such reforms tells us something: once enacted, it cannot be rolled back. It can only be fine-tuned and strengthened.

That is a cause for celebration. Not because more women MPs and MLAs would necessarily change the fate of Indian women. Nor because we should naively expect women political leaders to be free of the vices of today’s politics. Women’s presence in positions of political power should be celebrated because a critical mass of women representatives would make it very hard to enact anti-women policies and bring greater attention to real issues of food, health and education. It should be celebrated because making space for women would open up the talent pool for the country’s leadership. It should be celebrated even if it does not achieve any of the above, just because it acknowledges that the other half exists, that it has a voice and that its voice must be heard.