Arati R Jerath
Two regional leaders, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik and his Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee, recently walked the talk on the contentious issue of women’s reservation in Parliament. Patnaik announced a 33 per cent quota for women in the BJD’s list of candidates for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections while Mamata upped it to 41 per cent for her Trinamool Congress.
Clearly, both have woken up and smelt the coffee. Women are an important political constituency and their aspirations cannot be ignored. Their increased visibility in all spheres, especially in queues outside voting booths, is a cry for empowerment. For far too long, political parties have been fobbing them off with promises of a few grams of gold and a pressure cooker or a free gas cylinder to replace the unhealthy wood stove. It’s time to stop offering crumbs and give women a greater say in decision making at the very top. It’s time to push more women into Parliament and state Assemblies.
Consider the sweeping changes in the country’s polity after seven decades of adult franchise. Women used to be silent observers on the margins of elections. No more. Their rate of participation in voting has shot up. Although in absolute terms, more men vote than women, the surge in turnout for the latter has been consistently higher. It was just 46.63 per cent in 1962. In 2014, it rose to 65.63 per cent. The difference in voter turnout between men and women was 16.7 per cent in 1962. In 2014, the gap narrowed to a mere 1.8 per cent. And in 16 of the 29 states, more women voted than men.
Yet, consider their representation in politics. While the 73rd constitutional amendment passed in 1993 ensured that 33 per cent seats in panchayats and other local bodies were reserved for women, there are no such quotas in state Assemblies and Parliament. Consequently, their numbers in the higher echelons of the political superstructure remain pathetically low.
In 2009, the number of women in the Lok Sabha crossed 10 per cent of the House strength for the first time. In the current Lok Sabha, this number saw a marginal rise, to 12.15 per cent. The Association for Democratic Reforms found that Bihar, and till recently Rajasthan, had the highest percentage of women in their Assemblies. At 14 per cent, the figure is laughable.
There’s a clear and unhealthy mismatch in the gap that has opened up over the decades between women’s participation as voters and their underrepresentation in macro-level decision-making bodies such as Parliament or even within political parties themselves. Although both national parties had promised to push more women into organisational posts (BJP had even announced 33 per cent reservation for women in the party), neither have kept their word.
Compare the gross political underrepresentation of women to their performance as political representatives. According to a study by United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, Assembly constituencies represented by women showed a higher economic growth rate than those that had male MLAs. The study went through data from 4,265 Assembly constituencies over two decades.
And look what it found. Not only do women raise the economic performance of their constituencies by 1.8 percentage points a year, but also they complete infrastructure projects on time, are less likely to have criminal charges against them, are slightly younger than their male counterparts and are less likely to be corrupt. Now, aren’t those excellent reasons to demand more women MPs and MLAs?
UN studies have also found that women political representatives tend to take up core developmental issues such as health, sanitation, education, safe drinking water and women’s safety much more than their male peers.
Unfortunately, politics has become so competitive that parties opt for the easier route to victory by prioritising the ‘winnability’ index of a candidate over merit. Winnability boils down to muscle and money power, which puts women at a disadvantage when nomination lists are finalised.
It is interesting that while Patnaik announced a 33 per cent quota for the Lok Sabha, he hesitated to extend it to the Assembly elections taking place simultaneously. Perhaps the winnability factor weighed heavy. Parliamentary polls are usually not as tightly contested as Assembly elections where men have the edge.
Patnaik’s critics have accused him of playing the woman card as an excuse to change unwanted MPs. But let’s not lose sight of the message written into his gambit. His move is an acknowledgement of the heft women have come to acquire because of rising and enthusiastic participation in elections. The response of other parties to the announcements is telling. Most have been indifferent, including the Congress. The BJP slammed Patnaik on the plea that he’s omitted the Assembly elections from his decision.
This is such distressing hypocrisy, especially from the two political biggies, BJP and Congress. Ever since the reservation Bill for women was introduced in 1996, most parties have been promising to have it passed. In fact, the BJP and Congress wrote it into their manifestoes in every election. But it remains a broken promise, government after government, with no ruling party showing the political resolve to bite the bullet and see the contentious Bill through.
Quotas may not be the best form of affirmative action. But if they can assure gender parity in political representation to fulfil the aspirations of half of the population, they are the way forward. The lapsed women’s reservation Bill may be an idea whose time has finally come.