One-upwomanship: Did Sonia just outsmart Modi on Women's Reservation Bill?
Facing heat from the Opposition and public over price rise, rising unemployment, demonetisation and the impact of Goods and Services Tax (GST), reports suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is thinking of bringing in the Women's Reservation Bill in the Winter Session of Parliament to send a strong message to women voters before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
A timely play
Having got a whiff of Modi's plan to use the Bill as a means to change the political narrative in the country, Congress President Sonia Gandhi seized the opportunity to steal the limelight from Modi by being the first to send a written request the Prime Minister to pass the Bill in the Lok Sabha.
With an overwhelming majority in the Lower House, if the Prime Minister wishes, the legislation could lead to every third seat, including those already reserved, in state legislatures and Parliament being kept aside for women.
In this context that the Congress chief wrote to the PM, urging him to take advantage of the Bharatiya Janata Party's majority in the Lok Sabha to pass the Bill that would be a giant leap towards empowering women in the country.
She reminded Modi how it was the Congress that had first mooted the idea and even managed to get the Bill passed in the Upper House of Parliament.
Despite that, the Bill has been languishing in the Lok Sabha “for one reason or another”, Gandhi wrote.
"I am writing to request you to take advantage of your majority in the Lok Sabha to now get the Women's Reservation Bill passed in the Lower House as well.”
"The Congress party has always and will continue to support this legislation, which will be a significant step forward in the empowerment of women,” she adds. The Bill has witnessed multiple delays after being introduced in 1996 - it was only passed in the upper house in 2010 when UPA-II was in power. However, many parties, including Congress' allies, resisted the idea which had since then been pushed to the sideline.
In her letter, the Congress president reminded him how former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had first “mooted the provision of reservation to women in panchayats and nagarpalikas in the Constitution Amendment Bills which Opposition parties thwarted in Rajya Sabha in 1989 but later were passed in both houses of the Parliament in 1993 becoming the 73rd and 74th amendments.
Looking for a makeover
Meanwhile, the incumbent government is still holding discussions over the passage of the Bill which is likely to face resistance for its own party members who will have to sacrifice their seats to accommodate women. However, the Prime Minister should feel that such a move would bolster his image amongst women – a key constituent of the electorate.
In fact, many politicians, including late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa had successfully managed to woo women to go vote with her women-centric schemes. Her strategy, which was later emulated by several other regional leaders, paid great dividends. Even in Bihar, the Bihar chief minister's decision of banning alcohol in the state was greeted by much fanfare by women. In turn, Nitish Kumar hoped that when the time came, women would respond by casting votes in his favour.
Modi has been trying to champion the cause of the women by launching schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Ujjwala, among others, which have gone down well with women in India. Even the party's decision to rake up the triple talaq issue during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections was seen as a move to appease women.
Apart from that, reservation for women is also one of the poll promises that BJP made in its campaign during the 2014 elections. Interestingly, a committee set up by the BJP had pushed for women centric states in poll bound states to reach out to this crucial vote bank that is capable of turning the tide in BJP's favour.
Championing women's rights
Meanwhile, a statement released by Congress on this issue adds how India's future lies in its women – in empowerment, equal rights, and as an enabling trustee of unleashing India's potential. “One of the principle edifices of this is the participative rights for women in India's legislative bodies i.e. Parliament and Legislatures, through ensuring 'Women Reservation'.
It adds that the times demand that India must rise to this historical opportunity to ensure truly representative and participative role for 50% of India's population in shaping her (India's) destiny in the 21st century. Taking credit for the passage of the Bill in Rajya Sabha in 2010, the statement states how the elections in 2014 did not give the grand old party enough votes to ensure its passage in Lok Sabha and that “another opportunity lies with us to rise above political differences to revisit and pass this historical imperative”.
Retracing Congress' history of introducing revolutionary reforms through the codification of Hindu Civil Code in 1955, the statement claimed that despite vehement opposition from the right wing forces, Congress is dedicated to granting of equal rights to women and “ushering in new progressive doctrines of jurisprudence founded upon equality”.
Congress also claimed how Gandhi rewrote history of social justice by ending centuries of discrimination. “Right to succession to ancestral property hitherto restricted to male members of the family was undone by recognising that sons and daughters are equal inheritors and claimants to the family name and property. Naysayers again, criticised Smt. Gandhi and Congress for their modern views of putting women on equal footing, yet we proceeded ahead undeterred,” reads the statement.
The grand old party also took credit for newer tribulations through the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2013.
Congress also reminded how even before Independence, the party has consistently made efforts to provide equal political, social and economic rights for women and has always strove for greater equity and gender parity. It cited examples of several women who have held highest position in the organisation, including that of the Congress President.
“It is the Congress that enabled women to become the first president of India; it is the Congress which elected the first woman prime minister of India and also the first women Lok Sabha Speaker and several chief ministers and governors,” read the statement.