09/22/2023, 18.13
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India okays women’s quota but this risks favouring only some women

by Alessandra De Poli

The new law, titled Saluting Women Power Act, reserves a third of lower house seats to women, but it is still not clear whether it will really improve women’s representation in politics. Reservation for women and disadvantaged groups impinged upon each other. Women play a major role in local politics, but are far fewer in higher levels of government because of the amount of time and money needed, and the role played by family connections.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – This week India’s parliament unanimously approved a bill that guarantees women a third of all seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, state assemblies and the federally administered territory of Delhi.

It is unclear, however, how the historic decision will be implemented and if it will actually have a positive impact on women's political participation.

Both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (upper house) passed the law, “Saluting Women Power Act” (Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam in Hindi), without any negative vote.

"A defining moment in our nation's democratic journey," tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) introduced the bill earlier this week during a special parliamentary session.

During the debate in parliament, lawmakers from the Indian National Congress (INC), the main opposition party, asked the government when and how the legislation would be implemented and whether it covers Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a term used by the Indian government for affirmative action policies in favour of members of the most disadvantaged groups.

Calls for women’s quotas go back a long way, and have regularly come up. When the 1950 constitution was adopted, Indian women's groups and the INC, then in power, opposed quotas arguing that women should be able to compete in politics on an equal footing with men.

The proposed reservation is set for a 15-year period, taking effect following the next redrawing of electoral districts after the 2026 census. Seats earmarked for women will rotate after each delimitation.

The legislation also provides that a third of the seats in Parliament already reserved for disadvantage groups, Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SCTs), be earmarked for women, but it does not include any quota for OBC women, which the opposition had demanded. The law’s critics note that without such a quota, seats for women would probably go to upper-caste women.

This has put the Hindu ultranationalist BJP in a difficult spot, especially ahead of next year's parliamentary elections, because the party has been able to gain power thanks to OBC voters.

Separate but related to the new law, the INC has pushed for the government to carry out the census, which normally occurs every 10 years.

In 2021 the government put it off because of the pandemic, but Prime Minister Modi did not say (if and) when it will be conducted; the net result is that welfare and reserve programmes for disadvantaged groups have to rely on the 2011 census.

Indian women are almost half of India’s 950 million registered voters (out of a population of 1.4 billion), but hold only one seat in six (15 per cent) in the Lok Sabha. In no state assembly do they hold more than 20 per cent of seats, and in 2019, they were only 9 per cent of candidates out of more than 8,000.

In the last elections, the BJP had the highest number of women candidates and winners, with 74.55 per cent against 11.11 per cent for the INC.

Over the years, women have played a not insignificant role in Indian politics, as Prime Minister Modi tweeted after the law was approval

Indira Gandhi served twice as prime minister before her assassination in 1984, and India’s incumbent president, Droupadi Murmu, is the second woman and first Dalit to hold the office in the country's history.

According to political scientist Francesca R. Jensenius, women are more competitive in seats reserved for SCTs, while those who reach leading positions often have family connections that facilitate their rise.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, 41 per cent of all women candidates had ties to some political "dynasty", but only 30 per cent got elected.

In the 75 years since independence, women's political participation has improved, especially at the local level, after the constitution was amended in 1992 providing for one-third reservation for women in local bodies, including in rural areas.

Since then, 20 of India’s 28 states have raised the reservation to 50 per cent. But this has not increased the place of women at the Union or state levels; for experts, social biases, a patriarchal party structure, family obligations, and fewer resources have held women back.

Election campaigns in India require a lot of time (which would be taken from family life) and deep pockets; they can also be hardball with plenty of personal attacks.

For this reason, it is hard to know whether the new law will be effectively implemented, or Indian culture and society change enough to give women a real chance of participating on an equal footing with men.


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