India’s Uphill Battle for Gender Equality in Politics

India has taken a significant step towards achieving gender equality in politics with the recent passing of a bill that guarantees a third of seats for women in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies. While this development is being hailed as historic, there are several factors to consider and challenges to overcome before meaningful change can be seen.

The bill, known as the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam or Saluting Women Power Act, received overwhelming support in the Lok Sabha, with 454 out of 456 MPs voting in favor. It was later passed unanimously in the Rajya Sabha. The law also extends to seats reserved for disadvantaged communities known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, significantly broadening its impact. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lauded the bill as a way to empower women and increase their participation in politics.

However, critics argue that the bill falls short in terms of implementation timeline, with no clear indication of when the reservation will come into effect. This lack of specificity has drawn criticism from opposition politicians, who accuse the government of betraying the hopes of millions of Indian women and girls. Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi has demanded immediate implementation and called for a concrete timeline.

According to Tushar Chakrabarty, a senior analyst at PRS Legislative Research, the representation of women in Indian parliament and state legislatures has historically been dismal. Although there has been a gradual increase in female MPs, reaching 15% in the 2019 elections, the numbers remain low. The situation is even worse in legislative assemblies, where women make up only about 9% of members. Chakrabarty highlights that the lack of representation hampers women’s ability to influence policy-making, emphasizing the need for greater gender parity.

India’s commitment to gender equality in politics is reflected in its status as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The country’s journey towards achieving this goal began three decades ago with an amendment to the constitution reserving 33% of seats for women in village councils and municipal corporations. However, attempts to extend this reservation to the parliament and state assemblies have faced numerous obstacles, leading to the bill’s repeated failure in the past.

The recent bill has been welcomed by both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party, with both claiming credit for its passage. Home Minister Amit Shah commended Prime Minister Modi’s government for prioritizing women’s empowerment and equal participation. Despite this bipartisan support, there are concerns that the bill predominantly benefits upper-caste women, as highlighted by MP Asaduddin Owaisi.

Although the bill has crossed a significant hurdle by gaining parliamentary approval, its effective implementation remains uncertain. The next census, which was originally scheduled for 2021 but has been delayed due to the pandemic, will be a crucial step in the process. India’s population count is a colossal task that may take several years to complete. Following the census, the government will need to undertake the delimitation exercise to redraw constituency boundaries and ensure equal voter representation. Given the complexity of this process, it is likely to extend over several years.

This means that the gender composition of India’s parliament and state assemblies is unlikely to change in the near future. While the bill itself marks a significant milestone for gender equality in politics, its impact will only be realized once the necessary processes are completed. It is crucial for Indian society to remain vigilant, advocating for timely implementation and holding the government accountable for its commitments. Only then can India truly empower women and create a more inclusive and representative political landscape.