Opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill

The Women’s Reservation Bill 2008 was a proposed constitutional amendment to reserve 33% seats in Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) as well as all state Legislative Assemblies. It was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010. The bill was never put for vote in the Lok Sabha due to opposition from some political parties due to various reasons, and was lapsed after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 2014. There is news that the BJP government is considering re-introduction of that bill, and so this is the right time to put my opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill on record. There are several reasons why I oppose the bill, and the most important ones are listed below.

  1. Denied opportunity – If a constituency is reserved for women, all men from that constituency lose the opportunity to represent it. It has to be remembered that the right for any citizen to contest in elections is important in a democracy that treats is citizens equally, and denying someone that opportunity on the basis of their gender is grave injustice and a clear case of gender discrimination.
  2. Lack of choice – If a majority of voters trust a man and want him to be their representative, they would still not be able to elect him if their constituency is reserved for women. This is a direct assault on the democratic rights of the voters in that constituency to choose their own representative.
  3. Reduced quality of democracy – In a representative democracy like ours, the only choice voters have is in electing their representative. If one-third of constituencies is denied even this choice, then it will affect the quality of our democracy itself. The laws that such a parliament (or assembly) makes will not reflect the true wishes of the people.
  4. Wrong message being conveyed – By saying that only women will do what is good for women, we give a very wrong impression that elected representatives will consider the good only for their own gender/caste/religion. If that is the case, then in a country like ours with numerous communities, we will have to have representatives from each of them. This will affect the faith of people in representative democracy and will weaken our political system. The message should clearly be that an elected representative will represent his or her entire constituency, including those who voted against them.
  5. Unsound underlying assumption – It makes a wrong assumption that there are less women in parliament because they are denied opportunity. What if they are not there because they don’t want to be there. What if it is because their family doesn’t want them to be there, and they would still not want them there even if the seat in their constituency is reserved? What if they are not as ambitious as their male counterparts, or are not willing or able to spend as much time with voters or in the public sphere?  To bring in reservation as a solution without understanding the root cause of the ‘problem’ will only make it worse.

To clarify one point so that it doesn’t get in the way of further discussion, here I am not commenting on whether we need more women in politics and government or not. That is a different question and I don’t want my personal stand on that question to affect this discussion. So for the purposes of this post, we will assume that it is good to have equal representation of women in politics, and see if reservation will help achieve that goal in the right way.

To do this, let us consider the current distribution of men and women in politics, what reservation tries to achieve, and what the actual result will be.

Current situation (Opposition to the Women's Reservation Bill Explained)
Current Situation – Without reservation for women

For a person to be elected as people’s representative, they have to have the willingness to take up that responsibility, and the capability to influence people to get elected. Many women who fit this category have occupied important posts in almost every government after independence. Here the willingness is often not just of that individual, but of their family and others who have influence on them. For our analysis, let us assume that capability among men and women are almost the same and that the difference in representation is primarily due to lesser willingness.

If we accept that women need equal participation in politics, the ideal situation would be where more of the capable women come forward and take up this responsibility, so that the representation looks closer to what’s shown below.

Desired result (Opposition to the Women's Reservation Bill Explained)
Desired situation with reservation

However, there is no reason to think that these capable women will come forward and contest in elections just because they don’t have to compete with men. Instead, this opportunity will benefit those women who were willing but not capable, by removing the more capable male candidates from competition. So the situation we end up with will be more like this:

Actual result (Opposition to the Women's Reservation Bill Explained)
Actual result of reservation

These new women who come to power will include close kin of some of the men who were denied opportunity, and will be mere puppets in the hands of those men. What will be the impact of having such women represent all the women (and men) in that constituency? There will also be others who, with their political connections or money power can get a party ticket and stand a better chance because the deserving candidates (and thereby the democracy itself) have been defeated even before the election. With so many undeserving and incapable women thus finding their way to the Lok Sabha, it will result in a general contempt for women legislators, that will affect even those women who made it there through hard work and ability.

Thus, the women’s reservation bill is not likely to benefit either women, or our country. At most, it will be another variable (like caste, religion or language) in the equation that political parties will have to balance to maximize their chances in an election. At at time when we are trying to free our political system from the clutches of these narrow considerations and strengthen our democracy, the Women’s Reservation Bill is clearly a step backwards.

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