New Delhi (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on Tuesday moved a bill to reserve one-third of seats in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies for women, reviving an old proposal that is expected to boost his party’s standing among women.
The contentious legislative proposal has been hanging for decades due to opposition from some heartland political parties and needs the approval of both houses of parliament and a majority of state legislatures to become law.
Its revival comes months before general elections are due by May 2024 when Modi seeks a third term. Analysts say the chances of the bill getting passed in parliament have brightened as opposition to it has shrunk over the years.
It is the latest in a series of moves by the government that the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has projected as “pro-women”.
“There have been many debates in the past regarding women’s reservation…and I appeal to lawmakers to support the bill,” Modi said in parliament during a five-day special session which began on Monday.
“We want more and more women to join the development process of the country,” Modi said before his law minister presented the bill to lawmakers.
Women account for almost half of India’s 950 million registered voters but make for only 15% of parliament and about 10% of state legislatures, pushing the world’s largest democracy to the bottom of the global list on gender parity in legislatures.
The 33% reservation for women will not apply to the upper houses of parliament and state legislatures.
Flight For Gender Balance
Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal said the 542-seat lower house has 82 women members at present and if the bill is approved the number will rise to at least 181.
Successive governments have sought to address this imbalance since the mid-1990s by trying to make a law that reserves a third of seats for women at the national and state levels. The the bill was first introduced in parliament in 1996.
But it has been repeatedly blocked by Hindi heartland parties, with some of their lawmakers aggressively disrupting proceedings and snatching and tearing copies of the bill before being physically escorted out of the chambers.
Opponents of the move say reservation for women will only benefit educated and urban women and deprive their disadvantaged rural counterparts from so-called backward castes.
They want a quota for women from backward castes within the overall quota for women to ensure what they say will be a true gender balance.
Activists and analysts, however, say leaders of these parties are patriarchal and oppose the proposal as they fear losing power to women if a third of the seats are blocked.
The strength of these parties has, however, shrunk over the years and the latest proposal is not likely to face as much opposition, analysts say.