Women Reservation Bill: Why the LS debate was a tricky moment for Sonia Gandhi
Though Sonia described Wednesday’s debate as a poignant moment in her life, it was also an occasion where the ghosts of past omissions returned to haunt Gandhis
The debate on the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill, which proposes 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament and all State Legislatures, was, perhaps, the only time when both former Congress presidents, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, were speakers in the same discussion on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
Sonia spoke as the opening speaker from the Opposition’s side in Wednesday’s debate on the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam while her son spoke last before Union ministers Amit Shah and Arjun Ram Meghwal responded to the discussion.
That the mother-son duo, known for their poor record of participating in parliamentary debates on crucial Bills, chose to partake in Wednesday’s debate showed the immense political significance of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which Lok Sabha has now passed with overwhelming support from 454 MPs.
Rajiv Gandhi’s dream, says Sonia
Though expressing their common concerns against certain provisions of the Bill, both Sonia and Rahul spoke in support of its enactment. Sonia told the Lok Sabha that the passage of the legislation would “fulfil the dream” of her late husband Rajiv Gandhi, during whose prime ministerial tenure a constitutional amendment bill for providing reservation to women in panchayati raj institutions and elected municipal bodies was first moved in the Rajya Sabha but “was defeated by seven votes”. The law for granting such reservation was enacted subsequently by a Congress government led by PV Narasimha Rao.
Sonia described Wednesday’s debate as a “poignant moment in my life”, given that the issue of increasing representation of women in elected bodies was both an unfulfilled dream of her husband and a promise that the Congress failed to keep during the 10 year-rule of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA coalition. The bill promising women’s reservation that the UPA government had succeeded in getting passed by Rajya Sabha, on March 9, 2010, was never introduced in the Lok Sabha for consideration and passing.
On Wednesday, while the Gandhis spoke in favour of the Bill, now brought by a government led by their staunchest ideological bête noire and set to sail through in Rajya Sabha too, they also had to contend with the ghosts of their past failures – perhaps, more pertinent for Sonia than for Rahul – which the BJP and its allies repeatedly resurrected during the debate.
The concerns that the mother and son expressed against the Bill were broadly on two aspects of the Adhiniyam – that it does not provide a quota within quota for backward classes and that the promised reservation will be implemented until a fresh Census and exercise for delimitation of constituencies are both completed.
“I want to ask a question. For 13 years, Indian women have been waiting for their political responsibility. Now they are being told to wait for some more years. How many years – two years, four years, six years, eight years? Is this behaviour towards Indian women appropriate? The Congress demands that this Bill be operationalised immediately and that a caste census should be conducted to ensure reservation for women from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs,” Sonia said.
Rahul bats for caste census
Likewise, Rahul pointed out that he did not agree with the Bill’s stipulation that to implement the reservation “you require a new census... you require a new delimitation.” The Wayanad MP also demanded that the government carry out a caste census or, at least, make public the data of the socio-economic caste census that was conducted during the final years of the UPA-II regime, hinting that he favoured a quota within quota for OBC women should be introduced under the prposed framework for women’s reservation.
BJP hits back
The BJP, predictably, hit back at the Gandhis for their suggestions. Every single MP who spoke in the debate from the Treasury Benches mocked the urgency that the Gandhis were demanding in the Bill’s roll-out, pointing out even when Sonia and Rahul had left the House, that the Congress had been in power for nearly six decades since Independence but had not been able to achieve the Bill’s passage while Narendra Modi was on the cusp of doing so within 10 years of his prime ministerial tenure.
Similarly, MPs from the ruling coalition also questioned why the Gandhis were suddenly keen on a quota within quota for OBCs when the provision was not included in the Women’s Reservation Bill that the UPA had got passed in the Rajya Sabha.
Several Congress MPs spoke on the Bill between the interventions made by Sonia, shortly after 11 am and the one made by Rahul around 5.45 pm, but none was able to offer any credible counter to the quips that their BJP counterparts had hurled at Sonia on the twin issues. Therein, lie the ghosts that will haunt the Gandhis long after the Bill becomes law.
Just as it cannot be denied that the manner in which the BJP brought the current Bill to Parliament, shrouded under secrecy and with no prior consultation on its provisions with stakeholders, was hardly kosher in a parliamentary democracy, it is also true that the Congress, weighed down by coalition compulsions and an inability to evolve consensus, had failed to realise what Sonia referred to as her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s dream.
Appalling lack of conviction
It is a matter of parliamentary record that after the UPA government succeeded in getting its version of the Bill passed by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010, it showed an appalling lack of conviction in getting the legislation passed by Lok Sabha in the four years that it stayed in power, until being routed in the 2014 General Elections. Can Sonia and Rahul really blame Modi for enjoying a brute majority that has today enabled him to ensure that the tumultuous journey of the legislation, which Sonia called “apna hai” (it is ours) and her party’s communications department chief Jairam Ramesh dubbed as a “brainchild of the Congress”, reaches its final destination?
Questions being posed by the BJP to the Congress on its demand for OBC quota within the 33 percent reservation earmarked for women aren’t unjustified either. It is widely known that a key reason that the UPA government’s version of the Bill did not get enacted was because it too did not have a provision for an OBC quota, something that Congress’s allies such as Lalu Yadav’s RJD and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, as well as then rival, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) had then said was non-negotiable if the UPA wanted their support for the Bill.
Though Rahul wasn’t actively involved in the UPA government’s legislative agenda back in 2010, it is public knowledge that Sonia, who was instrumental in pushing the Bill, had dismissed concerns raised about excluding OBCs from the reservation framework at the time. Her and the Congress’s coordinated response to anyone questioning the OBC exclusion back then was, “who is stopping political parties from giving tickets to OBC candidates” and that if political parties are concerned about OBC representation “they have the freedom to pick OBC women candidates but an enabling provision cannot be made in the Bill as we have no data of OBC population”.
Veerappa Moily, who, as law minister in March 2010, had introduced the UPA’s Women Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha, had responded on the floor of the House to calls for OBC quota saying, “We have reservations only for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; we do not have the (caste-wise) data for the entire nation because after 1931, no national (Caste) Census has been done... If we want real reservation for OBCs and minorities, we need to address many other issues.”
That the Congress has become a vocal votary of conducting a caste census is also partly because its allies, old and new, have pressured it into shedding its original resistance to the idea. Though the UPA government had given the nod for a socio-economic caste census in 2011, it was only a decade later that the Sonia, as then interim president of the Congress, set up a seven-member committee of her party colleagues to formulate the party’s stand on demands for caste enumeration.
The Congress began fully backing the demand only after that committee, headed by Moily, concluded that calls for a Caste Census were legitimate as the data collected from the exercise would be the best yardstick for determining ways for socio-economic and political empowerment of the backward castes.