The BJP may hail Tuesday’s introduction of the Naari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam
(Women’s Reservation Bill) in the Lok Sabha as yet another “historic” masterstroke by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. However, the fine print of the proposed legislation could give the ruling party some anxious moments during the ongoing special session of Parliament and, more importantly, when the polls draw near.
The stipulation in Article 334A (1) of the proposed Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill, which mandates completion of a fresh Census and new delimitation of constituencies as pre-requisites for rolling out 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures, is likely to trigger a rethink on the ready support that several key members of the Opposition’s INDIA coalition had previously offered the BJP for passage of the Women Reservation Bill.
INDIA constituents such as the Congress party, the Trinamool Congress, the NCP and the Left parties, among others, had expressed unconditional support for the Bill when speculations first began on the possibility of the Modi government moving the legislation for passing during the special Parliament session.
However, the Bill that got the Union Cabinet’s approval on Monday night and was subsequently introduced in the Lok Sabha, on Tuesday, by Union law minister Arjun Ram Meghwal following a fervent appeal to all parties by Modi for “unanimously” passing the “historic Bill” in Parliament has left several of these Opposition outfits severely disappointed.
Eye-wash, say parties
Congress’s Jairam Ramesh and CPM’s Brinda Karat, among other leaders of the INDIA bloc, have gone on record to dub the Bill as a 'con' being pulled by the Modi regime on women voters ahead of the Lok Sabha polls since the proposed reservation will not kick in immediately after the enactment of the Naari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam. Asserting that the Bill merely had a “nice sounding name to a vague promise that may be fulfilled years later”, Ramesh wondered, “what was the tearing hurry to do this in a Special Session if it was not to be implemented in 2024?”
Soon after the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, Ramesh had posted on X, “If the PM had any real intention to prioritise women empowerment, the Women’s Reservation Bill would have been implemented immediately without ifs and buts and all other conditions. For him and the BJP, this is only an election jumla that delivers nothing concrete.”
Left leaders Karat and D. Raja also shared Ramesh’s views as did Trinamool Congress’s Kalyan Banerjee. Significantly, these parties were, so far, among the wider Opposition’s most vociferous proponents of women’s reservation. Their stand would have also given the BJP leadership the confidence that the Bill will sail through with bipartisan support in both Houses of Parliament despite predictable resistance from other INDIA partners such as the RJD, SP and JD (U), which have historically been opposed to women reservation on grounds that all previous formulations of the proposed law made no provision of a quota within the 33 percent quota for OBC women.
Though the BJP, with its brute majority in the Lok Sabha and its Machiavellian abilities of conjuring a majority in the Rajya Sabha despite its NDA coalition lacking the numbers in the latter, may still succeed in getting the Bill passed during the special session, it can no longer bank on these key Opposition parties for unconditional support.
More problems for BJP
This, however, is only one half of the BJP’s problem – and also the easier one to deal with. Sources in the INDIA coalition told The Federal that the Bill, in its present form, has not just given the grouping enough grounds to resist its passage in Parliament but also to tweak their stand on the proposed legislation without attracting the criticism of simply being obstructionist against a law that promises empowerment of half the country’s population.
Leaders from at least four constituents of the INDIA bloc confirmed to The Federal that the stipulation under Article 334A gives their grouping a chance to push their narrative for a Caste Census even more aggressively and link it with the demand for OBC quota within the 33 percent reservation for women.
“When the Bill will only come into effect after the Census and delimitation of constituencies is completed, then the government should have no grounds to deny quota within quota for OBC women because there is scope for caste enumeration right now. Once you have the caste census data, then you complete delimitation and subsequently roll out women reservation with clearly defined quotas for SCs, STs and OBCs within the one-third reserved section. We will have no problem with that but will the government agree,” a senior INDIA bloc leader said.
Another leader from a different INDIA constituent referred to RJD MP Manoj Jha’s likening of the Adhiniyam to a “post-dated cheque” – an analogy also made by Congress’s Jairam Ramesh – and said, “if you are not implementing this now, if the delimitation exercise is not due until 2026 and if the Census has also not happened for 2021, then government has time to conduct a caste census, introduce OBC reserved category in Parliament and state legislatures on the same lines as the ST and SC categories and then carve out quota within quota for women... if you are going to cash this stunt for polls, you can still do it in 2029 but introduce the OBC quota first based on a caste census”.
This line, the two INDIA leaders quoted above said, has not yet been discussed at length with the coalition’s partners such as the Congress or the Left, who favour immediate implementation of women’s reservation. Both leaders said they would suggest to other constituents of the INDIA bloc to “accommodate” this stand of interlinking the Opposition’s demand for a Caste Census with that of implementing women reservation. “It would be the perfect social justice plank as it would include both our commitments of caste census and women reservation and it would also expose the BJP’s hypocrisy on equitable empowerment of all oppressed sections, be it Dalits and adivasis or backward castes and women”, the second INDIA leader quoted above said.
Demand for OBC sub-quota
It is also pertinent to note here that over the past three decades each time the women’s reservation bill was revived by successive governments headed by different parties, OBC leaders from the BJP, Uma Bharti most prominently, had also raised the demand for their community getting a share within the 33 percent quota reserved for women. On Tuesday, Congress president and Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge too alluded to this during his intervention in the Rajya Sabha while seemingly backing the need for an OBC sub-quota but his submissions were drowned in the protests by MPs from the Treasury Benches, including finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who too strong exception to his remark about “all political parties of the country” craftily avoiding empowerment of OBC and Dalit women.
Congress sources told The Federal that Kharge may revive this line of attack against the BJP, though articulating it differently, when the Bill is brought before Rajya Sabha for consideration. INDIA constituents RJD, SP and JD(U) are also expected to urge Kharge, who leads the talks for coordinating the bloc’s floor strategy in Parliament, to push for an OBC sub-quota based on Caste Census data to be introduced within the 33 percent reserved category proposed for women lawmakers. The SP, sources said, is also keen that the Bill expressly lays down the mechanism that would be applied to carve out the quota within quota so that SCs, ST (and OBCs, if they are included) know their respective share in the reserved category.
The BJP, despite Modi’s aggressive OBC outreach, has remained non-committal on the INDIA bloc’s demand for conducting a caste census. The ruling RJD-JD(U)-Congress coalition under chief minister Nitish Kumar has already initiated a caste survey in Bihar and indications are that its preliminary findings will be out by December.
The Bihar caste survey and the INDIA bloc’s push for conducting caste enumeration nationally have both made the BJP jittery over the prospects of such a narrative weaning away its OBC vote bank in Hindi Heartland states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Haryana where caste has always played a dominant role in deciding electoral outcomes.
BJP leaders from these states concede in hushed tones that their biggest challenge in next year’s Lok Sabha polls is not how they would fight the still-evolving INDIA coalition but how they would justify their party’s resistance to conducting a caste census. This situation may get further complicated for the BJP if the Nitish Kumar government is indeed able to conclude the Bihar caste survey by December and subsequently proceed on making electoral announcements that draw from findings of the survey.
The anticipation within the BJP had been that the “masterstroke” of the women's reservation bill would significantly blunt the Opposition’s caste census narrative as women voters would overwhelmingly vote for NDA candidates as a thanksgiving gesture for the PM. However, given how deep caste identity politics is entrenched in India’s electoral landscape the lure of an otherwise radical affirmative action tool such as the women’s reservation bill may be diffused significantly if the INDIA bloc is able to effectively canvass the uncertain timeline of the Bill’s actual implementation and simultaneously build a narrative on the demand for a Caste Census.