No two parties want the same things from Womens Reservation Bill
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh arrives for the all-party meeting ahead of the special session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023. PTI

No two parties want the same things from Women's Reservation Bill

BJP government goes for radio silence while chinks crop up in INDIA unity over proposed legislation

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With the Centre refusing to divulge if it plans to bring any legislation beyond the Bills already listed in the “tentative” agenda for the five-day special session of Parliament commencing Monday (September 18), the Opposition’s demand for passing the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill dominated discussions at the all-party meeting chaired by Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Sunday.

Leaders of the INDIA coalition told The Federal that Rajnath and other representatives of the Union government who were present at the all-party meeting “did not offer any response” to a volley of questions by the Opposition on speculations that the Centre had a surprise legislative agenda which was “deliberately not listed in the Parliament bulletin”.

The Centre also refused to offer any assurance to the INDIA leaders on whether it would accept the demand for a debate on any of the nine issues listed by Congress Parliamentary Party chairperson Sonia Gandhi, on behalf of the Opposition’s coalition, in her letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Silence over engagement

Given that the Centre chose “silence over meaningful engagement” at the meeting, INDIA leaders told The Federal that a bulk of the deliberations were pivoted around the Women’s Reservation Bill. However, if rumours about the Centre’s plan to spring a surprise that could create friction within the still-evolving INDIA bloc are true, leaders of the Opposition bloc may have given the BJP a ready plank to do so with their divergent views on the scope and ambit of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

The push for getting the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in the Lok Sabha during the special session had come earlier in the day from the Congress party’s working committee meeting held in Hyderabad. Congress sources told The Federal that the party’s strident demand for getting the legislation that proposes 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and all State Assemblies passed in the special Parliament session was, in part, meant as a “pre-emptive strike” to foil an attempt by Modi and the BJP from walking away with full credit if the Centre, with its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, decides to have the contentious Bill passed in the Lok Sabha.

The Congress was the original votary of the Women’s Reservation Bill. After several failed bids by the party’s successive governments helmed by Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narsimha Rao to have the Bill enacted by Parliament, the Congress-led UPA government had succeeded in getting the legislation passed by Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010. However, resistance to the Bill from parties such as the RJD, SP, JD (U) and others had prevented the Manmohan Singh-led coalition from having the legislation passed in the Lok Sabha. This is because the Congress, on its own, lacked a majority in the Lower House and some of its like-minded allies refused to cooperate.

Easy sail is possible

As Congress leaders Jairam Ramesh and Pawan Khera pointed out earlier on Sunday, a Bill passed by the Rajya Sabha does not lapse and so, the BJP, which has an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, can have the legislation passed in the Lok Sabha with ease.

The Modi government’s aggressive attempts at wooing the women electorate in recent months through various measures such as the rebooted version of the Ujjwala scheme and reduction in price of LPG cylinders has led many in the Opposition to speculate if getting the Women’s Reservation Bill enacted is the BJP’s “secret agenda” for the special Parliament session, which would allow the saffron party to reap the decision’s electoral harvest in the Lok Sabha polls due next year.

Though the Centre has been steadfast in evading all questions on the possibility of the Bill being brought in the ensuing special Parliament session, the Congress’s pre-emptive push for the legislation has forced its allies in the INDIA coalition to also divulge their respective stand on the issue.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, told reporters after the all-party meeting that “all Opposition parties unitedly demanded that the Women’s Reservation Bill should be passed in the special session”. What Chowdhury did not make public, though, was that INDIA parties such as the RJD, SP and JD (U) – the three which had stalled the Bill’s enactment in 2010 too – offered only conditional support for passage of the proposed legislation.

Support with rider

Samajwadi Party MP ST Hasan, who attended the all-party meeting, told The Federal, “in-principle, we support the Bill but our support is with the rider that there should be a quota for SC, ST and OBC women within the 33 per cent reservation that the legislation proposes so that the oppressed and vulnerable sections of society are also benefited equally from this law.” Hasan also said that the SP would “prefer a mechanism introduced within the law that gives all political parties the right to decide which seats it wishes to allocate to women candidates... this allocation of seats should not be left to the Election Commission”.

Hasan said that the SP’s conditional support for the Bill stems from its view that the Election Commission “in the current scenario does not function independently and will be made even more subservient to the Central government if the Bill for changing appointment procedure of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners which is listed for passing in the agenda for the special session is actually cleared by Parliament”.

Room for abuse

“If the power to allocate reserved seats is given to the EC, we fear that the BJP will try to influence the reservation to get rid of rivals it does not wish to see in Parliament... what if the EC reserves a seat presently held by a senior Opposition leader for a woman candidate... it takes years for a politician to nurture a constituency and if, in one stroke, the EC decides that his seat is now reserved for a woman candidate, then he will have to either find a new constituency or he will try to have a woman member of his family get the ticket from his seat which will then invite criticism of nepotism and dynasty politics,” Hasan said.

Like the SP, the RJD and the JD (U) are also learnt to have echoed a similar view on the Bill during the all-party meet. RJD MP Manoj Jha told The Federal that his party is “very clear that a nuanced approach must be taken in supporting the Bill... we favour the Bill but only if there is a quota within quota for the SC, ST and OBC women”.

Sources said the Centre’s representatives at the all-party meeting “heard all Opposition leaders but spoke nothing”. Members of the INDIA coalition, said sources, prodded Rajnath to explain why a special session was convened considering that “barring the discussion listed on September 18 on the 75 year journey of our Parliament, there was nothing in the tentatively listed agenda that required a special sitting to be convened”. However, the Defence Minister offered no response.

No support for CEC Bill

The Congress and its allies in the INDIA coalition were also unequivocal in informing the Centre that they would “not support the Bill for amending the appointment procedure of the CEC and ECs under any circumstance as the Bill is meant to severely undermine the independence of the Election Commission, which has already been facing a crisis of credibility under the Modi regime,” Chowdhury told The Federal. The Congress Working Committee, which held a two-day meet in Hyderabad over the weekend, had declared the party’s opposition to the amendments the Centre seeks to bring for revamping the panel that appoints the CEC and ECs.

The CWC had also reiterated the demand for discussion in Parliament on the issues listed by Sonia Gandhi in her letter to Modi earlier this month. These issues included the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur, rising unemployment and inflation and Chinese incursions on Indian territory in Ladakh, among others, alongside the party’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the allegations of financial misconduct against businessman Gautam Adani and demand for a financial aid package from the Centre for Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh, which has been devastated by heavy rainfall and landslides.

Chowdhury said he and other INDIA leaders raised the issues mentioned in Sonia Gandhi’s letter at the all-party meeting. “The government was silent. The ministers at the meeting could not even explain why the special session was convened when there was no urgency for the legislative agenda that has been listed so far... we know they (the BJP) are up to something nefarious; they do not respect parliamentary conventions and we can’t expect transparency from them. Unfortunately, we will have to wait for the session to commence to know what their real agenda is... many Opposition leaders asked if it was about Uniform Civil Code or simultaneous elections but the government was tight-lipped,” Chowdhury claimed.

Early polls on the cards?

The special session is being convened amid raging rumours that the Prime Minister could decide to recommend dissolution of the Lok Sabha on the final day of the session, paving the way for early Lok Sabha polls.

“The BJP’s graph is on a steady decline but it has got a breather right now because of the G20 summit and this new controversy that they are trying to fan over (DMK leader) Udhayanidhi Stalin’s remarks about Sanatana Dharma to polarise... the BJP will also try to gain electoral mileage from the shift to the new Parliament (the special session will be convened in the new Parliament building from September 19) and inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in January,” a senior Congress leader told The Federal. The leader added, “all these factors, coupled with the new controversies over their (BJP’s) push for simultaneous election, changing India’s official name to Bharat and bringing the Uniform Civil Code, will be used by BJP to create a hype around nationalism.. because of this many leaders actually believe Modi may go for early elections and if he also adds the Women Reservation Bill to this narrative, he may manage to give BJP a definite edge over the INDIA group”.

Clarity on whether Modi indeed has a surprise in store for the special session that can alter the electoral dynamics of the Lok Sabha battle, presently due in March-April, to the BJP’s advantage will emerge only after Parliament convenes on Monday. However, the divisions within the INDIA bloc on the Women’s Reservation Bill are clearly a chink that the BJP will exploit if, indeed, the legislation is the surprise that the Prime Minister decides to spring before the still coalescing Opposition.

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