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On Thursday, India’s Parliament passed a historical legislation. The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023 that it cleared puts in place a legal framework to reserve a third of seats in the Lower House of Parliament as well as the state Legislative Assemblies for women.
The history of a women’s reservation bill is long. It was first brought into Parliament by the United Front government way back in 1996. The current bill is similar to all previous attempts with one significant diversion: it fixes the delimitation of seats in Parliament as a necessary condition to reserve seats for women. This means that the actual implementation of women’s reservations is at least a decade away. More on this interesting clause later in the newsletter.
Women’s reservations is a largely unstudied topic in politics. Part of the reason is that it is quite rare globally. However, India has itself implemented women’s reservation at the local level for decades now. A 2004 study by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo found that reservations did change how local bodies worked. Women representatives did things differently, presumably better prioritising the needs of their female voters.
The gender preferences of men and women are proxied by the formal requests brought to the gram panchayat by each gender. In West Bengal, women complain more often than men about drinking water and roads, and there are more investments in drinking water and roads in gram panchayats reserved for women. In Rajasthan, women complain more often than men about drinking water less often about roads, and there are more investments in water and less vestment in roads in GPs reserved for women.
— Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo
So while anecdotally, there are reports that in many cases, gender quotas in local bodies exist only on paper – women are proxies for their, say, husbands – at least the data shows that this policy does have some positive effect for female voters.
Identity push and pull
The counter to this, of course, is that women in India do not form a strong political bloc with some exceptions like West Bengal (the proportion of Trinamool tickets to women already crossed the law’s 33% threshold in the previous Lok Sabha election). Gender identity as a tool of political mobilisation in India is mostly overridden by factors such as caste and religion. It is these blocs that are usually the fundamental units of mobilisation in big elections such as Assemblies and Parliament.
For example, will a BJP candidate who is a woman attract the votes of Muslim women or will the identity appeal of Hindutva prevail over and above gender? If the former were to happen, it would be a seismic shift in how Indian politics works.
Arguments along these lines are, in fact, what kept the bill hanging for nearly three decades.
When this idea was first mooted, it was the age of the rise of so-called Mandal parties in the Hindi belt. Named after the Mandal Commission that greenlit the idea of reservation for Other Backward Classes, parties such as the Samajwadi in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, for the first time in Indian history, facilitated the rise of backward castes to the high table of Indian politics.
At the time, OBC leaders saw in the bill a move to undercut their politics and take Indian politics back to the Congress-era, where it was dominated by upper castes. Most infamously, RJD’s Sharad Yadav argued in Parliament that women’s reservation would allow only “short-haired women” – presumably a euphemism for urban, upper caste women – to dominate politics in place of backward caste leaders.
This view has wide support across backward caste lines. “The possibility of OBC women getting their own share in parliament and Assemblies is not there because they cannot compete with the upper caste women who have money and material resources,” wrote writer and Ambedkarite thinker,Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd in 2012, arguing that the bill was meant to “counter the rise of the OBC political forces”.
Interestingly, Pakistan – which has women’s reservation – has seen something similar happen. A 2013 paper by journalist Huma Yusuf argued that the “reserved seats have since been criticised for perpetuating tokenism, especially since most women nominated to the seats hail from politically well-established and influential families”.
However, that there was no such opposition this time and it was the BJP – itself a party that gets a significant number of Hindi belt OBC votes – that moved the bill, signals how much power Mandal-style politics has lost in the Modi age where the BJP depends on a pan-Hindu vote bank which cuts across caste lines.
If OBC fears explain the political economy of opposition to the bill, what are the nuts and bolts that drive parties to support it?
In this particular case, Modi might have been at least partly driven by the need for a big show to mark the opening of his new Parliament building. The women’s reservation bill has wide support and allows the government to push a positive narrative. And if, as some observers say, the bill will only be implemented by the end of the 2030s, the practical implications of the move have little relevance for Modi anyway. So it is a win-win.
The other structural factor at play is that women’s reservation is likely to further weaken the local legislator vis-a-vis their party. With new legislators and the possibility that reserved seats might be rotated – preventing any person from nursing a constituency – voters will further prioritise the party over the candidate. Much of this has already happened due to factors such as big money entering elections as well as brute laws such as the anti-defection law, which force MPS and MLAs to vote on instruction from their parties.
Interestingly, Ambedkarite leaders such as Kanshi Ram have already pointed to the futility of seats being reserved for Dalits in Parliament given that party high commands commanded most of the power and were upper-caste dominated. Ram, in fact, brusquely called people elected from reserved seats “chamchas” or suck-ups, arguing that these “representatives were not real representatives but merely tools in the hand of their age-old enemies”. (And this was before the anti-defection law.)
The link with delimitation
Most interestingly, however, is Modi’s last minute surprise to link women’s reservation with delimitation. For more than half a century now, the seats of each state in the Lok Sabha have been frozen even though their populations have diverged. If this freeze is removed, the 2030s could see a new Parliament with a significant increase in seats for the Hindi belt and a sharp drop for the Dravidian-speaking states in the South.
As can be expected, delimitation is controversial, with the South bitterly opposed to what it sees as a further downgrading of its political power already dwarfed by the more populous Hindi belt.
However, by linking the controversial idea of delimitation with the idea of women’s reservation – an idea that has near-unanimous support across parties and states – the BJP makes the former move a bit more palatable. A good move for the party given that its strong base in the Hindi belt means the saffron party will be the main beneficiary of delimitation.