It has been one of India’s longest pantomime shows: the imminent passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill that purports to usher in 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies.
Twenty years ago, on July 8 1996, then prime minister, H. D. Deve Gowda, introduced the bill in a 547-member Parliament that had only 32 women, with the words, “No political party can survive by opposing justice for women.” The year ended with the promise that the Bill would be passed in the next session. By May 1997, it was the turn of Gowda’s successor, I.K. Gujral, to say his piece: the Bill will be passed before the year is out, he promised.
Successive prime ministers after him repeated the promise. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the bill even came through the Rajya Sabha but got inexplicably derailed while negotiating those “ten steps from Rajya Sabha to Lok Sabha”, as Brinda Karat once put it.
What is truly intriguing though is that the one prime minister who has the numbers to actually pass the Bill, Narendra Modi, has preferred to keep unusually discreet about his thoughts on the matter. Although he doesn’t hesitate to advise women MPs, as he did while addressing a conference of women legislators earlier this year when he urged them to “use modern technology and systematically upgrade their knowledge and understanding of issues to become effective legislators”, he is less forthcoming on whether he will give them an enabling bill to shore up their presence in the country’s political space.
So there you are. Instead of 33 per cent reservation of seats in assemblies and Parliament, women in the country have got 33 per cent tall promises; 33 per cent fraternal advice and 33 per cent filibustering.
Pamela Philipose is presently director and editor-in-chief of Women's Feature Service, an agency mandated to make visible gender in media coverage (www.wfsnews.org). She was earlier associated with The Indian Express, The Times Of India and Down to Earth magazine. She authored a book of political satire for Penguin India entitled 'Laugh All The Way To The Vote Bank'. In 1999, she was awarded the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Woman Journalist and the Zee Astitva award for journalism in 2007. She has contributed to various anthologies – most recently to â€˜Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India: Making A Difference' (Women Unlimited/Kali For Women). She also written a chapter for the book 'Making news, Breaking News, Her Own Way' (edited by Latika Padgaonkar and Shubha Singh (Tranquebar, 2012)