The proposal to reserve one-third of the seats in Parliament and the state Assemblies for women has passed in the Rajya Sabha, but has stalled in the Lok Sabha. The opponents of the Bill want ‘quotas within quotas’. But this is a polite way of opposing the Bill. The men are worried about having a smaller number of seats to contest on. It is not easy to give up something you have considered your own!
While most parties pay lip service to the idea of reserving seats for women, none has gone ahead and given tickets to more women, let alone one-third, to contest the elections. Their argument: there is no law which obliges them to do so. True, there is no such law. It is equally true there is no law that forbids political parties from giving tickets only to women. The male bias prevails.
The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution have provided for a reservation of at least one-third of the seats in local self governments to women. A system of rotation of constituencies has been worked out. It is imperfect, but it has been implemented and the system is working reasonably well. Three rounds of elections have been completed since the amendments came into force. And women have shown that they can contribute in politics.
Since a very large number of new political positions were being created at the local level, it was possible to make such reservations for women. At that time, seats were not being taken away from men. [In much of rural India, a seat not reserved for women is often referred to as being a ‘men’s seat’, as if it was reserved for men.] Even then it was not half; the male bias remained. This not taking away of seats men have thought of as their own is the crucial difference when it comes to the current Women’s Reservation Bill pending in the Lok Sabha. With all political parties paying lip service, it has languished for more than 10 years.
There have been suggestions to increase the number of seats by one-third—as in the case of seats in engineering collages when OBC reservation was brought in. This is also a complex matter that has not got very far. Perhaps because thee is much that is not clear about how this can be done.
Where has the one-third figure come from? When Karnataka, under Ramakrishna Hegde and Rural Development Minister Abdul Nasir Saab first mooted this idea in the mid 1980s, they opted for 25% reservation for women. It was a new idea that caught on, and the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments generously increased the percentage to one-third. It is not clear why this fraction was chosen.
Why have women’s groups got stuck with this figure of one-third? Why do they not demand full equality—50%?
Why not try another and simpler tack?
There is a simple solution to this complex issue. The Representation of the People Act 1950, which applies to the union and state legislatures, can be amended. Part II, Section 4  of this Act reads as follows: “Every parliamentary constituency referred to in sub-section  shall be a single member constituency.” [italics added]. There is a similar provision for state legislatures, both upper and lower. The last phrase, can be amended to read: “shall be a double member constituency, in which one member will be male and one female”. Or “shall have two representatives, one male and one female”.
Thus, for example, Bangalore South, currently represented by Mr Ananth Kumar, will then have two MPs; one a man, and the other a woman. The process of election needs only marginal changes. The people will elect who they please to each MP position. Bangalore South will have in addition a woman as its member of Parliament. And similarly in the state Assemblies. Parties will have no option but to give tickets to women in each constituency.
This will mean a doubling of the number of MPs. The cynical may see this as a waste of money, because the current image of MPs is not a flattering one; we assume they will misbehave and/or misuse their position. They will point to the greater din and chaos in the well of the House. True, this is possible.
There is a difference between the design of a system and how that system works. Cynicism mixes the two. Misuse of office has to be dealt with differently. At least let the design be gender neutral. Many MPs behave with remarkable dignity. Fortunately it is the few who misbehave, and give the whole group a bad name.
This new system will still mean that the average MP represents more than a million people. The House will be in complete gender balance. The people will decide which men/women will get elected. The party with the majority of MPs will form the government. The existing political system remains in place.
All existing reservations will remain in place. Sets reserved for SCs or STs will remain so. Men and women of only those communities can stand for election in these seats. And all this without the need to amend the Constitution.
Yes, it will double our expenditure on the MPLADs and related matters. This is anyway a bad practice that must be stopped. The decibel level, already high, may go up if we are unlucky. Parliament, with such large numbers, will have to function differently: subject committees will be where the major work of legislation gets done. We will have to get used to two MPs, who may be from different parties, representing us. But this is a small price to pay for settling this thorny issue for ever in a most equitable way.
But this will not solve the country’s problems. It is a start. The need for state funding of elections, for inner party democracy, and so on will have to be addressed. Why cannot we begin with this amendment of the Representation of People Act, which can be done in Parliament?
I know we love to amend the Constitution; we have done so once every seven months on an average. This is simpler, and anyway, it leaves open the option of constitutional amendment, if that is the way we want to go.
Author: Vinod Vyasulu
The author is with the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bangalore