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Women’s Reservation Bill a Hidden Opportunity for INDIA Alliance

Supporting the Bill snatched the government’s chance to dub the Opposition as anti-women. Now comes INDIA’s opportunity to pin down the BJP on representation for OBCs.
Mumbai: Opposition's Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) leaders pose for a group photograph ahead of their meeting, in Mumbai, Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. (PTI Photo)(

Opposition's Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) leaders pose for a group photograph ahead of their meeting, in Mumbai, Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Image Courtesy: PTI 

By flagging the exclusion of a defined quota for Other Backward Classes (OBC) women within the 33% women’s reservation bill introduced by the Narendra Modi government, the Congress seems to have reached common ground on social justice politics with OBC-based socialist parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. When the Congress was in power at the Centre, it was these Mandal-era parties led by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav who had put a spanner in the grand old party’s attempts to bring in a law to grant 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies on the ground that it did not cater to intersectional representation for non-dominant caste communities.

The Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill, 2023—the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam—introduced by the Modi government was almost unanimously passed in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. Barring two MPs of the AIMIM, including party chief Asaduddin Owaisi, all other MPs across parties supported the Bill—454 votes went in favour and two against. Owaisi argued that his party voted against the Bill as it did not include provisions for a quota for OBC and Muslim women.

Within the 33% quota for women, one-third of the seats would be reserved for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There would, however, be no defined quota for OBC women. By doing so, the BJP government has stuck to existing constitutional provisions of providing quota to SC and ST in Lok Sabha and Assemblies and keeping the rest of the seats open to all. Perhaps, the BJP chose not to initiate a new category for OBC reservation for elected representatives in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies to preserve its Hindutva agenda of Hindu political unity.

The ruling party already faces the daunting task of implementing sub-categorization of the 27% OBC reservation in the country and handling increasing demands for OBC status by several dominant communities, the most recent being the intensification of the thorny Maratha reservation debate in Maharashtra.

The indefinite nature of the implementation of the women’s reservation bill and the exclusion of defined quota within the quota for OBC women have provided the Congress party and its Mandal politics allies a common concern to champion the cause of the backward communities. Implementing the Bill depends on the publication of a fresh census and, subsequently, the delimitation of electoral constituencies. This could, at the earliest, be possible only in the 2029 Lok Sabha election.

Raising voices for the inclusion of a separate quota for OBC and Muslim women within the women’s reservation provided a new impetus to the Congress and its INDIA bloc allies to further develop and push the social justice narrative in the upcoming election.

With Sonia Gandhi leading from the front, the Congress exhibited a dramatic shift in its approach on the issue of women’s reservation. Gandhi, who started the debate on the subject in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, demanded that the Bill be implemented immediately, but with it, the government should also carry out a caste census and arrange for reservations for SC, ST and OBC women.

Her son and party MP from Kerala, Rahul Gandhi, echoed her views on the need for a defined quota for OBC women. “I feel a large chunk of India’s women should have access to this reservation. And that is missing in this Bill,” said Rahul, acknowledging the numerical significance of the OBC community in the country.

The Opposition parties also took advantage of the Census and delimitation clauses that put a question mark on the actual implementation date of the Bill by steering it towards the question of Caste Census. If women’s reservation would be implemented only after the results of the next Census, why not conduct a caste census along with it and earmark quota within quota for the OBC community as well, they forcefully argued.

Rahul Gandhi demanded that the government get the caste census done as soon as possible, as it was the only way to find out the actual population of the OBC, SCs and tribals. He also accused the BJP of evading a discussion on caste census. “The moment the Opposition raises the issue of Caste Census, the BJP tries to create a new distraction, a new sudden event so that the OBC community and the people of India look the other way,” said Rahul Gandhi.

It is remarkable that just 13 years ago, the Congress was on the other end of similar arguments made by top Mandal-era socialist leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav. The three Yadavs had opposed the draft of the women’s reservation bill introduced by the Congress-led UPA, arguing that without defined quotas within the women’s reservation for backward caste women and Muslim women, the law would primarily benefit privileged women from urban areas due to the cultural capital they already enjoyed. It would not provide much opportunity to marginalized women, who lack literacy and the social capital to compete with the privileged and so-called ‘upper caste’ women.

Sharad Yadav had made the infamous remark about ‘par-kati mahilaen’ (women with cropped hair), a euphemism for privileged, urban, middle-class and upper-caste women. How would these women represent the cause of rural, backward caste women, he had asked.

Mulayam Singh, too, had made several strong statements, in and outside Parliament, to oppose the Bill for women’s reservation without allocating a sub-quota for Muslim and OBC women.

In 2010, the women’s reservation bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha, but it lapsed as the Lok Sabha did not vote on it amid heated debates primarily by the socialist parties who opposed the lack of intersectional representation in it.

At a rally in Barabanki in 2012, Mulayam told his audience that had the women’s reservation bill been passed, “Our poor sisters would not get an opportunity, our sisters from rural areas would not they get an opportunity. Only the women from affluent families would get a place,” he said.

By supporting the Bill, the Opposition parties have snatched an opportunity from Modi to dub them anti-women, a tag the three Yadav leaders had been subjected to for years for their objections to the women reservation bill draft. Interestingly, Nishikant Dubey of BJP, while opening the debate on the Bill in the Lok Sabha, referred to the ‘par-kati mahila’ comment to question the socialist parties.

The events of the last three days in the Special Session of Parliament were testimony to the new flexibility and pragmatism developed by the Congress. On the one hand, it supported the Bill, while on the other, it did not dither from echoing the concerns historically associated with the OBC-based socialist allies on the question of quota within quota and reaffirmed its demand for a caste census.

For the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United), key components of the Opposition INDIA bloc in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, gone are the days of defiant, emphatic opposition to the women reservation bill. Over the last three days, the parties displayed a more pragmatic, evolved and non-confrontational approach to balance the well-deserved rights given to women across sections with the ideological demand for fair representation for OBC and Muslim women. If the Modi government’s strategy was to divide the Congress and its socialist allies over this reservation and intersectionality, the Special Session of Parliament, so far, has shown it hasn’t worked.

Dimple Yadav, Mulayam’s daughter-in-law and Samajwadi Party MP from the Yadav family bastion of Mainpuri, voiced the party’s position on the issue by demanding that OBC and Muslim women also be provided defined quota like SC and ST women. “Without revolution, evolution is not possible. And for evolution to take place in this country, it is very important that the OBC women, SC-ST women and minority women get their reservation. Our women from the backward classes are really backward. One cannot imagine the backwardness they face,” Dimple Yadav said.

Outside Parliament, her husband and president of the SP, Akhilesh Yadav, who is trying to design an alliance of backward sections, Dalits and Muslims (PDA—Pichda, Dalit, Alpsankhayak), said the women reservation should have a balance between gender justice and social justice. The reservation of women from OBC, Dalit, Minority and Adivasi groups should be clear with defined percentages, he said.

In Bihar, too, where the Congress is in alliance with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JDU and Laloo Prasad’s RJD, the INDIA bloc has made similar demands.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar welcomed the reservation for women but argued that reservation should also be extended to women from OBC and Extremely Backward Classes. Nitish said that since the Bill’s provisions would be implemented only after the next Census was carried out and subsequently the delimitation of electoral constituencies, a caste census should also be carried out along with it. “Had the Caste Census been done earlier, the reservation for women belonging to Backward and Extremely Backward classes could have been implemented immediately. It is only then that women would be benefited in the true sense,” he said.

In the Lok Sabha, JDU MP Rajiv Ranjan Singh also articulated a similar view and dared the BJP to conduct a caste census. The RJD does not have a single Lok Sabha MP and would have done with the oratory skills of Laloo Prasad, who had, in his heydays, linked the question of women’s empowerment to intersectional representation.

On Thursday, while speaking in the Rajya Sabha, RJD MP Manoj Jha said that exclusion of OBC women from the defined quota for women was injustice to them. Jha demanded that the Bill be sent to a select committee of Parliament for the incorporation of OBC women. He also said it was “injustice” that the quota for SC and ST women was providing from within the existing constitutional quota for these communities rather than creating a separate reservation. In the Lok Sabha, 412 seats are general and open to all, while 84 seats are reserved for SCs and 47 for STs. “Now, we are creating one-third from these 84 and 47 [seats]. Isn’t that injustice,” asked Jha.

Since the women reservation would take some more years before becoming a reality on the ground, there is a lot of room for the Congress and its Mandal allies to politicize it outside Parliament. Will they do it is the question. While these parties have already been holding smaller meetings on caste census in UP and Bihar, with the latter state run by Nitish Kumar conducting a caste census at the state level, it seems like a no-brainer that they could include the inclusion of OBC women in the women reservation in their election manifesto.

In a country where men still rule the political sphere, directly or by proxy in the form of Pradhan patis and Parshad patis at the village and councillor levels, the question of exclusion of OBC women from women reservation has the potential to resonate with the general OBC population as yet another move to deprive them. Since 2014, the Modi government, led by the Prime Minister himself, has placed itself as the messiah of OBCs and Dalits. The government recently introduced a new scheme to reach out to castes associated with traditional crafts and labour. In the Lok Sabha, Home Minister Amit Shah also spoke at length on the representation of OBCs provided by the BJP in both Lok Sabha and State Assemblies.

Speaking in the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi raised the issue of OBC representation and pointed out that out of the 90 top secretaries in the government of India, only three were OBC. In response, Shah said that 29% of BJP MPs were OBC, while the government also had 29 OBC ministers. Twenty-seven per cent of its MLAs and 40% of MLCs across the country were also from the OBC castes.

How the Opposition parties, in particular the Congress, articulate the OBC question in front of voters could have a big impact on setting the narrative for the polls. The opportunity stares them in the face.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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