Quota for women, votes for BJP? Politics behind women’s reservation bill

“Women are moving forward, and it is important that in policymaking, our mothers, sisters and women should make a contribution,” he added, urging members to get the bill passed unanimously. The PM also said that the “bill will be remembered in the history of India”.

Speaking to ThePrint, a senior BJP leader said that while the “opposition parties are trying to unite the Other Backward Classes (OBC) by demanding a caste census, our focus is the women’s segment”.

“The BJP had sensed the potential of this votebank in its early days of governance,” the leader added, while admitting that “other chief ministers have also reaped benefits from women voters through women-centric development initiatives, such as Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha”.

Talking about the bill, Rama Devi, a BJP MP from Bihar, said, “It will be a game-changer in terms of women-centric development. While women leadership at the grassroots-level has already been increased, this bill will give more power for leadership development.”

Similarly, Queen Oja, a BJP MP from Guwahati, said that “this historic bill will be a game-changer for gender justice and empowerment. Women have to encounter several hurdles to enter politics since our society is male-dominated”.

The issue of women’s reservation has been pending for 27 years due to a lack of consensus, after a bill was first introduced in Parliament by the Deve Gowda government in 1996, then reintroduced several times by the Vajpayee government, and then by the Manmohan Singh government.

Union Law Minister and BJP leader Arjun Ram Meghwal, who introduced the bill in the House, also termed it “historic” and a “game-changer”.

“Many governments tried but PM (Modi) has finished this historic work,” he told parliamentarians, adding that “women have been at the centre of our policymaking from day one. Be it the Jan Dhan Yojana or Mudra scheme or PM housing scheme, women have been the biggest beneficiaries”.

He further said that once the bill was passed, the number of women MPs in the 543-member Lok Sabha would surge from 82 to 181.

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BJP’s focus on women voters

The BJP has long been aiming to strike a chord with women voters, and even the bill’s title, which means “worshipping the power of women”, is loaded with political symbolism.

Sources in the BJP told ThePrint that with elections looming in five crucial states in the next few months, “the party’s strategy-makers felt the need to unleash a new narrative to consolidate the BJP votebank”.

The party is facing an electoral challenge from the newly formed INDIA bloc, and in particular from the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

The sources added that Modi was convinced that women voters were a game-changer for the BJP, which is why the party has been launching initiatives for their benefit, such as Ujjwala Yojana providing LPG connections to women below the poverty line, and focussing on construction of toilets.

“Women were always kept at the centre of every scheme and (these) silent voters backed PM Modi one election after another,” a source said.

In April 2022, while addressing a BJP foundation day event in Delhi, the PM had said that the “welfare measures of the government had given women confidence and made them loyal BJP voters”.

The Modi government last month also cut the price of cooking gas cylinders by Rs 200, saying it would provide relief to more than 33 crore households amid high inflation, and announced 75 lakh free LPG connections over the course of three years under the Ujjwala scheme.

In a speech on 15 August this year, Modi had pitched for women-led development. He announced that his dream was to make 2 crore “lakhpati didis” in villages and said his government would launch a scheme to train 15,000 women self-help groups to operate drones for use in agriculture.

According to BJP leaders, the turnout of women voters had surpassed that of men in several state elections, and it is believed that the road to 2024 involves getting more women on board.

“That is why the BJP has chosen to pass a new women’s bill, on which no prime minister has got success in the last three decades,” a second party source said.

The amendment bill, however, has no provision for reservation for women in the Rajya Sabha and legislative council. The bill also proposes a quota within quota, but only for women from Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), not from OBCs.

Sangeeta Yadav, BJP MP from UP, told ThePrint that criticism about the bill’s implementation was not justified. “This is a first step in achieving empowerment. As far as OBC women are concerned, PM Modi will look into it,” she said.

The proposed legislation, tabled as the  Constitution (128th) Amendment Bill, 2023, provides for the implementation of reservation for women after a delimitation exercise, based on figures from the first census undertaken after the bill becomes law.

‘Women taking independent decisions in voting matters’

Speaking to ThePrint, a senior minister in the Modi government said that “participation of women voters has been continuously rising. The turnout of women voters was 46.6 per cent in 1962 but in 2019, women have surpassed men in voting percentage”.

“We have also seen how women have voted for the BJP, from Uttar Pradesh to Assam to Goa. They are now taking independent decisions in voting matters and the PM’s various schemes have reached the lowest strata of society,” the minister added.

He further asserted that the party had fulfilled its ideological commitments since it won power at the Centre in 2014.

“We took the decision to abrogate Article 370 in 2019, which was our ideological commitment since the Jan Sangh days. Construction of the Ram Mandir was another commitment that has been fulfilled. So, voter aspiration is increasing day by day, and we need a new narrative,” he said.

“Now, with the women’s reservation bill, in which no prime minister has got success, PM Modi has got an opportunity to fulfil the aspirations of 50 per cent of the population,” the minister added.

The senior BJP leader mentioned earlier told ThePrint that the “party has targeted not only poor women through its gender-sensitive schemes but also others through the law against triple talaq. The proposed Uniform Civil Code is also aimed at bringing gender justice”.

A BJP functionary said that women had suffered from inflation and the party had tried to lessen its impact in various ways to placate the votebank.

“They (women) will feel that the government is sensitive to them and making every effort for their development. The PM has also met women scientists separately in Bengaluru since we know that the aspirational class of women wants to enter space, IT, and aviation sectors as well as the Army,” he said.

As of 2019, India had around 91 crore voters, of which 44 crore were women. The participation of women voters in the general election that year was at 67.18 per cent against 67.01 per cent of men, according to Election Commission data.

Data collected by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP got 29 per cent of women’s votes, but this rose to 36 per cent in the 2019 general election.

In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, the party got 48 per cent of women’s votes from women compared to 44 per cent of men’s votes. In Uttarakhand,the figures were 46 and 42 per cent respectively, while in Goa, it got 34 per cent of women’s votes against 32 per cent of men’s votes, according to the data.

“The BJP lost Delhi because (Aam Aadmi Party chief and CM) Arvind Kejriwal had greater support among women voters — it was 25 per cent more than the BJP’s because of the AAP’s women-centric scheme,” said the BJP functionary.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

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