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Political Consensus Sought on Women's Reservation Bill in India

  • Anjana Pasricha

India's Congress-led ruling alliance offers to build political consensus on contentious bill passed by upper house of parliament

Although the bill proposing to reserve one third of seats in parliament and state legislatures for women has been passed by the upper house of parliament, it faces staunch opposition from some political quarters.

After protests by lawmakers forced parliament to adjourn, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said his party will hold consultations with all political parties before it brings the Women's Reservation Bill to the lower house.

"We can consider, consult with various ideas being explored, possibilities could be explored, if it is possible to narrow down the divergences," said Mukherjee.

The offer was meant to calm two angry allies – the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. These socialist parties have threatened to withdraw support to the Congress-led government, after the bill was pushed through the upper house, Tuesday, despite their objections.

But the bill must still be passed by the lower house and half of all state legislatures before it turns into law. That task may not be easy, given the staunch opposition of these parties and growing disquiet among other lawmakers.

The bill, which proposes to reserve one third of seats in parliament and state assemblies for women, is intended to speed up women's empowerment in a country where millions of women face discrimination.

But those opposing the bill, such as Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, told parliament that it will only benefit women from privileged classes.

Yadav has demanded that, if the law is to be passed, it must include quotas for women from lower classes and Muslim women.

These groups constitute the core supporters of the parties which are opposing the bill.

The Women's Reservation Bill has met with strong political opposition since it was first proposed in 1996. But this time, it is being championed by Congress party head, Sonia Gandhi, who has expressed her personal commitment to ensuring that it becomes law.

However, political analysts say the government is likely to go slow in introducing it before the lower house of parliament, because it does not want to risk the wrath of its allies.

The 26 lawmakers from the two parties who oppose the bill are a small minority in 545-member lower house. But their support gives the Congress Party a comfortable majority in parliament.

The bill went through the Upper House because of support from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist parties. But even some BJP lawmakers are reported to be having second thoughts.

Analysts say most political parties are worried that their male-dominated parties would have to undergo a complete change if the bill turns into law.

A number of women have made a mark in Indian politics. But many of them belong to powerful political families and only a handful has entered politics on their own credentials.

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