NEW DELHI - India's opposition leader on Monday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "walk his talk" by passing a long-pending bill that aims to give women a stronger voice in parliament.
Rahul Gandhi offered his party's "unconditional support" to push through the Women's Reservation Bill, which provides for one-third of the seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for female candidates.
"Our PM says he's a crusader for women's empowerment? Time for him to rise above party politics, walk-his-talk & have the Women's Reservation Bill passed by parliament. The Congress offers him its unconditional support," Gandhi tweeted.
The bill was passed by the upper house in 2010, but has since been sidelined after vehement resistance from some male lawmakers.
Women hold only 12 percent of seats in both the lower and upper houses of parliament in the world's largest democracy, compared to the global average of 23 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Gandhi asked Modi in a letter attached to his tweet to take advantage of his party's majority in parliament to "send India a message that we believe the time for change has come.”
"Women must take their rightful place in our state legislatures and in parliament, where they are at present abysmally represented," he said.
The BJP on Monday refused to say whether it would clear the bill in the next parliament session which begins on Wednesday.
Prakash Javadekar, a minister and BJP spokesman, said Congress counted opponents of the bill among its allies. "They have to first sort out this issue," he told reporters.
The country already reserves at least a third of village council seats for women, and this has given over one million women a say in how their communities are developed.
But campaigners say a stronger voice for women at the top of government is also needed to bring in policies and laws that would help ordinary women fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.
The challenge came amid renewed debate about women's safety in India after experts surveyed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked it the most dangerous country in the world for women.
India's tourism ministry has now launched a campaign throughout its government's overseas offices to highlight that women are safe in India.
There is no reason to stop the passage of the legislation when Modi's government has more than 300 of the 545 seats in parliament, said Kavita Krishnan, an activist with the All India Progressive Women's Association.
"This government has no excuse to not pass this bill. I think it is really overdue," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"At least put it to vote and let the whole country know who is voting for it and who is not.”