Indian lawmakers passed landmark legislation on Thursday that would reserve one-third of all seats for women in the lower house of Parliament and in state legislatures, a move aimed at improving gender parity among lawmakers. But the new rules will not apply to next year’s national elections.
The legislation was passed by the upper and lower houses of the Parliament after two days of deliberation and lengthy speeches by lawmakers from the governing party and the political opposition. The bill now requires approval from at least half of the country’s 28 state legislatures before it becomes law, after which it would come into force.
Passage in both houses of Parliament virtually guarantees its implementation. Because representatives from India’s different political parties — both at the national and regional levels — already voted in favor of the bill in the two houses of the Parliament, the measure is likely to pass in the state legislatures.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the law’s passing in the lower house of Parliament as “a golden moment of India’s parliamentary journey” that is aimed at enabling “greater participation of women in our political process.”
The new rule would not apply to the upper house of Parliament, however; those members are chosen by members of the state legislatures.
Some politicians were disappointed that women would have to wait for the law to come into force and that it would not apply to the next election.
“I want to ask, in the past 13 years, women have waited patiently for this bill,” Sonia Gandhi, a towering figure in Indian politics who served as the head of the Indian National Congress party, said in Parliament on Wednesday. “But now, our women have been asked to wait for some more years. How many years?”
About half of India’s 950 million registered voters are women, but they make up only about 15 percent of lawmakers in Parliament and just 10 percent of lawmakers in the state legislatures. Across the world, the overall share of parliamentary seats occupied by women is about 26 percent. In India, the largest number of female lawmakers entered the lower house of Parliament in 2019, when 78 women were elected.
For decades, India’s governments have promised a fairer representation for women in the lower house of Parliament, India’s version of the U.S. House, and in the state legislatures.
The move to make that a reality faced stiff but discreet resistance from leaders across ideological affiliations. Many male lawmakers feared losing seats, and others from marginalized groups, or lower castes, argued that women were not ready to govern.
Mr. Modi is popular among female voters and he wants to send a signal to them, said Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst in New Delhi, and he also wants to give people time to get used to the idea.
“So the resistance gets diluted,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t see any reason why they will not do it for 2024; that would have electrified the women voter.”
To soften the blow among male political workers, the government is likely to increase the number of seats after the general elections next year through a process called delimitation, which redistributes seats based on population, political observers say.
The last time India conducted a census was in 2011, and the next was to be held in 2021, but that was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. No firm date has been set for the next census.
Leaders in India first introduced the idea of reserving one-third of seats for women in 1992, when the concept was tried in local civic bodies in towns and villages. But those efforts were marred by allegations that women were just being used to win elections while the men continued to run daily affairs.
Over the years, other efforts to introduce a bill to reserve seats for women failed on the national and regional levels.
But on Wednesday, the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, approved the bill with an overwhelming majority. Just two members present voted against it. A day later, the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, also passed the bill.
The bill also provides for a portion of seats already reserved for people from marginalized communities to be reserved for women from the same groups. Out of 131 such seats reserved for two marginalized groups, 33 percent of seats would be for women of these groups.
Safina Baig, a local politician in northern Kashmir, said that for decades, women from marginalized communities, including Muslims, would hesitate to enter politics because the idea of reserving seats for women was seen as a threat to men instead of an effort to improve gender equality in parliamentary politics.
“This law will break the glass ceiling,” she said. “When we will leave behind our fears and anxieties? We may not even need this law after 20 years.”