|Critics have questioned whether the bill will make a difference for India's women [GALLO/GETTY]
When historic resolutions, such as the decision by the Indian parliament's upper house to pass a women's reservation bill, alter the course of a nation's destiny, still image photography can capture the moment for posterity.
One such image is of two female MPs who heartily detest each other - Communist Brinda Karat and her arch enemy, Hindu nationalist Sushma Swaraj - hugging ecstatically.
The other is of Sonia Gandhi, the intensely reclusive Congress Party president who loathes talking to the media, suddenly turning voluble, grinning from ear to ear and giving interviews to express her delight at the bill passed by the upper house on March 6.
The bill will become law only if it passed by the lower house, which seems likely given that the main opposition party supports it.
|Sonia Gandhi was delighted by the passing of the bill in the upper house [AFP]
A momentous measure, the bill compels parties to field female candidates for 33 per cent of seats in the federal parliament and state assemblies.
But now that the euphoria has subsided, the question is whether reservations will really be "a big step forward" as Gandhi put it, for India's half a billion mainly badly treated women when so many other laws have failed.
Having hung fire for 13 years, Gandhi's ruling Congress Party was anxious to push the bill through to gain political mileage out of a measure designed to empower women.
Gandhi said she was determined to fulfil the aspirations of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, to politically empower women.
Unlike previous attempts to pass the bill in parliament, this year the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party also lent its support.
Cynics and optimists
Indian society seems to be divided into cynics and optimists on the potential impact of the bill.
Cynics say that reservations are mere tokenism and fail to address women's second-class status.
On the other hand, optimists say it is irrelevant to call it tokenism because nothing else has worked to get more women into parliament. As of 2010, the lower house has only 58 women, fewer than 11 per cent of the seats.
If affirmative action has improved the lives of sections of the lower castes, quotas for women will be equally effective, they argue.
But this has not dissuaded criticism. Some have voiced fears that there will not be enough qualified women candidates.
Supporters of the bill, however, question why men are automatically presumed to be qualified and to have risen on merit rather than patronage and connections. They charge that male-dominated political parties simply have not tried to find women candidates.
Cynics of the bill also raised the spectre that male politicians will field their wives and daughters in the reserved seats as "proxies". They point to the example of Laloo Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister, who installed his wife after he was jailed for corruption. The critics say the women's reservation bill will now employ the same principle, only in larger numbers.
But official data seems to paint a different picture. The experience of reservations at the village level, introduced in 1994 in the "panchayats" or village councils, has proved that few women candidates were proxies for their menfolk.
Even those women who were initially surrogates turned out to be independent once they had gained confidence.
The same critical cynicism voiced this year about the women's reservation bill mirrors the types of doubts which surfaced during the panchayat experiment in 1994.
Some Indians who initially opposed the bill later changed their minds when faced with the substantial evidence proving that reservations in panchayats have been hugely successful.
"I owe my position to reservations. I would never have entered public life otherwise," Asha Choudhary, a panchayati head in Haryana, a state in northern India, said.
"If you wait till men give women an equal chance, you will wait forever. Who gives up power voluntarily?"
In fact, a new breed of women politicians and leaders has emerged and blossomed at the grassroots level.
"Women who head panchayats have proved to be more focused than men on the real issues of roads, health, schools and water," Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research, said.
Some analysts have argued that it would be better for India to let this new grassroots level generation of women leaders slowly rise to state level and national level politics. It would be a "natural" progression rather than a procrustean one imposed by the government.
But this does not satisfy the bill's supporters.
"In India, social change to improve the lives of communities who have suffered discrimination for centuries takes too long," Subhashini Ali, a former Communist MP, said.
"You have to force change - through legislation, through state intervention otherwise it will take generations," she told Al Jazeera.
Objections to the bill
A more justified objection to the women's reservations bill is that one-third of seats will be rotated every election. In one election, one set of 33 per cent of seats will be reserved for women; in the next, a different set of 33 per cent will be reserved and so on for the next 15 years until 99 per cent of the seats will have been reserved.
Critics say that women MPs who know they cannot run again for the same seat in the next election will have no incentive to work for their constituents.
"They won't be accountable. Why should they work hard to serve their constituents when they won't benefit from their loyalty because someone else will be standing [in the elections] next time?" Sharad Yadav, a politician, said.
The bill's supporters argue that rotation will halt the phenomenon of pocket boroughs where the same person is elected year after year.
"It will have a beneficial impact. You won't have politicians who use handouts, bribes, and favours to build up personal fiefdoms to get re-elected," Ali said.
"The fight will be more democratic and open."
The split over the bill does not break down into a simple gender divide. Quite a few women politicians such as dalit (formerly known as "untouchable") leader Mayawati opposed it.
Mayawati is a rare example in Indian politics of a woman who has risen to the top on the strength of her own personality and political acumen; unlike many other female politicians, she has not used family connections or a husband's name to succeed.
Mayawti (and other politicians who claim to represent India's 116 million dalits) wanted a quota within the quota for dalit women who, she says, are doubly oppressed by gender and caste.
Denouncing the bill as "anti-dalit", she is expected to lead a protest rally on April 17.
Other politicians seeking dalit and Muslim support voiced the same objections as Mayawati, saying that the ruling Congress cared only for well-off women who would benefit the most from reservations as opposed to poor low caste and Muslim women who should have had their own quota within the 33 per cent of seats.
"The Congress Party is ruled by a woman president. What stopped her from giving 33 per cent – or more, 50 per cent – of tickets to women candidates? They could have, but never did," Mulayam Singh Yadav told Al Jazeera.
But this argument cuts both ways.
"Why doesn't Mulayam Singh tell us how many dalit and Muslim candidates he fielded in the last election?" Jayanti Natarajan, a Congress Party spokesperson, asked.
"If he is so concerned about them, he could have demonstrated his concern by showing it in deeds."
The fact is that all the Indian political parties, including the Congress Party, have been guilty of gender discrimination. If they had voluntarily decided to give 33 per cent of their tickets to women in elections, the bill would never have been necessary.
But they have favoured men.
If the bill is passed by the lower house, the president will then sign it into law. It will likely transform Indian politics. In one fell swoop, 181 women will sit in parliament and in corresponding numbers in state assemblies across the country.
"Think of all the men who are going to lose their seats throughout the country. Politics has been a male bastion for too long. It's time it collapsed," Priya Dutt, a female MP, said.
If the panchayat experiment is anything to go by, the number of women legislators could exceed the reserved quota. For instance, women who have won in a reserved seat may want to stand for election in the same seat once it has fallen into the general pool.
Rise to prominence
That is what has happened at village level where, in some states, women's representation in panchayats has risen from the initial 33 per cent to more than 40 per cent.
As a whole crop of women leaders rise up, they will be confident enough to run for seats that are not reserved.
This prospect is also anathema to the bill's opponents. They say that once women from reserved seats start standing in unreserved seats, a creeping female domination will result.
"Decision-making at every level in India will never be the same again when you have so many women bringing their perspective to bear on the issues," Brinda Karat, an upper house member and general secretary of the All-India Women's Democratic Association, said.
But since this rise to prominence of women at the panchayat level beyond the 33 per cent "quota" has not caused any problems, the bill's supporters see no reason for concern if the same occurs in the national parliament.
Source: Al Jazeera