The introduction of the women’s reservation bill in parliament on Tuesday has brought to the fore long-standing contestations over demands for a sub-quota for women belonging to the Other Backward Classes.

These demands for an Other Backward Classes sub-quota within the women’s reservation, partly why previous attempts at passing the legislation failed, have been mainly pushed by OBC-led, Mandal-era political parties from the Hindi belt. The proposed law not providing for such a sub-quota creates a tricky situation for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has benefitted greatly from the Other Backward Class votes in the region.

What does the new bill say about the OBC sub-quota?

A constitutional amendment bill to provide for a total one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies to be reserved for women was introduced in Parliament on Tuesday by the Narendra Modi government. Over the past 27 years, various versions of the bill aimed at promoting greater participation of women as legislators at the state and national level have failed to pass in Parliament.

This proposed reservation, for a 15-year period, will take effect following the next delimitation exercise to redraw boundaries of constituencies. The next delimitation will be carried out following the first census after 2026 is published. Seats earmarked for women will rotate after each subsequent delimitation, the bill says.

It also provides for one-third of the seats already reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to be reserved for women. However, it excludes a sub-quota for women from the Other Backward Classes.

What is the Opposition’s stance on this?

While supporting the bill in principle, some Opposition parties have demanded carving out a quota specifically for women belonging to the Other Backward Classes within the seats being reserved for women. Unlike the quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Constitution currently does not provide for reservation specifically for the Other Backward Classes in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

This demand is not new and was part of the reason why previous attempts to pass the legislation failed. The United Progressive Alliance government’s 2010 bill was blocked in the Lok Sabha by Other Backward Classes-led parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal over their demands for the sub-quota for Other Backward Classes as well as Muslims.

Besides social justice for women from Other Backward Classes, these demands also stemmed from the view the women’s quota will get appropriated by upper caste women. Hearing these grievances, at least two parliamentary committees, in 1996 and 2009, had recommended that the government should consider a quota for women from the Other Backward Classes within the women’s quota.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi speaking in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. Credit: PTI
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi speaking in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

The two parties, along with the Janata Dal (United) and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have reiterated these demands now. “Women’s reservation should be a balance of gender justice and social justice,” Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav said on social media on Tuesday. “In this, reservation for backward, Dalit, minority, tribal … women should be clear in definite percentage form.”

Congress, which brought the previous women’s reservation bill in 2010 that also did not provide an OBC sub-quota, has now backed these demands. “We’re happy regarding the passing of the bill, but we’re also concerned,” Congress leader Sonia Gandhi said in Lok Sabha on Wednesday. “[Congress] demands that the bill be implemented with immediate effect, but caste census should also be done and arrangement for reservation of SC, ST and OBC women should be made.”

What do these demands mean for the Opposition politically?

These demands by some of the Opposition parties are now in line with their calls for a caste census and usage of the social justice narrative to corner the BJP in the 2024 general election.

To this end, the Samajwadi Party has sought to project the BJP as being against Other Backward Classes. “We know that this government is anti-OBC and that’s why there’s no point in agitating for a quota for the OBC,” The Hindu quoted Rajya Sabha member Javed Ali Khan of the Samajwadi Party as saying. “We’re hopeful when a pro-OBC government is elected, we can suitably amend the [women’s reservation] bill.”

What does this mean for BJP’s politics?

These sub-quota demands have put the BJP, which had supported the 2010 bill too, in a delicate situation this time. It is Other Backward Classes-led parties mainly from the Hindi belt that have been making these demands. The BJP is now a dominant political force in this region, having managed to stitch a broader social coalition of voters that include sections of the Other Backward Classes, especially in Uttar Pradesh. The region contributes a large number of Lok Sabha seats.

Consequently, voices within the BJP have raised concerns. “I’m happy that the women’s reservation bill was introduced, but I’m feeling somewhat dejected because it has come without reservation for OBC women,” Uma Bharti, a senior OBC leader of the BJP, told news agency PTI on Tuesday. “If we don’t ensure reservation for OBC women, then their faith in the BJP will be broken.”