On Tuesday, the Indian government revived an old proposal to reserve one-third of seats in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies for women and is received as a way to boost the standing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party among women.
A majority of state legislatures and both houses of parliament are required for the contentious legislative proposal that has been pending for decades due to opposition from some heartland political parties to become law.
Its resurgence is timely, as Modi is expected to run for reelection in May 2024. As support for the bill grows and opponents fade, its prospects for passage in parliament improve, according to experts.
"We want more and more women to join the development process of the country," Modi said at the start of a special five-day parliamentary session.
Nearly half of India's 950 million registered voters are women, but they only make up 15% of parliament and about 10% of state legislatures, putting India near the bottom of global rankings on gender parity in legislatures.
The upper houses of parliament and state legislatures are exempt from the 33% reservation for women.
While opposition lawmakers applauded the plan's revival, they warned that putting it into action could take years because it would require redistricting based on a population census.
The once-every-decade Indian census was supposed to be completed in 2021, but the pandemic pushed its completion back. The delay in the survey can be attributed to technical and logistical issues.
"That means till 2029 this reservation won't be implemented," Priyanka Chaturvedi, a lawmaker from the opposition Shiv Sena (UBT) party, told reporters, referring to when general elections become due after 2024.
"They (government) have opened the doors but still there is no entry for women," she said.
There are currently 82 women in the 542-seat lower house, but if the bill is passed, that number will rise to at least 181, according to Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal.
Since the mid-1990s, successive governments have worked to rectify this discrepancy. However, the bill has been repeatedly thwarted by the Hindi heartland parties, whose legislators have been seen violently disrupting sessions and snatching and tearing copies of the bill before being physically escorted out of the chambers.
Reservation for women, according to its detractors, would only help well-educated, urban women while excluding rural women from "backward castes." To achieve what they call "true gender balance," they advocate including women from underrepresented castes in the overall quota for women.