By Devjyot Ghoshal
NEWDELHI (Reuters) – India’s main opposition Congress party will reserve a third of federal government jobs for women if it comes into power, its chief Rahul Gandhi said on Wednesday, in a sign women’s rights are rising up the political agenda for next month’s election.
Over the last week, two powerful parties from eastern India said they would field women in a third of parliamentary races, putting pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other big parties to follow suit.
India ranks at 149 out of 193 countries – worse than neighbouring Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – for the percentage of women in national parliaments, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an independent organisation promoting democracy.
“…Frankly, I don’t see enough women in leadership positions. I don’t see them leading enough companies, I don’t see them leading enough states, I don’t see enough of them in the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas,” Gandhi said in the southern city of Chennai, referring to India’s lower house of parliament and state legislatures.
Federal government jobs in India are already subject to numerous quotas, including one passed in January that reserves 10 percent of openings for people outside high income brackets.
Gandhi also said that Congress would pass the Women’s Reservation Bill this year if it came to power. The bill, which reserves 33 percent of the seats in national and state assemblies for women, has been on hold for two decades despite being championed by Congress and the BJP at different points.
The BJP, which says it has empowered women through nationwide schemes including clean fuel and sanitation, questioned how the Congress jobs plan would be implemented.
“For how many generations have people talked about reservation in party positions, reservation for elections, reservation in jobs? But it doesn’t seem to happen,” BJP spokesperson Shaina N.C. said.
There are currently 66 women out of a total 543 elected members in India’s lower house of parliament. At 12 percent, this is the highest ever proportion of women in the Lok Sabha.
Women make up nearly half of all voters in the country of 1.3 billion people, according to the Election Commission of India. Based on recent state polls, women will likely head to voting stations in droves for the elections due by May, surpassing male turnout, analysts predict.
On Tuesday, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state, said her All India Trinamool Congress party would field 17 women candidates across 42 seats.
Earlier, on Sunday, the Biju Janata Dal, which rules Odisha state in eastern India, said it would reserve seven of 21 seats it is contesting for women candidates.
“33% reservation in parliament will give them bigger role in highest policy making body,” Naveen Patnaik, leader of the BJD and Odisha’s chief minister, said in a tweet. “Women of our nation rightfully deserve this from all of us.”
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)