The Opposition questioned its timing with the Congress dubbing it a “election gimmick”.
In a major move ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the Union Cabinet on Monday cleared a 10 per cent quota in government jobs and education for “economically weaker” sections, meeting a key demand of upper castes, a staunch Bharatiya Janata Party support base which has shown signs of a drift from the party.
The BJP termed the Narendra Modi government’s move as “historic” while the Opposition questioned its timing with the Congress dubbing it a “election gimmick”. However, opposition parties extended its support, reflecting the bill’s political significance.
A top government functionary said Social Justice Minister Thavarchand Gehlot is likely to table in Parliament on Tuesday the bill, which for the first time provides for non-caste, non-religion based reservation.
The proposed reservation will be over and above the existing 50 per cent reservation enjoyed by the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes, and will take the total reservation to 60 per cent.
The Constitution, which has no mention of “economically weaker” people, will require an amendment to provide quota for them and at least two-thirds of the members in both the Houses will need to support the bill for it become a law. While the ruling National Democratic Alliance has required numbers in Lok Sabha, it will need support from the opposition benches in Rajya Sabha.
WATCH: What opposition leaders have to say on the quota
Asked whether the Congress will support the bill in Parliament, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said: “The son or daughter of a person who is economically poor should get their share in education and employment. We will support all steps for this.”
Extending his party’s support, Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal asked the government to extend Parliament session and bring the Constitutional amendment to make it a law immediately, asserting else it is “merely an election stunt”.
According to official sources, Rajya Sabha’s winter session has been extended by a day till Wednesday.
A jubilant BJP and its allies hailed the move as “historic” and a “masterstroke”, saying it is in sync with the Modi government’s motto of ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’.
The bill seeks to amend Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution, introducing a clause for reservation for economically weaker sections in educational institutions and government jobs.
“The bill will provide a shelter for upper castes under the rubric of fundamental rights. The court’s rule of the maximum 50 per cent quota cannot fetter Parliament’s right to amend the Constitution,” a Union minister said.
In its famous Indra Sawhney judgment, the Supreme Court had set a cap of 50 per cent cap on quotas. Government sources said the proposed constitutional amendment will pave the way for the additional quota.
Among the major castes to benefit from the proposed law are Brahmins, Rajputs (Thakurs), Jats, Marathas, Bhumihars, several trading castes, Kapus and Kammas among other Upper Castes.
The poor among the other religions will also benefit from it, sources added.
The BJP believes that if opposition parties, whose support is a must for its passage in the Rajya Sabha where the government lacks numbers, vote against it, then they will risk losing support of an influential section of society.
Influential castes such as Marathas, Kapus, Jats and Patidars have hit the streets in the past few years, seeking reservation benefits. Their protests at times have turned violent.
Government sources said the demand for providing quota to the poor from the general castes was made in the constituent assembly too.
The bill is likely to introduce criteria like an annual income below Rs 8 lakh and not owning more than five acres of agricultural land for those seeking quota benefits.
They should also not own a flat of 1000 sq ft or more, land of 100 yards in notified municipality area and 200 yards in non-notified area, sources said.
The ruling BJP hopes that the bill will help consolidate the general castes in its support as it begins campaign for the Lok Sabha elections scheduled in April-May.
BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe described the reservation as a step to widen the social justice net.
“Congratulations to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the historic decision of extending job quotas for economically weaker sections. A commendable step widening the social justice net and underscoring the inclusive approach of the government,” he said.
Hailing the decision, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and BJP’s ally Republican Party of India-Athawale leader Ramdas Athawale described the decision as a “masterstroke” and said it could end the difference between the upper and lower caste.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal-United also backed the measure, so did Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan, who called it historic.
Political watchers believe that sections of upper castes had drifted from the party of late following its aggressive push to win over backward classes and Dalits, and the bill will help the party to win them over.
The government’s decision to bring a law to nullify a Supreme Court order, which critics said had diluted provisions in a law on atrocities against Dalits and tribes, was also used by some upper castes groups to campaign against the BJP in recent state polls.
The BJP had lost to the Congress in three states, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where it was in power.