In a move of far-reaching significance, the Modi government has decided to extend reservations in central jobs and all educational institutions to economically weaker sections from among the upper castes as well as all other communities which, unlike SCs/STs and OBCs, do not enjoy quota benefits.
This step, by rewriting the constitutional scheme for quotas, addresses an old upper-caste angst, opens a new political front ahead of the Lok Sabha polls this year, and can force opposition parties to tweak their playbook.
The Union Cabinet cleared a bill designed to amend the Constitution to extend the reservations in jobs and educational institutions to “economically weaker” sections among all castes and communities, Christians and Muslims included, who are not eligible for quotas. The bill almost looks set to be passed by Wednesday as Congress, after initially dubbing it a political gimmick, came around to offering its support. AAP, another staunch critic of BJP, also pledged its support in what pointed to the political potency of the “masterstroke”.
BJP’s allies—JDU and LJP —which have lately been at odds with the saffron party on various issues, also swiftly came on board. The legislation seeks to amend Articles 15 and 16, the fount of caste-based quotas, of the Constitution to provide reservation for “economically weaker” sections in public employment and all educational institutions, including unaided, except those run by minority communities.
The consequence of the measure, termed by many as the first of a series of surgical strikes to be unleashed by the Modi regime in the build-up to the polls, will be limited to central agencies, but the government hopes that it will create an “enabling atmosphere” for the state governments to attempt replication.
The bill is scheduled to be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday and the government signalled its keenness, as well as confidence, to secure its swift passage in the current session itself by extending the Rajya Sabha’s sitting by a day.
Both Houses were set to be adjourned on Tuesday and the additional day being arranged for the Upper House will help it clear the legislation. The legislation will be a landmark as it seeks to expand justification—“social and educational backwardness”—provided for in the Constitution to grant reservation benefits to include “economic weakness”, a step which the political parties, especially the all-India ones, had backed for decades, but were loath to take for fear of being seen as proupper caste and the resultant risk of backlash among the “reserved” categories, especially the politically assertive OBCs.
The change, if it goes through Parliament, will take the quantum of quotas to 59.5% which many argued will mark a violation of the 50% cap mandated by the Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney case and, thus, is legally untenable.
But the government asserted that the ceiling is applicable only to the jobs reserved for the “backward” classes (read SCs/STs and OBCs), and will not be a deterrent for its move to reach quotas to “economically weaker” among “non-reserved” categories: a chunk that includes dominant castes like Marathas, Jats, Patels, Kapus, Brahmins, Thakurs, Bhumihars and Banias who have been restive because of scarce opportunities and blame their plight on “caste quotas”.
As it happens, BJP, which traditionally enjoyed good support among upper castes like Brahmins, Banias, Rajputs/Thakurs, has also made successful inroads among other potential beneficiaries; for instance, Jats, Patels and Marathas. For its plan to secure a second term for Narendra Modi as PM, it needs to keep the influential categories in its quarter.
Quotas for them will also salve their anger, incited and stoked by Congress and others in opposition, against BJP for nullifying the Supreme Court order which sought to introduce safeguards against summary arrests for alleged atrocities against Dalits. In a season when issues of farm distress have come to the fore and when there is no forward movement on construction of Ram Mandir, consolidating the core constituency becomes a political imperative.
The “late swing” by the government caught the opposition off-guard. Congress and others saw the move as “opportunism” and trashed it as jumla, but were reluctant not to oppose it outright: the restraint being dictated by not just their support for the demand for “upper caste quota” in the past, but also because of the sheer numbers at stake.
The proposed criteria for adjudging who is “economically weak” and, therefore, eligible for the proposed quota: family income not exceeding Rs.8 lakh per annum, landholding of less than five acres, residential plot not measuring more than 100 square yards in a notified municipality and less than 200 square yards in non-notified areas, etc; a threshold identical to the one applied for defining “creamy layer” among the OBCs who are debarred from quota benefits.
The yardstick, which was criticised as “excessively liberal” when enforced for defining who constituted the “creamy layer” among the OBCs, will mean that almost the entire population, save the super rich numbering around just above a crore or so, cutting across communities, becomes eligible for quotas.
For the government, the democratisation of “quota” can be a risky enterprise, too, especially with the likelihood of OBC outfits crying foul against the “subversion” of the reservation scheme. But BJP reckons that Modi’s own credentials as the first “backward” to have become PM on his own steam, the fragmentation of OBC unity and the need for OBC satraps to woo upper castes will buffer them against any serious fallout.