In a historical decision, the Union Cabinet approved 10 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions for the economically backward section in the general category. Sources said the reservation will be over and above the existing 50 per cent quota, adding that the government is likely to bring a constitutional amendment bill in Parliament. A source said, “The reservation will be given to those economically backward poor people who are not availing the benefit of reservation as of now.”
The reservation is for people who earn less than Rs 8,00,000 per year. In order to bring about a law for this, Articles 15 and 16 of the constitution will have to be amended. Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale called the decision a “good start”. He said, “The issue of reservation caused a lot of conflict between Dalits and Savarnas. My demand has always been for 25 per cent reservation for the upper caste poor, 10 per cent is a good start.” However, former union minister Yashwant Sinha, who quit the BJP in April last year, said the move is another “jumla”.
Who the bill benefits
Families with annual income below Rs 8,00,000, across all religions, and those with farm land below five acre, house less than 1,000 square feet, or less than 100 yard plot in notified municipal area, plot below 200 yard in non-notified municipal area. Apart from claims of affirmative action for economically weaker sections, the move appears to be an attempt by the BJP to open fresh opportunities given the re-energised Opposition. A senior government functionary said, “everyone was talking about the narrative. Let us see what happens now,” suggesting that the ruling party hopes to rise above the Opposition-dictated narrative ahead of the polls.
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi tweeted that the government announced the decision only three months before the model code of conduct will be put in place for the general elections. A Union minister said the bill once passed will amend the Constitution accordingly to give reservation to the poor among the general castes and classes. “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,” they said. The constitutional amendment bill would be required as the constitution does not provide for reservation on the ground of economic conditions.
The Bill needs special majority of two-third of members present in each House, not less than half the strength in both. It has to be ratified by at least half of the state legislatures. Legal challenge, if any, to its Constitutional validity. Political leaders championing social justice, however, appeared divided over this decision ahead of the 2019 elections. Given how the BJP had subtly used Modi’s backward class credentials to woo a large section of non-dominant backward class communities, the move has the potential to upset his image among backward communities. “The entire social justice politics has an undertone that reservation is an exclusive political right of the backward castes. Extending it to upper castes takes away that political bragging right, and creates confusion since it can be widened further to erode their exclusivity in future,” said an upper caste leader, well versed in the caste politics of the Hindi heartland.
In fact, BJP governments in Haryana (Jats), Gujarat (Patidar) and Maharashtra (Marathas) have faced a backlash from dominant castes who have been demanding reservation for their communities since 2014. Breaching the 50 per cent reservation ceiling has the potential to open a Pandora’s box because it could harden the stance of dominant communities seeking backward quota benefits.
Whether this move - of extending quota benefits to a larger amorphous category - endears them will be tested in the coming days in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections