Centre's move to give 10% reservation to economically-backward upper castes puts Opposition on back foot

The meeting of the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Parliament House on Monday was short — lasting barely half an hour, but it included a monumental decision that will impact the lives and mobility of crores of Indians.

Sanjay Singh January 07, 2019 17:19:32 IST
Centre's move to give 10% reservation to economically-backward upper castes puts Opposition on back foot
  • The Centre approved a 10 percent reservation in government jobs and education for economically backward upper castes on Monday

  • The decision was taken in a 30-minute-long Union Cabinet meeting during lunchtime

  • This part of the Winter Session of Parliament comes to a close on Tuesday

The meeting of the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Parliament House on Monday was short — lasting barely half an hour, but it included a monumental decision that will impact the lives and mobility of crores of Indians.

What should also be noted is the fact that Cabinet meetings in Modi government take place on a Wednesday (an unwritten norm). But in this case, the meeting was advanced to Monday and the venue was the Parliament, in order to conduct the meeting during the lunch break of the day's sitting, so that it could meet during the lunch break of the day's sitting and put forward an agenda. This agenda could go on to become the single largest talking point ahead of the Lok Sabha election. According to a source, the meeting was called on Monday because the ongoing part of the Winter Session of Parliament is to be prorogued on Tuesday.

Centres move to give 10 reservation to economicallybackward upper castes puts Opposition on back foot

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

By making this decision and letting it be known unofficially (no official briefing could take place because Parliament is in session and any policy decision taken during the session has to be placed before Parliament first), Modi stuck to his trademark secrecy that surrounds all major decisions. There was no inkling nor speculation that anything like this was in the offing.

Also, this was required because it was a decision that had to be accompanied by a Cabinet note for approval at the meeting and also a draft constitutional amendment bill prepared for tabling in the Parliament. He took everyone by complete surprise. His political opponents were left stunned.

A constitutional amendment bill to this effect will be introduced in Parliament, on last day of this part of the Winter Session. By tabling the bill, the government will send a message that the Modi government was conscious of the concerns of the upper castes and communities, and had taken a giant step forward in fulfilling their several decades-old demand. Since this session is ending on Tuesday, the government will make all efforts to have it passed when it meets again, towards the end of this month for the presentation and passage of the Interim Budget.

In effect, this bill will be passed, if at all, just days or weeks ahead of announcement of polls by the Election Commission for the Lok Sabha polls. Just as it was difficult for any political party to publicly oppose reservation for the OBCs and continuance of the quota for SCs and STs, inside or outside of Parliament, no party will have the appetite to oppose this constitutional amendment bill in Parliament as and when it is put to vote. If the bill is stalled by the Congress and its allied parties, then the BJP will go to the elections making it as a huge electoral issue. The ruling BJP is not entirely wrong in believing that this will prove to a game changer for the upcoming polls.

The decision comes at a time when there were substantives reports from the ground from across the country, particularly from northern Indian states that upper castes were unhappy over the way the government had overruled the Supreme Court verdict on the SC/ST Act. The BJP faced an upper caste backlash in the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan. In several constituencies, NOTA numbers were higher than margin of defeat of BJP candidates.

The Modi government's decision to provide reservation to economically weaker classes (and castes) will change that situation and once again make, perhaps with greater vigour, upper castes gravitate towards the BJP. The OBC, SC and ST communities will not be hurt because their share in reservation in government jobs of 27 percent, 15 percent and 7.5 percent respectively (total of 49.5 percent) will not be touched as the government is proposing to amend the Constitution and make relevant rules to give additional reservation of 10 percent to economically weaker sections in upper castes.

Centres move to give 10 reservation to economicallybackward upper castes puts Opposition on back foot

Article 15 (4) says: "Nothing in this Article or in clause ( 2 ) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes". This has to be amended with the insertion of "economically weaker". Article 46 says: "the State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation".

The government also has to take care of the Supreme Court of India ruling in 1992 that reservations could not exceed 50 percent, anything above which, it judged, would violate equal access as guaranteed by the Constitution. But then some states have made their laws in such a way that they have provided reservation beyond 50 percent ceiling imposed by the Apex Court. Tamil Nadu, for instance, has 69 percent caste-based reservation.

It should be noted that despite several political parties and governments, both at the Centre and in states talking about it for the past decades, nobody has ever made any substantive move in this regard. This could well turn out to be a hugely emotive issue for crores of Indians of all ages, more so among upper caste youth eligible for jobs and their elderly parents.

Modi's political rivals have a conundrum: They can neither be seen opposing it, nor can they be seen praising the government. The Congress, Samajwadi Party, RJD and others have had a difficult time in formulating their first response. We'll have to wait and see what, if anything, their reaction will be on Tuesday.

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