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In two days, the Parliament of India passed a Constitution Amendment Bill to introduce reservation in jobs and education on the basis of economic backwardness. Prior to this amendment, the Constitution allowed reservation only on the basis of social and educational backwardness.

The Narendra Modi-led NDA government sprang a surprise a day before the winter session of Parliament was to end. The union cabinet approved the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, to provide 10 per cent reservation economically backward sections of the unreserved categories, that is the general or the upper caste. Next day, in Lok Sabha the bill was passed with 323 members voting in its favour (only three voted against it). The Rajya Sabha was extended for a day, and the upper house also passed the bill on December 9, making the effort to provide reservation on economic grounds wholehearted as compared to attempts by earlier central governments that sought to provide it through executive orders. These orders were struck down by Supreme Court.

The move found favour across party lines as most political outfits found it difficult to oppose a bill that has the potential to win a big vote bank of the upper castes. The principal Opposition party, the Congress, slammed the government for the timing of the bill and for lack of jobs but couldn’t say anything in opposition of the move.

In India, reservation is provided to the scheduled castes (SCs), the schedules tribes (STs) and the other backward classes (OBCs) on the basis of social and educational backwardness. The SCs get 15%, the STs 7.5% and the OBCs 27% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The new reservation norm of 10% will take the total reservation to 59.5%, more than the cap set by the Supreme Court in the famous Indira Sawhney case in 1992.

Some experts said the change will not pass judicial scrutiny and will be struck down by the Supreme Court in the light of the 1992 judgment that prohibited reservation on the basis of economic grounds. But the government felt the 50% cap was no bar for the upper-caste quota because the cap, it said, was for reservation on social and educational grounds. The economic criterion is a new addition to the Constitution and therefore the ceiling doesn’t apply to it, the government said.

The government said the move was a historic decision. Insiders claimed this was just one of the many big ticket moves that government had planned to unleash before the Lok Sabha election.

The BJP-led Central government seemed to go weak in its knees after losing three Hindi heartland states in December 2018 Assembly elections – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh – that make for 65 LS seats. Some attributed this loss to anti-incumbency against the state governments but political pundits agreed the results were also a referendum on the Modi government’s performance.

The upper caste, traditionally BJP’s vote bank, seemed to have slipped out of the party’s hands after it overturned SC judgment on diluting the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, commonly called the SC/ST Act. The upper castes thought the Bill brought by the Modi government to overturn the SC order was anti-upper castes. They said the government buckled to the pressure mounted by the SCs through the April 2 Bharat Bandh, but didn’t think about their core constituency in its bid to reach out to the SCs and the backward classes.

Parties whose mainstay is politics of the backward classes, especially the Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and the Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, opposed the change in the Constitution. Akhilesh’s father and party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu were part of the Janata Dal government in Delhi that implemented the report of the Mandal commission granting 27% reservation to the OBCs. But the government felt there won’t be much backlash by the OBCs and the SCs because their pie remained unchanged.

Upper caste quota has had many false starts before the Modi government brought in a Constitutional amendment. Narasimha Rao’s Mandal reservation order, which was challenged by Indira Sawhney in the SC, also called for 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS). But SC struck down the executive order. In states, Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan and Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh attempted this without success.

Economists said the new quota will cover practically all of the population not already covered by reservations. They said this on the basis of analysis of the exclusion criteria for the upper caste quota. The household income criteria of Rs 8 lakh income per year is well above the national average and will exclude barely the richest 5% Indians, they said.

But the ball has been set rolling by the government by passing the amendment bill in the Parliament. If he becomes a law, this will ring in a new set of reforms where economic status, not caste, will eventually determine who deserves reservation and who doesn’t. Some people even claim that the government eventually wants to do away with caste-based reservation but it is too early to speculate that.

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