Did the government just classify 80-90% of India as ‘poor’?

The 10% quota for economically backward upper castes is pretty generic, prone to failure and may be quite inadequate to assuage the anger within its core voter base

In the midst of the Rafale debate, the ruling BJP threw a curve ball at the opposition with a surprise announcement on 10% quota for economically disadvantaged upper castes as well as other communities in central government and all educational institutions.

Besides changing the headlines from Rafale almost immediately, the party also officially seems to have blown the poll bugle with this announcement. The bill was passed by the Cabinet on Monday, which seeks to provide the benefit to other religions as well.

The bill covers families that have a household income of less than Rs 8 lakh per year, agricultural land of less than 5 acres, house less than 1,000 square feet and residential plot less than 100 yards in the municipality.

The bill is likely to be introduced on Tuesday and the government has extended the Rajya Sabha sitting by one day to get it passed. It breaches the 50% quota by the Supreme Court as it takes the quantum of quotas to 59.5%. But according to government sources, the ceiling only applies to SC/ST/OBC etc and not to economically weaker sections among the non-reserved categories. However, backwardness is not defined in an economic sense under the Constitution of India.

With around three months before the model code kicks in, the BJP government is expected to announce many similar populist measures in the coming weeks. This particular bill is seen as a move to assuage anger against the party among upper castes like Brahmins, Banias, Rajputs, Thakurs as well as Jats, Patels and Marathas due low farmer incomes, lack of opportunities and no representation for their castes in government jobs.

These form a core constituency for the BJP, and recent defeats in the Hindi heartland states are being seen as visible signs of anger among them which is also reflected in other states. Even the Congress comeback in Gujarat is linked to the Patidar agitation of Hardik Patel. Moreover, they are angry at the BJP’s move to strike down the Supreme Court order on safeguards against immediate arrests for cases of atrocities against Dalits and little movement on the Ram Temple issue.

Politically, the gambit seems to have hit bull’s eye, since even Congress seems to be in support considering that it cannot alienate the upper castes either. Congress spokesperson Mr Randeep Surjewala commented, “Without employment, reservation in employment will be reduced to a slogan. The youth of India is asking a question — ‘Mr Modiji where are the jobs?’ We will continue to support every such step. However, the truth is in the last four years Modi government is suddenly sympathetic of the economically-backward classes as it faces an imminent defeat in 2019 Lok Sabha polls.”

One aspect that merits scrutiny is the very definition of economically weak sections in the bill. Around 95% of Indians earn less than Rs 8 lakh per annum, 86% land holdings are less than 5 acres and over 80% of households have a landholding of less than 1,000 square feet. That is more of a blanket coverage of the whole country.

The threshold is definitely not economically weak as claimed by the government, and in fact only excludes a very small section of the population. It is similar to the criteria for creamy layer under OBCs who are denied quota benefits.

Moreover, the move could prove to be nothing more than a poll gimmick since it will face legal and constitutional hurdles. In that case, the Modi government runs the risk of not being seen as serious on the reform. With 11 million jobs lost last year and an unemployment rate of 7.4%, a 10% quota in central government and educational institutions that covers 80-90% of the country will do little in terms of convincing individual upper caste groups that their interests are being served.

Noted journalist Rajdeep Sardesai emphasised this dilemma in a tweet, “10 per cent additional reservations in jobs and education for economically weaker upper castes: good optics! But can anyone tell me where are the additional Govt jobs in the first place? Real challenge is more job creation not more reservations!!”

Moreover if this is about signalling, it may also rally SC/ST groups against the BJP in the coming elections for fear of their reservation privileges being possibly compromised.

It’s a delicate balancing act for the government in poll season which also opens it to criticism, in particular of not having done enough to address the employment situation in the country and planning this reservation as a desperate last-minute move.


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