India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi 9
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced plans on Monday to set aside a quota of government jobs for poorer members of India’s upper caste, months before what looks set to be a challenging re-election bid.

India already “reserves” jobs for impoverished and disadvantaged lower castes for civil service jobs and college places, but this has caused resentment among other communities, who say it is unfair and freezes them out.

Modi’s plans would help households with an annual income of less than $11,000 (Dh40,404), PTI reported. The change would require a change to the constitution, which caps the number of reserved jobs and college places at 50 per cent.

The plans were approved by Modi’s cabinet on Monday. They require approval from both houses of parliament.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014, but late last year it suffered painful defeats in three key state elections to the opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

$1.25

a day. That's how much 1 in 4 Indians still lives on.

Abhishek Singhvi, a Congress spokesman, said on Twitter that the latest move was an “election gimmick” and “proof positive” of Modi’s “fear” of losing power in the vote, which is due to take place by May.

Caste-based quotas are meant to provide equal opportunities for India’s poorest and most marginalised groups. Nearly one in four Indians still lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Demands for quotas for highly sought-after government jobs and university places have escalated in recent years as unemployment has risen and conditions in rural areas have worsened.

Reactions

Communist Party of India’s (CPI) D Raja said the move indicated the ruling BJP’s desperation.

“What exactly they (government) have decided we don’t know. How they have defined ‘backwardness’ we don’t know. Already the Supreme Court has put a cap on reservation at 50 per cent. That has not been challenged by the Central government, which means the cap remains.

“So in this case, what Supreme Court is going to do we don’t know. There are many questions which need to be answered. They have to come before Parliament. The BJP is desperate, it is panicking and rattled. It wants to do certain things for fear of losing vote base,” said Raja.

Supreme Court advocate and nominated Rajya Sabha member K.T.S. Tulsi said: “This looks like an attempt in the direction of abolishing the entire reservation system.”

Speaking in a similar vein, former Union Finance Minister Yahswant Sinha dubbed the move as “jumla” (fake promise).

Sinha questioned the government’s intent citing legal complexities and paucity of time as the current session of Parliament is scheduled to end on Tuesday.

“The proposal to give 10 per cent reservation to economically weaker upper castes is nothing more than a jumla. It is bristling with legal complications and there is no time for getting it passed through both Houses of Parliament. Government stands completely exposed,” he said.

However, BJP leader and Union Minister of State for Finance Shiv Pratap Shukla, said the move was not aimed at placating the upper caste.

“This is not an attempt to placate the upper castes. We are trying to give them their right. We are not doing a favour to them. It is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s motto of ‘sabka sath, sabka vikas’ (collective efforts, inclusive growth).

“Those who do not want to get this bill passed in Parliament may go ahead. We will try to get this bill passed,” he said.