NEW DELHI — Lok Sabha on Tuesday passed a constitutional amendment bill to provide 10 per cent reservation in education and government jobs for ‘economically weak’ people across castes and religions, with virtually all parties supporting it despite the Opposition calling the proposed law a pre-poll ‘stunt’ of the Modi government.
The bill, which the government said was “historic” and in the country’s interest, will now be tabled on Wednesday in Rajya Sabha where proceedings have already been extended by a day.
After a debate that continued for over four and half hours, 323 Lok Sabha members voted in support of the bill and only three voted against it, underlining the cross-party support given political significance of the proposed legislation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as also Congress president Rahul Gandhi were present when the voting took place.
In a series of tweets, Modi later thanked MPs from all parties for supporting the bill and called it a “landmark moment” that would ensure every poor person, irrespective of caste and creed, to get a life of dignity and access to all possible opportunities.
Being a constitutional amendment bill, it will require presence of at least half of the members even in the upper house and support from two-third of them.
Replying to the debate, Social Justice Minister Thaavarchand Gehlot sought to allay doubts raised by opposition members about the legislation’s fate if it is challenged in the Supreme Court, asserting he can say with confidence that the apex court will accept it.
The Modi government’s policy and intention is good and that is why it has enabled the reservation for the poor in the general category, he said, seeking support of all parties for the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill 2019.
“Your doubts are unfounded. Put them to rest,” he told the opposition members, many of whom dubbed the bill as “jumla” (rhetoric) and “gimmick”, questioned its legal standing and accused the government of bringing it in haste with an eye on the Lok Sabha polls, which are expected in a few months.
Gehlot said the bill was in line with Prime Minister Modi’s assertion at the time of assuming power in 2014 that his government would be devoted to the cause of the poor and work for “sabka saath sabka vikas” (with all, development for all).
“This is an historic decision and in the interest of the country,” he said.
The proposed quota would be over and above the 50 per cent reservation already available to SC/ST and Other Backward Castes.
The major castes to benefit from the proposed law are Brahmins, Rajputs (Thakurs), Jats, Marathas, Bhumihars, several trading castes, Kapus and Kammas among other upper castes.
The BJP believes that if opposition parties, whose support is a must for its passage in the Rajya Sabha where the government lacks numbers, vote against it, then they will risk losing support of an influential section of society.
Sources in opposition parties said they have held parleys over their strategy for the Upper House. The Congress and the BJP have both issued a whip asking all their members to be present on Wednesday.
They said members of opposition parties are upset over the extension of Rajya Sabha proceedings by a day and will raise their protests in the house. The opposition members did not allow the upper house to do any business today as the house was adjourned six times during the day.
Sources said the Congress is supporting the bill but some other opposition parties may create hurdle in its passage in Rajya Sabha.
Influential castes such as Marathas, Kapus, Jats and Patidars have hit the streets in the past few years, seeking reservation benefits. Their protests at times have turned violent.
Political watchers believe that sections of upper castes had drifted from the party of late following its aggressive push to win over backward classes and Dalits, and the bill will help the party to win them over.
The BJP had lost to the Congress in three states, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where it was in power.
BJP chief Amit Shah described the bill as a “gift” to youths from poor families and said it is a lesson for political parties doing appeasement politics for years.
In Lok Sabha, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rejected suggestions that the measure may fall foul of a Supreme Court judgement putting a cap of 50 per cent and said the bar was for caste-based reservations, while the bill seeks quota for the economically weaker sections in the general category.
The Congress said it supported the bill, but doubted the government’s intentions as it was merely a “gimmick” aimed at political gains in upcoming elections.
Various parties, including the BSP, SP, TDP and DMK, also called it the BJP’s poll stunt, but welcomed the move.
The CPI(M) alleged the move is an attempt by the government to gain electoral benefit by combining caste passions with communal polarisation.
BSP chief Mayawati said the bill was an “election stunt and political gimmick” ahead of Lok Sabha polls, though her party welcomes the “immature” move by the government.
AIMIM member Asaduddin Owaisi opposed the bill saying it is a “fraud on the Constitution” as the Constitution does not recognise economic backwardness.
Congress leader K V Thomas said the legislation has been made in haste, was passed by cabinet on Monday itself, has so many lacunas, raises questions on sincerity of the government and should be sent to Joint Parliamentary Committee for examination.