The Lok Sabha on Monday night passed the "historic" Constitution amendment bill to provide 10 per cent quota for upper castes in government service and higher educational institutions, with the opposition backing it despite reservations over the timing and calling it an "election gimmick".
Racing against time, the government, which is eyeing upper caste votes in the coming general elections after its losses in recent Assembly elections, introduced the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019 and got it passed the same day by a special majority as mandatorily required in a division with 323 "ayes" and 3 "noes".
Apparently, not wanting to send wrong signals, the opposition members too broadly supported the measure.
The passage was marked by a walkout by Deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai of the AIADMK, who said that reservations for economically weaker sections cannot ensure social justice. AIADMK, considered friendly to BJP, has been opposing the government on various issues, of late, including the triple talaq bill.
Top leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were present at the time of the Bill's passage.
The House witnessed a six-hour-long discussion in which government sought to allay apprehensions and dismiss criticism that the 10 per cent quota based on economic criteria would not pass Supreme Court muster because of the 50 per cent cap on reservations set by the apex court.
Replying to the debate on the Bill, Social Justice Minister Thawarchand Gehlot said the measure is a "historic decision" taken by the Modi government in accordance with Prime Minister's policy of "development for all" and a "happy" moment for all the sections, including Brahmin, Thakur, Patel, Baniya and even those belonging to Christian and Muslim communities who will benefit by it.
Referring to the opposition criticism about the timing, he accepted that the bill has come late but "our intentions are good and the Constitution amendment will pass the muster in Supreme Court if anybody challenges it there".
He also dismissed the opposition charge that the Bill was brought in a hurry and said the issue has been debated for long in public and the government has consulted the common people and experts and their opinions taken. He rejected the opposition demand for referring the bill to a joint select committee for detailed consideration, saying it has already got delayed.
"There is and there was a need for this reservation to give them equal opportunity. It will bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. There are people in the general category who are living lives worse than that of those in the SCs and STs. They generally complain as to what is their fault in being born in these castes," he said.
On criticism about income and other limits for availing this proposed quota, Gehlot said it is the same as has been applied in the case of OBCs.
Earlier intervening in the discussion, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rejected criticism that the quota for economically weaker sections will breach the 50 per cent cap set by the Supreme Court, saying that the limit is specific to quota for the SCs/STs and socially and educationally backward classes.
He also dismissed criticism that the proposed quota would violate the basic structure of the Constitution and referred to inclusion of the word "secular" in the Constitution during the Emergency.
"Today the time has come (for the quota of the upper caste) if we take the manifesto of all the parties which have pledged for affirmative action for the economically weaker sections. This bill ensures 'sabka saath, sabka vikas'. It is a move for equality and will enable social upliftment," Jaitley said.
Referring to the Supreme Court judgement in the Indira Sawhney case, the Finance Minister, himself an eminent lawyer, said the apex court struck down the government notification issued during the regime of P.V. Narasimha Rao, because quota for economically weaker sections among the upper caste has not been provided in the Constitution.
He read out the promise of the Congress manifesto in 2014 which had said that the Congress is committed to finding a way forward for reservations for the economically weaker sections of all communities without disturbing the existing reservation for under-privileged communities.
Like the government eyeing the upper caste votes in the coming Lok Sabha elections, the opposition too did not oppose the measure but expressed reservations over whether it will pass judicial muster. They accused the government of bringing it on the last day of the last full session and asked if it is such a priority why it was not brought earlier.
Initiating the debate, K.V. Thomas of Congress said that the government has brought the bill "in haste" after BJP's losses in three Hindi heartland states and demanded it should be sent to a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) for scrutiny.
"We are not against it (the bill). We support the concept. But the way you are doing it, (your) sincerity (is) questioned. Send it to JPC, why are you in hurry?" he said, adding that the bill can be discussed in February when the Parliament will meet to approve the vote on account.
A crucial point made by opposition members, which was also echoed by ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Anupriya Patel, was that reservation is good but where are the jobs in government. The ministers also used the opportunity to demand reservation in jobs in the private sector and in judicial appointments.
The Congress and other opposition members repeatedly taunted the government questioning it on the pre-poll promises of creating two crore jobs every year.
The BJP fielded members from diverse upper castes in the debate apart from the ministers and MPs from the weaker sections.
The Bill will come up in the Rajya Sabha whose business has been extended by a day till Wednesday. The Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet on Monday.