NEW DELHI: India’s cabinet on Monday approved proposals to reserve 10 percent of government jobs for less well-off upper caste Hindus, a plan the main opposition party called an attempt to lure back wavering voters as a national election nears.
The upper echelons in India’s centuries-old caste system have traditionally been a core voter base for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP.
Modi must call a national election by May and was handed a setback in December when the BJP lost power to the opposition Congress party in three states, its biggest defeat since he took office in 2014.
They included Rajasthan, one of four states — the others being Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana — in which upper caste land-owning farming communities have held large protests in recent years demanding quotas for government jobs.
More broadly, Modi has been criticized for failing to deliver jobs for young people and better conditions for farmers.
“The ... Modi government has suddenly woken up to the woes of economically poor (upper caste Hindus), facing imminent defeat in the 2019 elections,” said Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala.
“Creating reservations in jobs may just prove to be one more ‘Jumla’ (gimmick) for the purpose of election promises.”
Ashwini Kumar Choubey, junior health minister and a BJP member, welcomed the proposal, calling it “historic.”
Hindus, who account for about four-fifths of India’s 1.3 billion people, were traditionally grouped into thousands of castes, whose membership is determined by birth.
The lower castes have faced various forms of discrimination including segregation and social boycotts.
There have been attempts to reduce caste-related inequality, and the country has had many lower caste leaders, including current president Ram Nath Kovind.
But introducing quotas for lower castes has always been a contentious issue and have led to violent protests, though India’s income levels and expenditure patterns remain largely linked to caste.
The government is expected to submit the bill in favor of “economically weak” upper castes to the lower house of parliament on Tuesday. Modi’s BJP has a majority there, but not in the upper house.
Two BJP sources said the government defined “economically weak” as anyone with annual income below 800,000 rupees ($11,500) and owning fewer than five acres of land. In 2017, the average income in India was $1,939.60, according to the World Bank.