Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the Parliament on Wednesday passed a landmark Constitution amendment bill providing for 10 per cent reservation to upper castes in government jobs and higher educational institutions, with the Rajya Sabha voting it late in the night after rejecting a demand for referring it to a select committee for detailed scrutiny.
The House passed the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019 -- which was adopted by the Lok Sabha on Tuesday -- with 165 members in its favour and seven against it in a division amidst broad support from the Congress and other opposition parties despite their reservations over its constitutional validity and the timing in view of the approaching elections.
Earlier, the House rejected an amendment moved by DMK member Kanimozhi and CPI(M)'s T.K. Rangarajan for referring the bill to a select committee for indepth scrutiny, with 155 voting against it and 18 for in a House of 244. Several other opposition amendments were also negatived. A constitutional amendment needs a special majority of more than half of the House present and two-thirds of those present voting in favour of it.
The AIADMK, which is friendly with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), staged a walkout opposing the Bill with its member A. Navaneethakrishnan saying it violated the basic structure of the Constitution.
Rejecting the opposition criticism that the bill was brought late in the government's tenure with an eye on upper caste votes in the coming Lok Sabha elections, Social Justice Minister Thawarchand Gehlot said the measure had been brought with good intentions and was aimed at justice for the economically weaker sections.
He called the bill historic and allayed fears that the legislation would face legal hurdles, saying since it is a constitutional amendment even the Supreme Court would accept it, should there be any challenge.
The Minister told the Congress party that unlike the Narasimha Rao government which issued a government order to implement a similar quota, the Modi had taken precaution by bringing in a statute amendment.
Intervening in the over eight-hour debate, Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the proposed quota would not breach the Supreme Court's cap of 50 per cent on overall reservations.
He said the legislation would apply to both Central and state governments.
Senior Congress member and an eminent lawyer, Kapil Sibal, said the bill had been brought with "complete non-application of mind" and raised questions over the constitutionality of the bill and its implementation.
"If the bill is passed, the implementation of the reservation due to complexities involved and absence of required data with the government would be like demonetisation."
Calling it a "jumla" (gimmick), Sibal said: "Kamal ka hamla, aur ek jumla (attack of lotus, one more gimmick)."
"What was the hurry? The bill could have been sent to the Select Committee. There would have been discussions and suggestions before it was introduced (in Parliament)," he said.
Earlier, his party colleague and deputy leader in the House, Anand Sharma, welcomed the 10 per cent quota for the upper caste poor but questioned its timing as it comes ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
"We are not opposing it. But the question is why it is being brought all of a sudden. It is the last session (of Parliament)...then there are elections," he said.
He asked why the BJP did not bring the bill in its four-and-half years of rule and emphasised that the decision came after the saffron party lost five states in the recently-concluded Assembly elections.
Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Derek O'Brien accused the government of committing a "fraud with the poor and youth" on jobs and "spitting on the Constitution" by moving bills for passage without proper legislative scrutiny.
Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav said that since the government had now breached the 50 per cent ceiling on reservations, it should give OBCs the benefit of quota in accordance with their population at 54 per cent.
BSP member Satish Chandra Misra backed the bill and demanded that minorities also be given reservation.
BJP President Amit Shah, who was present during the entire debate, at one point intervened to accuse the opposition of trying to give quotas for Muslims at the cost of other communities.