India's cabinet on Monday backed proposals to reserve 10 percent of government jobs for Indians outside the higher income brackets, a plan the main opposition party suggested was an attempt by the government to lure back voters as an election nears.
The initiative is expected to mainly benefit the upper echelons of India's centuries-old Hindu caste system, which has traditionally been a core voter base for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi must call a national election by May and was dealt 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.
Two BJP sources said the quota plan would benefit people from other religions not covered by existing affirmative action — the reason why lower caste Hindus and India's indigenous tribes were excluded from it.
According to the government bill, the recipients must also be classed as "economically weak," which the sources said was defined 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.
The states the BJP lost included Rajasthan, one of four — 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 [the] economically poor, facing imminent defeat in the 2019 elections," Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala said of the quota plan.
"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 has led to violent protests, though India's income levels and expenditure patterns remain largely linked to caste.
The government is expected to submit the quota bill to the lower house of parliament on Tuesday. Modi's BJP has a majority there, but not in the upper house.