The Gujarat high court cancelled on Thursday 10% reservation for the poor among upper castes, adding to mounting pressure on the ruling BJP battling a leadership crisis and plummeting popularity among key vote banks ahead of assembly polls next year.
The decision is likely to spark renewed protests by the influential Patel community whose violent demonstrations seeking jobs and college seats shook the state government last year.
It came two days after beleaguered chief minister Anandiben Patel resigned.
A bench led by chief justice R Subhash Reddy said a state government ordinance that implemented the quota was unconstitutional and illegal under Supreme Court guidelines, said Vijay Nagesh, the lawyer of multiple petitioners.
Dismissing the government’s argument that the quota was not reservation but classification, the HC said it was without any scientific survey or data.
The move to give 10% quota was taken in April by the BJP to placate the Patels after a drubbing in local body polls but experts had warned that the decision violated the top court’s guidelines.
“It was lollipop given to fool the community. The agitation for OBC quota will continue,” quota protests leader Hardik Patel said after the verdict.
The verdict is bad news for the government that is reeling under statewide protests by Dalits following the thrashing of four scheduled caste men by self-styled cow-protection vigilantes.
A Dalit backlash politically could threaten the BJP’s poll chances in Gujarat as well as other states such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh where the community forms a large chunk of the electorate.
The state government said it will challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.
The government also blamed the Congress for the court order. “The PILs were filed with Congress support. If Congress really wanted 20% reservation for the economically backward class, it should have joined us as third party supporting the ordinance,” government spokesperson Nitin Patel said.
Congress, however, alleged the BJP was never serious about the issue.
“The BJP issued an unconstitutional ordinance rather than making it an Act and getting it cleared through the assembly and parliament,” said Congress president Siddharth Patel.
The quota benefited upper caste families with annual income under Rs six lakh but was in addition to 49.5% reservation already given to disadvantaged groups such as OBCs, SCs and STs.
Under Supreme Court guidelines, governments cannot provide reservation beyond 50% of their population.
The reservation was aimed at placating the angry Patels – a traditional BJP votebank and a largely wealthy business community that has seen high inflation and unhelpful policy take the edge off their enterprise.
The Patels account for about a sixth of the state’s population, and when added to the Dalits – who account for about a tenth, can swing the assembly elections due early 2017.
Demonstrations by the community dented the BJP’s popularity in what is considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.
The BJP’s vote share in panchayat polls dropped from 50.26% in 2010 to 43.97% last year. Its hold over semi-urban and urban civic bodies also weakened during the period, helping to revive a politically moribund Congress in the state.