Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd as he arrives in Medininagar on Jan. 5. (Rajesh Kumar/AFP/Getty Images)

Election season has arrived in the world’s largest democracy, and politicians across India are rolling out measures to woo voters — debt relief for farmers, tax breaks for small businesses, even subsidized cars.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is seeking another term in elections expected in May, has trumped them all: He has enacted an amendment to the country’s constitution that amounts to a sea change in India’s system of affirmative action. 

To Modi’s supporters, the move is a masterstroke, shoring up his traditional voters and underlining his commitment to uplifting India’s poor. For his detractors, it is a political gimmick that highlights the government’s inability to create jobs and may not withstand a legal challenge.

The constitutional amendment is a dramatic step that suggests Modi, elected in 2014 with a commanding majority, is not as confident as he once was about his reelection prospects. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered electoral defeats in three states in December, a significant setback.

According to reports, the Modi government is mulling further voter-pleasing moves in the coming weeks, including extensive relief for farmers and steps to exempt some Indians from paying income taxes

But the constitutional amendment came as a surprise. For decades, India has had a far-reaching system of affirmative action. Quotas reserve nearly 50 percent of government jobs and spots in public universities for members of communities subjected to centuries of discrimination. They include indigenous tribes, Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” — and a variety of lower-caste groups. Together, they make up the majority of India’s population.

Modi introduced an amendment that would reserve a further 10 percent of central government jobs and university spots for members of “economically weaker” sections of society. Because lower-caste groups are covered by existing quotas, the proposal will largely benefit upper-caste communities that often support the BJP. The proposal raced through India’s two houses of parliament — with the support of opposition parties — and became law on Jan. 12. 

If affirmative action is an emotive issue in the United States, it is doubly so in India. The system of quotas, or “reservations” as they are known here, is part of the constitutional fabric and seeks to address a deep and continuing problem with prejudice and social exclusion. But now some say that the reservations have grown too large or that they ultimately stigmatize their recipients.

 The BJP is simply responding to long-standing demands for quotas “on the basis of economic deprivation,” said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a party spokesman, denying that the decision was driven by the impending elections. “Critics and skeptics can say anything,” but the move is part of the prime minister’s commitment to a “pro-poor, pro-people government,” he said.

 To be eligible for the new reservations, a person’s family must earn less than 800,000 rupees ($11,200) a year. Critics point out that in India, such a limit effectively includes most of the population. By some measures, all but the top 10 percent of households by income would qualify. 

Opposition parties supported the new quotas even while questioning their timing and intent. If the BJP was “really keen on mandating welfare measures to those who deserve it, it would have done it a lot sooner,” said Priyanka Chaturvedi, a spokeswoman for the opposition Congress party. Voters can “see through such measures,” she said.

 Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a recent book on Indian politics, called the step “an 11th-hour Hail Mary pass” by the BJP. The party came to power promising rapid economic growth and job creation, he noted. “It’s a pretty big admission that this government failed to live up to what it promised.”


India's opposition parties drew half a million supporters to Kolkata’s streets Saturday for the largest show of force yet against Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a national election looms. (AFP/Getty Images)

The quotas for the “economically weak” are aimed at shoring up support among the BJP’s core voters, added Mahesh Rangarajan, a political commentator and historian at Ashoka University. Such urban, educated voters have not had access to India’s system of positive discrimination in the past, he noted.

The new reservations are “a good step,” said Himanshu Tiwari, 22, a master’s student from the city of Ayodhya who voted for the BJP in the last election. Reservations based on caste affiliation have been in place for nearly 70 years, he said. “Now economic criteria should be the benchmark for everyone.”

Modi’s new reservations will be challenged in court, where they face an uncertain future. A landmark decision by India’s top court in 1992 limited quotas to 50 percent of government posts. The same judgment said that economic status could not be the sole basis of quotas. 

 Some experts say the latest quotas are unconstitutional. The use of economic criteria to underpin reservations is a “spectacular” act of “cynical legislation,” wrote Partha Chatterjee, a political theorist who teaches at Columbia University. Meanwhile, he wrote, opposition parties “fully aware of the mischief that was being done nonetheless acquiesced . . . for fear of being dubbed anti-poor in an election season.”  

Niha Masih contributed to this report.