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OBCs 52% of population, Gujarat govt sets up panel to contain local poll fallout

The July 2 SEC order directing districts to convert 10% seats reserved for OBCs in the gram panchayat polls into 'general' seats, leading to charges by the Oppn of failing to protect OBC interests, appears to have prompted the announcement of the panel.

After the SEC order on OBC seats went public, among those who expressed alarm was the BJP's OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. (Photo: Twitter/@AlpeshThakor_)

Facing an OBC conundrum like other states, following the Supreme Court order laying down guidelines for their enumeration, the Gujarat Government Friday announced the appointment of an independent commission so as to fix reservation for the communities in elections to local bodies.

The July 2 order of the State Election Commission (SEC) directing districts to convert the 10% seats reserved for OBCs in the gram panchayat elections into ‘general’ seats, leading to charges by the Opposition of failing to protect OBC interests, appears to have prompted the announcement of the panel.

With OBCs forming around 52% of the state’s population, the BJP government can ill-afford turning them away ahead of the coming Assembly elections. OBC leaders of Gujarat have been demanding that reservation for the communities in local bodies be increased even more, to 27%.

Elections are due in over 3,200 gram panchayats in Gujarat. The Gujarat Panchayats Act has put aside 10% of the seats for OBCs since the 1990s. In its directive to district collectors seeking that OBC seats be treated as ‘general’, the SEC cited the Supreme Court order on the matter.

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On May 10, in connection with rural polls in Maharashtra, the Supreme Court had ordered that a “triple test” formality be completed “in all respects” for reservation for OBCs to be provisioned, or reserved seats (except those kept aside for SCs/STs as per the Constitutional requirement) be notified as general.

The “triple test” for OBC quota in gram panchayats — as laid down by the apex court in one of its orders in March 2021 — includes setting up “a dedicated commission to conduct contemporaneous rigorous empirical inquiry into the nature and implications of the backwardness qua the local bodies” and specifying “the proportion of reservation required to be provisioned local body wise in light of the recommendations of the Commission”.

After the SEC order on OBC seats went public, among those who expressed alarm was the BJP’s OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. “Such negligence on the part of the concerned persons in the state government, resulting in injustice to OBC communities, cannot be tolerated,” he said.

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The Congress said the development was a “conspiracy of the RSS-backed BJP government in Gujarat to finish reservation for backward communities”.

With the issue gathering steam, the Gujarat BJP issued a statement expressing its commitment towards OBC reservation and an assurance to take legal recourse, if necessary. Sources said meetings were held at the top level in the state government before the announcement of the panel, which will be headed by retired High Court judge K S Jhaveri.

A senior BJP leader said while there could have been an electoral fallout, the party had now contained it. “Initially, the Congress did get some political advantage, with the state government seeming negligent, resulting in this embarrassing situation. But with the formation of the commission, damage control has been done. We believe that the commission will wrap up its work before elections to the gram panchayats and we will provide reservation to OBC communities in the local bodies.”

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Former Gujarat Congress chief and OBC leader Amit Chavda asked why the BJP government had left the matter till so late. “The Supreme Court had ordered the formation of the commission. Madhya Pradesh, which is also ruled by the BJP, appointed the commission (four months back) and fixed 27% reservation for OBCs in local body elections. And they (the Gujarat BJP) say that it could be a mistake or negligence! We very clearly believe that this was a trial as per the ideology of the RSS to finish off reservation for deprived classes in the country. As a test case, they wanted to remove reservation for OBCs at a small level in gram panchayats. They would have taken it to a higher level if nobody spoke against it now.”

Chavda said the Congress would launch state-wide agitations “against the injustice done to OBC communities”.

Officials of the SEC and state government are silent on when the commission will submit its report, and the gram panchayat polls will be held. Although the SEC has started preparations for the elections, it is yet to notify the same.

In other states, courts have refused to allow governments to put off local polls while they determine their OBC numbers.

First published on: 09-07-2022 at 04:25:03 pm
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