Busting Congress martyrdom on GST: It wasn't Narendra Modi alone who blocked it - Firstpost
Firstpost

Busting Congress martyrdom on GST: It wasn't Narendra Modi alone who blocked it


Several times during the seven-hour debate preceding the passage of GST Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha and ever since it was passed with a unanimous verdict, Congress has been busy claiming martyrdom over India's single biggest tax reform.

With wounded voices and hurtful eyes, its senior leaders were at pains to point out repeatedly during the debate how GST could have become a reality "at least" four or five years back and India by now could well have been on the path to prosperity had it not been for one Narendra Modi and his party who conspired to scuttle UPA's honest efforts in marshalling the reform.

"Dialogue on GST incomplete without talking about its origin. Then BJP-led Opposition said Congress’s GST Bill push would weaken states, even called it 'unconstitutional'. It hurt us," Congress leader Anand Sharma said in his speech.

"It would’ve been better had there been better dialogue when (then) finance minister Chidambaram tried to take bill forward. Still believe it was a momentous, historic moment for the Congress.

"After 2014, Chief Minister Modi became PM Modi and his thoughts on GST changed. Would've been nice if he were here today. Would've been nice if the present government acknowledged that UPA government's concerns on GST were meant for good of nation," he suggested.

File image of Congress leaders. PTI

File image of Congress leaders. PTI

Chidambaram, his party colleague, reflected a similar sentiment.

"Between 2011 and 2014, I did what was virtually a char dham. We tried to pass the GST Bill with the support of the principal Opposition party and we failed. In the past two years, the government also tried to pass the GST Bill without the support of the principal Opposition party and I am glad you also failed."

Even as it voted in favour of the amendment, Congress's deep victimhood and moral indignation was evident. It tried to create an impression that though BJP played petty politics when it was in the opposition, that the GST has now taken a step towards fructification owes in no small measure to the magnanimity of the Congress which, unlike its political rival, is playing the role of a "responsible Opposition". It is letting Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley take all the credit in a show of blinding sacrifice.

As part of an integrated campaign, Congress's PR machinery kicked in. Shortly after the Constitutional Amendment was cleared, the party's social media handlers started uploading videos of Modi as Gujarat chief minister opposing the idea of GST. Rhetorical questions were raised on whether BJP deserves credit for bringing in the reform, or denouncement for blocking its passage. Not surprisingly, a section of the media readily bought into the argument.

Setting aside the caveat that Congress still holds the GST key and has the power to hold the government to ransom before it is made into a law, let us explore to what extent Congress's claim is true — that the BJP has shown utter hypocrisy in championing a bill that it had bitterly opposed when not in power.

That parties show obstructionism towards passing legislation while in Opposition but change tack when in power is a truism few will argue against.

But it is plain wrong, in this case, to claim that "BJP blocked GST" during UPA regime. It didn't. The fact is, Congress's version of GST was a radically different animal that no state was ready to buy into, including those where Congress were in power.

As a report in Hindu, published on 13 July, 2012, pointed out under the title 'GST: 3 States oppose setting up dispute settlement authority' that Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Orissa have opposed certain provisions under the Goods and Services Tax Bill. Appearing before the Standing Committee of Parliament on Finance, representatives of these States said they were opposed to the provision for setting up a Dispute Settlement Authority to settle matters between States or between States and the Union with regard to GST. The opposition by the then Congress-ruled Maharashtra was interpreted as a setback to the UPA Government, which is trying to fast-track reform-oriented laws.

More reports expose the falsity of Congress charge that only BJP-ruled states led by Modi had obdurately blocked UPA-led GST.

On 21 December, 2013, shortly before UPA was voted out of power, The Indian Express reported that "even as UPA-II is palming off the blame for non-implementation of the much-awaited GST on the BJP and other Opposition parties, dissent is brewing within the Congress-ruled states over the issue. The Congress-led ruling UDF government in Kerala has lent support to the Gujarat government's apprehensions on GST… Kerala finance minister KM Mani has taken a courageous stand in hitching his government's fears over the GST regime to those of BJP poster boy and prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's government."

Arun Jaitley wasn't far from truth when he told the Rajya Sabha during GST debate that if "I were to table UPA's GST Bill right now, not a single state will be ready to back it."

Moreover, GST remained in the domain of ideas and never reached the Parliament during UPA regime because the Manmohan Singh government failed to build a consensus that lies at the heart of Arun Jaitley's GST success.

Congress' claim about being a 'GST martyr' is dubious and phony. It's time this lie was busted.

Facing sustained and obdurate obstructionism from the Congress, an initially flustered Finance Minister eventually changed tactic and made isolating the grand old party the cornerstone of his GST strategy.

As Firstpost had pointed out in a report on Wednesday, "in a round of pro-GST diplomacy, the finance minister and Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian met leaders of the Congress, the Left, the Trinamool Congress, the SP and the JD(U) on 28 July to garner support for the bill's passage in the current session of Parliament. Following the meeting, the Congress, which had raised three demands for supporting the bill, changed its stand."

Jaitley also gave assurances in Rajya Sabha to states like West Bengal, suffering from a deep debt burden, that it will set up a committee of state finance ministers, headed by himself, to address the issues.

Beset with a myriad scams and dodgy dealings, UPA had no time, intention or political will to embark upon such a massive exercise of consensus building which Modi and especially Jaitley undertook. The concerted effort paid off when Congress, fearing isolation and running the risk of antagonizing alliance partners, voted in favour of the amendment.

One more point needs to be stressed.

Under the UPA, cooperative federalism had reached such a nadir that states had simply stopped trusting the Centre. Behind Chidambaram's failure in bringing GST Bill to the Parliament lies a complete breakdown of relationship with the states. Most states were up in arms against the UPA because Chidambaram had denied them the compensation for abolition of central sales tax (CST) after state-level value-added tax (VAT) came into existence. As the states blocked the GST in return, not even a late dose of Rs 9,000-crore sop could persuade them.

One of the first things that Jaitley did as FM was to promise the states that he would release the CST in tranches as a pre-condition for bringing them to the GST table.

Congress' claim about being a 'GST martyr' is dubious and phony. It's time this lie was busted.

First Published On : Aug 5, 2016 07:58 IST

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