A day before the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill was to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s presence in Varanasi had Prime Minister Narendra Modi deeply worried.
Modi's worry had nothing to do with the surging reception Sonia got in his Lok Sabha constituency. Far from it. Modi was concerned about the Congress chief’s health which took a sudden turn for the worse. She was flown back to New Delhi mid-way through her schedule.
According to a highly placed source in the government, the Prime Minister's Office was tasked to keep a close tab on Sonia's condition. The moment the PM got to know about Sonia’s indisposition, he tried to reach her. But her personal assistant was not with her at that time so the call did not go through. The PM then contacted senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad who had accompanied Sonia on the roadshow. Again contact could not be established. A call was then placed to Sheila Dikshit, the Congress' Chief Ministerial candidate for next year's Uttar Pradesh elections.
Since Sonia was addressing a meeting at that time, she could not be reached directly. The PM spoke to Sheila. After enquiring about Sonia's health, the PM offered to rush a medical team in a special plane to attend to her and fly her back to Delhi. Sheila, the source said, expressed her gratitude for the offer and conveyed that arrangements had already been made to fly Sonia to Delhi in a chartered plane.
A little later word reached the PM's Office that Sonia's health had deteriorated further at the Varanasi airport. Upon learning this, the PMO put the Army Research and Referral hospital, the nearest advanced medical facility from Delhi airport, at the ready. The Prime Minister personally spoke to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and asked him to rush to R&R hospital and ensure facilitation. He also asked Parrikar to leave instructions with the hospital authorities that they should neither entertain queries from the media nor issue a medical bulletin.
"The instructions were clear. Nothing should be done that could infringe on the privacy of Sonia and her family. If at all a medical bulletin had to be issued, it would be the family's call, not the government's," said the source.
This story of personal concern and courtesy for a bitter political rival is not new to Indian politics. But Narendra Modi's minute-by-minute monitoring of Sonia's condition is worth noting for two reasons: one, though not new, this tradition of civility in personal relations of public figures seemed to have almost evaporated in the last few decades of fractious politics and, two, it was some sort of a signal -- unknown to the public on that Tuesday -- for the unfolding of one of the biggest acts of political reconciliation in the Rajya Sabha the following day.
This episode only highlights the fact that behind all the public acrimony, a lot was put in from both sides into making the GST Constitution (122nd) Amendment -- touted as the biggest reform in indirect taxation ever -- possible in the Rajya Sabha. It suggests that Modi and Arun Jaitley, roundly criticised all this while for their combativeness in dealing with the principal opposition party, had done some solid ground work in the preceding weeks to make GST a reality.
Highly placed sources in the government said that during the many rounds of discussion the government had with senior Congress leaders they got the general impression that Congress was willing, if not eager, to meet the government mid-way, if the latter was willing to give its concerns a serious consideration.
A few people in the Congress were opposed to cooperating with the government but because this group was close to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, they punched way beyond their numerical strength within the party. They wanted to hold out for some more time but the others felt that intransigence on such an issue of national importance was becoming politically counter-productive. The government went into discussions knowing this reality within the Congress party.
But how did they achieve unanimity which not too long ago seemed impossible? Those involved in strategizing say that the government requested the Congress to list out its objections to the GST Bill as proposed by the treasury. The government then put these suggested changes to before chief ministers and finance ministers of all the states. After discussion with the states, the government agreed on certain points like abrogation of one percent surcharge and leaving out petrol and alcohol from the ambit of GST for the time being.
Having moved one step ahead, Jaitley then took the issue to the empowered group of finance ministers which was formed to work out the modalities of the GST regime. Here again all the finance ministers opposed the Congress condition that the quantum of GST should be frozen at 18 percent and that it should be written into the Constitution. “Finance ministers of the Congress-ruled states were more vocal in opposing this formulation,” said a highly placed source in the government. “Of course we told them that this was a proposal of the Congress not the government.”
This was relayed back to the top Congress leadership in subsequent negotiations and they seemed to realise the untenability of their position. Now they were more willing to meet mid-way though, in these negotiations, P Chidamabaram and Jairam Ramesh often took a hawkish stance. At this point, seeing a considerable change in the Congress attitude, the Prime Minister spoke separately to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh requesting their support for a cause in the national interest initiated by the Congress.
On Wednesday night when the bill was passed, it was one of the rare occasions when a legislation for amendment was passed without a negative vote. The attempts by Chidambaram and Ramesh to force the government to commit that future GST legislations would not be brought as money bills was nothing but mere semantics for public consumption. The decision was already taken by the Congress party to support the bill.
That immediately sent everybody into raptures about how the Modi government turned a new leaf from the early days of combativeness and aggression or that the Congress was pushed to the wall of negative public opinion. But, the government sees it differently. "This is not the first time that the Congress and the BJP have dissolved their political differences in the national interest. Just recently the government got support from the Congress to pass the bill pertaining to compensatory afforestation (CAMPA). Even earlier, all the parties came together on the matter of the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh," the source in the Prime Minister's Office pointed out, seeking to temper the brouhaha in the media.
Nevertheless, in the context of the critical need for bipartisanship in India's reforms process, Modi’s reach out to Sonia Gandhi in Varanasi has good tidings.