GST passed: How fierce conflict between Congress, BJP changed into total consensus

The Monsoon session of Parliament 2016 will go down in history as the one which passed the landmark The Constitution (122nd Amendment) (GST) Bill, 2014 with 203 Ayes and 0 Noes.

The AIADMK which had wanted six amendments, as expected walked out after registering their point. All present and voting in Rajya Sabha were for passage of the Bill. No one opposed it.

That meets the constitutional requirement for a constitutional amendment bill – that it shall be passed by no less than half of the members of total strength of the House and no less than two-third of present and voting. Since the Rajya Sabha introduced a few amendments while passing the bill, the Lok Sabha will now have to pass the revised bill before the Monsoon session ends on 12 August. But given the numbers of the NDA in Lower House and all parties arriving at a larger consensus, its passage is not expected to be problematic.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

With Congress and BJP moving from totally conflicting positions on the bill over the past few years to arriving at a virtual unanimity, the passage of the bill shall forever be quoted as a test case to all students of politics, economics and law.

But what changed between then and now? Or to be more precise between the last Monsoon session and this one?

Let's turn the clock to exactly a year ago. The 2015 Monsoon session was a complete washout. The winter session 2015 was no different.

Since then, there has been a strategic change in the thought process in the BJP and Congress leadership. The bill was critical for Prime Minister Modi to show the world that his resolve to reform the economy was strong. He had learnt his lessons from Land Acquisition Bill. Patience and consensus building was the key. Modi and his core team of ministers realised that an unending confrontationist, aggressive mode vis-a-vis Congress and its leaders where the ministers would not lose even a second to retaliate and verbally mow down the main opposition party leaders, with or without provocation, was of no help to anyone. Electorally, Congress had been vanquished and the BJP's verbal onslaught against it inside the Parliament was only resulting in vociferous protests.

The Congress, on the other hand, realised that its unreasoned protests were building a very negative perception about it. It was getting isolated on most issues. It too changed its strategy.

The government had to extend a friendly hand. The Prime Minister took the necessary steps. First, he shuffled his Cabinet and contained lightning and thunder by placing the softer faces of Anant Kumar and SS Ahluwalia at the helm to deal with parliamentary affairs. Next, he made it clear to his ministers and party leaders that he didn't want any unnecessary fireworks inside Parliament. They were told to not pro-actively react to any provocation inside Parliament House. Adversaries had to be fought strongly out on the streets and electoral arena but Parliament was to be spared for debate and discussion. The BJP's measured reaction to Rahul Gandhi's Arhar Modi barb is indicative of that changed thought process.

So when Arun Jaitley hit a roadblock with Congress, he began exploring an alternate route by engaging with chief ministers -- Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav-Mulayam Singh Yadav, Navin Patnaik, Jayalalitha, Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrashekhar Rao, Pinarayi Vijayan and regional players such as Mayawati, Lalu Yadav and Sitaram Yechury. Most of these leaders belonged to "consuming" states, which are going to be major beneficiary of the proposed GST bill.

To evolve a structured mechanism, he twice held meeting of state finance ministers and top officials. It left Congress practically without an option.

In the end it seemed like there were still a few ego issues on both sides, but when the right atmosphere was created for dialogue, the issues were resolved.

Jaitley and P Chidambaram's speeches gave interesting insights.

"A legislation of this kind can't be based on partisan considerations. Every major party is part of power in some parts of the country, likely to be," Jaitley said. He then narrated how the deliberations proceeded and some of their suggestions gave way to amendments in clauses of the bill. Jaitley gave credit to the first head of empowered committee, Asim Dasgupta, the then finance minister of a Leftist West Bengal Government (2003), the erstwhile Vajpayee government and the UPA government which first talked about GST in the then finance minister P Chidambaram's annual Budget speech in 2005.

Jaitley is right when he says arrival at a "consensus on GST shows democracy at its best".

For once Chidambaram didn't contest Jaitley and instead said Congress "welcomes the friendly and conciliatory tone of government. The attitude and approach has changed in the past three-four weeks." He added that in the last few weeks, government had serious engagements with his party leaders. Even his criticism of government's attitude was witty and mildly sarcastic. He said how during the last two years in office he used to reach for the "Char Dhams," - the Prime Minister, the leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and the empowered committee of the finance minister. "We tried to pass the bill with Opposition BJP's support, we failed. In the last few months you (BJP) tried to pass the bill without main Opposition party's support. You also failed."

The bill has gone through intense deliberations in various forums in the past decade. That time span notwithstanding, Jaitley will forever bask in glory as the finance minister who succeeded in having achieved a uniform taxation policy in the country.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2016 22:30 PM

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