Finance minister Arun Jaitley has asked the Congress party to cooperate in passing the goods and services tax bill
“I had one round of discussions with the Congress party on GST. Next week, I will discuss with them again. I think Congress should take a responsible position in the larger interest of the national economy and cooperate in its passage, particularly when every other political party is in favour, including their own allies,” Jaitley said.
He said that the only sticking point between the government and the Congress party now is whether or not the 18% GST rate should be put in the constitutional amendment bill.
Jaitley said the government has been able to clear a number of bills. “One important bill from the point of view of the economy which has been cleared is the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Bill. Now Parliament is going through the Finance Bill. I will reply to the debate in Lok Sabha tomorrow (Thursday). Immediately thereafter we will take up the bankruptcy bill. Then there is another important bill called Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill. After all these are cleared, then the only challenge left is implementation,” he added.
The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, was cleared by the cabinet last month. It will facilitate the distribution of around Rs.42,000 crore among all states to incentivize forest development.
Jaitley said there is ground for a serious probe into the AgustaWestland deal since the bribe givers have been identified and convicted in Italy and only the identity of the beneficiaries in India needs to be established. “I think the government has no political intention except that the beneficiaries should be identified. The identity of the beneficiaries cannot be camouflaged behind a political controversy. Today we are at a stage that we have reason to suspect bribes have been taken. There is a good reason to suspect and, therefore, that is a launching pad for a proper investigation,” he said.
Jaitley acknowledged that investigation of the matter by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will be challenging. “We must realize the inherent nature of challenge in such investigations even for the CBI, which is that the crime is being investigated in India and the evidence is located outside India and, therefore, unless the outside jurisdictions cooperate with us through a process of letters of rogatory, the investigation does not move forward. The CBI has said they sent requests. Some countries including Italy have responded, some countries have not. It’s only when countries respond that they will get to analyse the evidence,” he said.
The finance minister said the previous United Progressive Alliance government never blacklisted AgustaWestland. “On 9 June 2014, I had put the whole transaction on hold and then a formal order was issued on 3 July after taking attorney general’s advice that no new contracts will be entered into (with AgustaWestland) till the matter is investigated. I think it is incumbent on all, including decision-makers, defence officers and suppliers, to cooperate with the Indian investigators and find out what the identity of the bribe taker is,” he added.
On the fallout on the Tata-AgustaWestland joint venture, which has been deferred by the Foreign Investment Promotion Board, Jaitley said the defence ministry will take a call. “At present, the 3 July order of the defence ministry holds the field, unless amended,” he clarified.
The AgustaWestland issue first surfaced in Parliament last month when senior members of the government launched a direct attack on the Congress leadership and demanded to know which of their leaders had benefitted from the helicopter deal that was scrapped after allegations of bribery surfaced in Italy. The Milan court of appeals, in its 8 April judgement, said that the contract involved pay-offs to Indian officials and found two executives of AgustaWestland guilty of offering bribes.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Congress lawmakers sparred in Parliament over the issue.
While Congress leaders claimed that the Anglo-Italian helicopter maker had been blacklisted by the UPA government, defence minister Parrikar challenged the Congress to show the UPA government’s order in this connection.
In 2010, the UPA government signed a deal with AgustaWestland for the purchase of 12 helicopters to ferry VVIPs. But it was scrapped after reports appeared in Italy that the firm had paid kickbacks to Indian officials to clinch the deal.
The process of scrapping the Rs.3,600 crore helicopter deal was initiated in 2013.
The writer is in Frankfurt at the invitation of ADB to attend its 49th annual meeting.