Pavan Kumar Varma, a former diplomat, author and current Rajya Sabha member representing the Janata Dal (United), believes the centre is in no mood to have the GST Bill passed, despite having the support of parties that represent the consuming states, as it would not serve its immediate goals and could prove counter-productive in the interim due to a rise in the tax rates.
In an interview with The Wire, Varma also insisted that while it is the responsibility of the government and the Treasury benches to reach out to the opposition, no efforts have been made to reach a consensus, barring a token meeting with Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. This, he believes, will mean that the Budget session of parliament will be dominated by the issues of reservation, attempts to communalise politics by targeting campuses across the country and the distress being faced by the farmers.
How do you see the Budget session of Parliament panning out?
In parliament the opposition is there to take up issues that resonate across the nation. Those issues will be taken up. It is our desire that parliament functions and merely having a debate on issues without taking action as appropriate means little, so we hope the government will not only debate issues but take action consequently.
Over the last three-four sessions whenever it has been targeted through issues like the Lalit Modi case, Vyapam or National Herald case, the government has only hardened its stance, which has led to disruptions. Will the trend continue?
The primary responsibility of running the House is of the Treasury benches and it is for the government to take the opposition into confidence in all matters of dispute. This, however, not been happening.
The government has been accusing the opposition of stalling the passage of crucial bills, such as the GST and the amended Land Acquisition Bill, and claims that this is coming in the way of the country’s economic growth. What are your thoughts on this?
As far as the GST is concerned, it is my view that the government is not interested in passing the bill for the following reasons: firstly, I think the government has realised that the real dividends of this GST Bill will take two to three years to kick in, and in the interim period they will have to set up the strategic and structural infrastructure for it. The dividend would kick in only after 2019.
Secondly, in the interim there could be an increase in service tax to harmonise it with the 18% or whatever tax, so it would be an unpopular move in the short term.
Thirdly, any government that is interested in having a bill passed would have by now gone into structured and detailed negotiations with the opposition. Apart from inviting Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh once in a symbolic way over a cup of tea, it has done little. That meeting was not followed by any attempt at structured and sustained negotiation.
Fourthly, I think the essential bias of the BJP government is against the GST Bill because as you are aware they opposed it from 2011 to 2014 and a certain chief minister who is now the Prime Minister was the biggest opponent. Essentially their bias is towards producing states and consuming states like Bihar. We (JDU) are fully supportive of it but I don’t think it has the fullest commitment of the ruling party.
And lastly, in our view it is very convenient for the BJP to blame the opposition for holding back economic reforms by not passing the GST Bill and thereby providing an alibi for their failure on the economic front. Because if the GST Bill is passed what will they now point their finger at the opposition for. So it is a convenient alibi.
For these reasons I believe the real truth is that the government is not interested in passing the GST Bill and one equilateral evidence to support this view is that somehow, coincidentally or in a planned manner, every time the parliament is to meet some inflammatory issues are raised, which they know will disrupt parliament or at least be raised in parliament, thereby deflecting attention from the GST
So you see a design behind this?
I see a design because they feel it is not going to provide them immediate dividend. Some of its provision may be unpopular in the short term. They have not entrusted discussions and negotiations because those three points are easily amenable to negotiated solution but this government has not gone into that process.
Is RSS playing a role in the way the government is handling the GST Bill issue?
In the larger Sangh parivar also there are reservations. So the net result is that they use it as a means to blame the opposition for their multiple economic failures and hold the opposition responsible for the economy not functioning.
Is there an issue of the Bill not being in favour of the small traders and businesses?
The RSS and some of its wings, like Bharat Krishak Samaj, have their own views on the reform measure, but we (Bihar) as a consuming state are fully supportive of it but we have a very serious doubt on the government’s intention to have this Bill passed.
You (JDU) are an ally of the Congress now. So how will you be approaching the Budget session? Have you planned something different?
We will definitely be raising issues relating to Hyderabad and the failures on the agrarian and rural distress. Obviously there will be a discussion on the Budget because in the past it has been exceptionally elitist, ignoring the plight of the middle class and the ordinary person, including the farmer. We will question the priorities of the government. We will also take up the issue of Arunachal Pradesh.
What about the issue of how the JNU case has been handled?
We will naturally take up the issue of JNU, also where we believe the BJP government has decided to use the twin instrumentalities of hyper-nationalism and communal polarisation as a matter of policy. There are many assembly elections coming up and we already saw communal polarisation being used by them in the Bihar polls.
So given this scenario, these issues are bound to resonate. You call the leader of the largest party anti-national, ou call proposals provided by the opposition as preposterous, you refuse to negotiate and there are incidents such as the attack on scribes by lawyers belonging to certain affiliations of the BJP who behaved as if they are immune to law. Parliament is not a forum where the opposition blindly rubber stamps the agenda of the government. Parliament is also a forum where in a democracy the opposition raises issues to hold the government accountable. So they are bound to resonate.