Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi during a meeting in New Delhi on Friday.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and senior leader Manmohan Singh discussed the introduction of a new goods and services tax (GST) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over tea on Friday in an apparent thaw in relations between the government and the principal Opposition party.
The meeting between the rivals was the first since Modi stormed to power 18 months ago, and was expected to herald a long-awaited compromise on the proposed GST, billed as the biggest tax reform since independence.
“PM Modi invited Sonia ji and Manmohan ji to discuss various issues related to the winter session,” finance minister Arun Jaitley, who was also present at the meeting, told reporters after it concluded.
“There was also discussion on the GST bill. The Congress leaders gave their suggestions and we also told them our opinion,” he said. “The Congress leaders will discuss (the issue) within the party and will contact the government. There is also a possibility that we may meet again,” Jaitley added.
Barely an hour before the meeting, the Prime Minister praised Jawaharlal Nehru, declared he wants Parliament to run on the basis of consensus and acknowledged the role of “all previous governments”, pulling all stops to woo the principal opposition party.
His unprecedented approach to reach out to the Opposition comes amid the NDA government’s urgency to push GST bill and other reforms.
Replying to the debate to commemorate Constitution Day and BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, Modi said: “Building consensus is more important than majority rule. In a democracy more strength lies in walking on the path towards agreement. Taking decision through a majority-rule should only be the last effort. But before such situation arrives, consultations must be held.”
He had often been targeted by his political opponents for trying to undermine the legacy of Congress prime ministers. On Friday, Modi spoke about a debate where socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia argued on an issue with facts and figures. “Nehru was such a great man, he stood up and agreed to what Lohia said,” Modi said.
Even as Modi’s invitation to the Congress president for negotiations is seen as a major step to reach out to the Opposition, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi maintained that the meeting was called “under public pressure”.
The Congress vice-president said his party was clear on its position and had three differences with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He added that there would be further progress on the landmark reform only after the government fulfils the demands put forth by the opposition party.
“It is possible the impasse will end after they hear our demands. We brought the GST, it was our initiative and we want it to be passed. But we have our demands with the government which are three main differences. We want a cap on the tax as we don’t want the poor to pay any taxes,” he said.
“It is quite natural that they (the government) should talk to the Opposition, but the Prime Minister has invited Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh only after public pressure. This was not his intent and this is not the way he functions,” Gandhi told some TV channels outside Parliament. Parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu were also present.
During his speech in Parliament, Modi avoided any confrontation with the Opposition and maintained that the mindset of “you and I” must make way for “the united spirit of we”.
Although he pointed out how Congress MP Giridhar Gomang cast his vote against the first Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government leading to its defeat, Modi mentioned: “Long ago, Ghulam Nabi Azad and I used to go for TV debates. Away from the camera we used to chat and drink tea together.”
Congress wants to cap the GST at below 20%, scrap the state levy and create an independent mechanism to resolve disputes on revenue sharing between states.
“We will discuss every aspect of GST with the prime minister and they will have to accept our demands,” Reuters earlier quoted a senior aide to Sonia Gandhi as saying.
Complicating matters for the government is the need for a two-thirds majority in the Rajya Sabha to pass a constitutional enabling amendment that would make it possible to implement the GST as soon as next April.
The government’s strategy has been to try and win the backing of smaller, regional opposition parties for the GST, thereby isolating Congress.
Parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu said that 30 out of 32 parties now backed GST. Still, to be sure of guaranteeing passage the votes of Congress would be needed.