After the tea break, it’s time to read the tea leaves. Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi get the backing of the Congress in passing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill in Parliament or not? Though Modi reached out to the Opposition over a cup of tea on Friday, the bad taste of politics still lingers. Modi, who is in Paris on Monday (today) for the Climate Summit, is betting on his predecessor Manmohan Singh to swing around the Congress and ensure the passage of the Bill.
But the Congress is in no mood to forget the past. “He (Modi) has humiliated us on foreign soil. That was not prime ministerial…,” senior spokesman Anand Sharma said. During the meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence, finance minister Arun Jaitley is understood to have explained to Gandhi and Singh the government’s position on the three changes the Opposition was seeking. The Congress sought a week’s time to reply. Modi told Singh that the government was ready to talk anytime. And government sources said the ball is in the Congress court.
In the Congress court, an intense debate has started. Some leaders, close to vice-president Rahul Gandhi, argue that there is no point in working out a compromise formula by sacrificing the party’s three non-negotiable issues. Modi is pinning his hopes on Singh as it was the latter who made the Friday meeting with Gandhi possible. Modi had sought the good offices of Singh at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhavan recently.
The government expects that Singh’s equations with Gandhi and with consumer-states like Bihar and West Bengal, led by JD (U) and Trinamul Congress (TMC), respectively, backing the legislation, the Congress may ultimately fall in line. The government is also ready to explore some “face savers” for the Opposition party, provided the Congress shows some flexibility, sources said.
Congress insiders say that much of the government’s conciliatory tones will be judged on Monday, when the issue of intolerance that dominated the two-day special debate on Constitution will be in focus again in the Lok Sabha. A call attention notice of CPI (M)’s P Karunakaran and Congress’ K C Venugopal has been listed for discussing “situation arising out of incidents of intolerance in the country.” A similar notice by CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechuri is awaiting admission in the Rajya Sabha, where Opposition parties are mulling to censure the government, through a resolution.
The government has agreed for a discussion on intolerance, an issue dear to the Opposition. It appears that the Congress seems more interested in the “intolerance debate,” sources said. The government’s readiness to debate “intolerance” in both Houses of Parliament may prevent disruption, but the Congress says it hasn’t softened its stance on key issues.
“We don’t call it intolerance. Our notice is to discuss the orchestrated campaign to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and the assault on constitutional rights and also how senior ministers humiliated top intellectuals, historians and scientists of the country. That is not merely intolerance,” said a Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha.
“We want the GST to be pro-industry, pro-trade and pro-consumer. We have also asked the government to discuss our proposals and get back to us. We hope there will be more structured meetings,” said another senior Congress leader.
Asked if the Prime Minister’s speech in the Lok Sabha had helped reduced some bitterness, senior Congress spokesman Anand Sharma said that Modi had humiliated us on foreign soil. But he said that the PM has ultimately realised that parliamentary democracy “can’t be run by diktat and sermon, and, has therefore, tried to reach out”.
The party says it will also watch Modi’s speeches in Paris. “He repeatedly said India received no respect before he came (to power) and that previous governments had done nothing. Yesterday, he turned his own speeches upside down and gave credit to previous governments. Does he really think people’s memory is that short?” said Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed.
Congress leader Digvijaya Singh also questioned the Prime Minister’s memory. “He should either accept that he was trying to fool the people of India or he has a habit of telling lies,” he said.
Looks like a tea break won’t break ice so fast.
The Congress’ three demands
1. An 18% cap on GST in the constitutional amendment itself.
(The government feels that this would restrict future flexibility in making changes as it would require the approval of both Houses of Parliament by a two-thirds majority. Also, in emergency situations, like war or other eventualities, it would create a problem).
2. Revoking of powers to states to impose a 1% tax on supply of goods, over and above the GST rate
3. An independent redressal mechanism to resolve issues that may arise between states or between the Centre and states