There were few fireworks during the debate in the Rajya Sabha on the constitutional amendment to enable the Goods and Services Tax Bill, as most parties were in favour of the Bill, but the day was not without its lighter moments.
The importance of the Bill was clear from the turnout in the House, with senior leaders arriving long before the backbenchers. Even before the clock struck two, the two main speakers, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Congress leader and former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, were in their seats. All the Congress’s top leadership in the House, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad sat through much of the debate, and the treasury benches were full to capacity as well. Mr. Jaitley’s son Rohan was an unexpected onlooker as well, in the visitor’s gallery. Another leader to reach early was the AIADMK’s V. Maithreyan, who was seen walking over to Mr. Jaitley, where he seemed to indicate with a sharp shake of the head, that the AIADMK would not be voting for the amendment.
The Congress would have been pleased by the many references Mr. Jaitley made to the UPA government’s prior attempts to pass the GST Bill when the BJP opposed it, referring to Mr. Chidambaram’s first reference to GST in a speech in 2006. Mr. Chidambaram looked particularly happy with the welcome he received for his first speech in the Rajya Sabha, after he was elected from Maharashtra in June. Teasing him, Deputy Chairman P.J. Kurien said that as it was his “maiden over” he would only be allowed 15 minutes to speak. Of course, as the Congress’s lead speaker, Mr. Chidambaram spoke for more than double that time.
The maximum references made by speakers were not to someone in the House, however, in the official’s gallery, where Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian sat. He took copious notes of all the speakers’ interventions, nodding and smiling when everyone from Mr. Chidambaram to CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury referred to the report he had prepared as head of the GST panel looking into possible tax rates appointed by the government last year.
Refers to ‘Bengal’
Another “maiden” reference went unremarked, however, and that was when TMC leader Derek O’Brien referred to “Bengal” and not “West Bengal,” just a day after the Mamata Banerjee government decided to drop the prefix from the State’s name. The maximum laughs were drawn by the TMC leader, who attacked both the BJP and the Congress for changing their positions on the GST Bill by turns. “Where you stand on GST has been decided by where you sit,” he said addressing the opposition and treasury benches, “So, GST should actually be called Girgit Samjhauta Tax [Chameleon, Compromise Tax].” There were some titters and a voice of protest about “chameleon” being unparliamentary language, and Mr. O’Brien had to clarify that he had referred to the tax as being a chameleon, not to honourable members of the House.
That wasn’t the only definition of GST proffered during the debate. Referring to the government’s decision to drop the 1% additional tax on inter-State transactions as the Congress had demanded, Mr. Chidambaram said it proved that GST stood for “Good Sense Triumphs” in the end. However, in his speech, Mr. O’Brien replied that it also stood for “Go Slow Tactics” in a reference to the Congress’s moves to delay the Bill last year.
‘Amma must be watching’
Many laughs also followed the introductory remarks by Dr. Maithreyan’s colleague A. Navaneethakrishnan, who began with special thanks to his leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. When members asked why, he said it was because he came from a humble background, the first member of his family to become a lawyer (and represented the CM in the disproportionate assets case), and could never imagine he would be in the exalted position of Rajya Sabha member without her support. Later Sharad Yadav congratulated Mr. Navaneethakrishnan on presenting the only speech that opposed the government’s motion adding, “Amma would have been watching you, and you did well.”
Colour of the Opposition
Although it seemed clear from the start that the government’s motion was expected to go through, many opposition leaders didn’t pull their punches on what they saw as the government’s earlier tough position on the GST which softened only recently. Mr. Anand Sharma made a point of reminding the government of its earlier intransigence, saying the change had come when “CM Modi became PM Modi,” while Mr. O’Brien took exception to Mr. Jaitley’s comments from 2015 when he had asked “Till what extent can the indirectly-elected House hold reform proposals passed by the directly elected House which represents will of the people?” The last word on the matter was had by Mr. Yechury, who said that since the Indian Parliament had adopted the Westminster colour model for its decor, the Lok Sabha is green, while the Rajya Sabha is red. “We therefore reserve the right in this House, to show the government the ‘red’ flag whenever it is necessary,” he said.