What the PM left unsaid

MODI'S I-DAY SPEECH : All of a sudden, there is silence on the summoning of a special session of parliament to pass the GST.

What the PM left unsaid
The more interesting part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address which has escaped notice was not what he said but what he chose not to dwell on. Many  had thought that the PM would take on the Congress frontally for its decision to immobilise parliament and stall  the legislations that the BJP wanted to pass to further its economic agenda, and would strike a note to the effect that “we wanted to move ahead but they are tying our hands and feet by their obstructionist attitude”.

On the whole, Modi steered clear of controversies. He undoubtedly made some political jibes, like a reference to those who are corrupt themselves but gave “advice” to others, or the “deemak” (termite) of corruption which had permeated every inch of the system. But it was nowhere near as hard hitting or a full throated attack against the opposition as might have come from someone like Modi.

Independence Day speeches are undoubtedly pitched at a different level, and one did not know what to expect from the PM this year,  given the heightened levels of confrontation between the ruling side and the opposition  in evidence lately over Lalitgate, which washed out the monsoon session of parliament, and led to personalised attacks by both sides, with the PM’s absence in parliament only hardening positions.

The more relevant question to ask today is this: Was the tenor of the PM’s I-Day speech aimed at reaching out to the Congress for its support to get the Goods and Services Tax bill passed? All of a sudden, there is silence on the subject of summoning a special session of parliament to pass the GST, which was in the air soon after the monsoon session.

This could mean that either the government has reopened back channels to the Congress to resolve the GST tangle or that it has for the moment abandoned its plan to get the tax re-form bill passed, which would mean that the GST cannot be rolled out by April, 2016 as earlier planned. After all, the Houses were not prorogued, only  adjourned sine die, so that they could be recalled at short notice for the passage of the GST.

The bill on the GST is not only

about the much touted tax reform, which was first mooted in 2006, but has been hanging fire first because of the BJP’s opposition to it when the UPA was in power and now because of the Congress’ reservations when the BJP is in power.

The issue has not only got caught in the political crossfire, but has come to signify the ability or otherwise of the government to push ahead with its economic reforms agenda which the prime minister and the finance minister had promised and potential investors, and corporate honchos are now becoming increasingly restive at what they perceive to be the government’s inability to move forward.

While the Congress is being criticised for stalling parliament, there are also questions being raised about the government’s skills at statecraft and its ability to take everyone along. The BJP’s lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha is after all a hard reality which is unlikely to change till 2018, and that too will be contingent on how many elections it wins in the state going to polls in the next two years, particularly how it fares in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Knowing the Congress’ unyielding opposition to it, the BJP had been working overtime to woo the regional parties to get them on its side and many had come out in favour of the GST, including the JD(U) which is otherwise arraigned against the  saffron party in the battle for Bihar.

Wooing Jaya

The PM has been wooing Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha whose party has been opposed to the GST and the FM has promised that the bill would compensate for the loss of revenue to the “losing” states, a clear message to Tamil Nadu.

But even if every single member, other than those belonging to the Congress and the Left (they add up to 77), were to support the BJP, it would add up to 166, only four more than the two-third majority figure of 162 that is required. That would require a massive mobilisation as also entail a huge risk.

The game would be up if a couple of MPs were to change sides at the last moment, or a few were to fall “sick”. The fact is that without the Congress’ support, a special session would be a difficult proposition. So far, the Congress is playing hard to get taking a position that the party would reveal its cards only  after the government has dealt its cards.
The signature campaign launched by industry leaders to pass the GST may exert some pressure on the Congress.  The Red Fort speech may well have been an attempt to soften an obdurate but vitally placed Congress to come around, though Modi  could not desist from criticising the party while in Dubai the next day, which riled the party leaders. Neither of the two moves seem to have worked.

Many believe that the Congress may soften its stance were the PM to directly reach out to the main opposition party. For, after all, the GST was the Congress’ baby. What therefore prevents the PM from making overtures to the Congress leadership? Is it the Bihar election? Is the PM wary of being seen to be bending at this stage , even if it means stooping to conquer? The Bihar outcome will undoubtedly determine the future trajectory of Modi’s politics. The trouble is that too much is at stake for the government also on the economic front.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)

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