GST Bill: How history was made in 7 hours, 46 minutes, 33 speeches and many telling frames

GST Bill: Arun Jaitley’s handshake with Chidambaram was the most telling of all — a moment of reconciliation after years of arguing for the same objective from different sides of the aisle.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: August 4, 2016 9:43 am
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As Rajya Sabha passed the GST Bill late Wednesday after 7 hours 46 minutes and 33 televised speeches, two frames captured the story: In the officers’ gallery, Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia and Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian shook hands and hugged like sportsmen do after winning tough matches. And, on the floor of the House, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley walked past the well and shook hands with Manmohan Singh, and, in the end, with his predecessor, P Chidambaram.

Jaitley’s handshake with Chidambaram was the most telling of all — a moment of reconciliation after years of arguing for the same objective from different sides of the aisle — as the House unanimously passed the 122nd Constitutional Amendment.

Throughout the day, Chidambaram played the general while Jairam Ramesh played his trusted lieutenant working the floor and rallying support from fellow members, Jaitley constantly engaged with Adhia and Subramanian, and kept reading and making notes.

The day’s proceedings told a story of MPs cutting — and effortlessly moving — across party lines before agreeing to pass one of the biggest tax reforms in history.

Here’s what happened beyond the camera’s frame:

1.49 pm: Jairam Ramesh is the first to arrive, 5 m later Arun Jaitley comes in with a blue file. A minute later, Manmohan Singh comes in, also with a blue file, followed by Anand Sharma and P Chidambaram. Jaitley is immersed in reading the Bill, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi sits behind.

2 pm: Session starts, Jaitley makes brief comments while Manmohan Singh reads off a piece of paper handed over by Anand Sharma.

Soon, the front row in Treasury is occupied by ministers M Venkaiah Naidu, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Suresh Prabhu. Jaitley still speaking, Chidambaram walks up to Manmohan Singh, chats with him and with Sharma, and then returns to his third-row seat. Enter Ghulam Nabi Azad; Sharma speaks to Azad.

Read | What next? Step by step, until the rollout

In the visitor’s gallery, NCP’s Supriya Sule and Congress’s Sushmita Dev watch the proceedings.

2.10 pm: Smriti Irani walks in and sits next to Piyush Goyal. As Jaitley talks about Indian federalism at play, TMC’s Derek O’Brien, SP’s Ramgopal Yadav, ADMK’s A Navneethakrishnan are all ears.

2.16 pm: Chidambaram starts speaking, Jaitley puts on his headphones. As he makes a case for “clumsy drafting”, the Chief Economic Advisor asks one of his junior colleagues to pay attention. As the former Finance minister repeatedly invokes Subramanian’s report to buttress his arguments, Adhia looks at the CEA and they exchange a glance — and a few smiles. They both scribble on yellow stick-ons.

Minutes later, Subramanian passes on a bunch to be given to Jaitley, a copy of the report has three yellow stick-ons and a white paper.

In the meantime, Congress’s Motilal Vora and Environment minister Anil Dave doze on and off.

As Chidambaram says the GST should not benefit corporate houses but the people, CPM’s Tapan Sen nods in agreement.

Read | From Jaswant Singh to Arun Jaitley, GST’s 13-year journey

As he concludes his 31-minute speech, Pramod Tiwary says “beautiful” and he also gets a thumbs up from Azad and Jairam.

2.51 pm: As BJP’s Bhupender Yadav speaks, Jaitley is seen opening a silver wrapper and eating a lozenge. Jairam gets up, walks up to O’Brien and K D Singh, then goes to S C Mishra, D Raja, Prem Chand Gupta and then back to Chidambaram. Again, Jairam goes to SP’s Naresh Agarwal and O’Brien, presses his shoulder. Chidambaram again calls Jairam, and talks to him.

3.12 pm: Jaitley talks to Adhia as Subramanian looks on; Agarwal echoes Chidambaram on the issue of money bill, the former Finance minister thumps the desk. A K Antony comes in, Sitaram Yechury is jotting down notes, while Jaitley is reading through the bill. As AIADMK’s A Navneethakrishnan hails “Amma” several times and opposes the GST Bill, both Chidambaram and Jaitley smile. Nirmala Sitharaman walks up to the CEA, Jaitley speaks to Shamsher Sheriff, the Rajya Sabha Secretary General.

3.36 pm: When O’Brien starts speaking and criticizes the BJP and the Congress alike, both sides are quiet. Sharad Yadav’s speech gets cheers from Chidambaram as JD (U) leaders share his concerns on the money bill issue.

Read | Low GST rate of 18% to reduce taxes on goods, but services may turn costly

3.59 pm: Yechury compliments Chidambaram for “sounding better” on the other side of the aisle; Jairam is working in his Macbook, CPM boss quotes Ambedkar as he reads out from his cellphone. Chidambaram calls Jairam and then walks out with his bag while Jaitley again talks to Adhia.

Over the next couple of hours, most leaders — Manmohan Singh, Jairam, Sharad Yadav, Yechury, O’Brien — all go out of the House.

The Congress benches are almost empty by 4.30, at one point only a dozen members are in the House when Ahmed Patel walks in and sits next to Rajiv Shukla.

BSP’s S C Mishra speaks, BJP’s B S Yeddyurappa is watching from the visitor’s gallery before he dozes off. DMK’s Kanimozhi is busy checking her phone. Jairam comes back, listens and then walks up to S C Mishra, compliments him for his speech.

As TDP’s C M Ramesh, NCP’s Praful Patel make their speeches, S C Mishra goes and shakes hands with Praful Patel and sits with O’Brien.

Read | GST bill passed: Bengal, Kerala raise fresh sticking points as Jaitley ‘assures discussion’

Jaitley, meanwhile, has left the House, while Chidambaram comes back in by 4.57 pm.

At 4.58 pm, both BJP and Congress do not have any members or ministers in their front row. Only O’Brien sits alone in the non-BJP, non-Congress section’s front row.

Sharad Yadav gets back, while Chidambaram is checking his phone.

As Rajeev Chandrasekhar (Ind) speaks, Chidambaram comes towards the Treasury benches for the first and only time, walks up to Zee TV’s Subhash Chandra and then speaks to jurist K Parasaran, and then goes back to his seat — along the way, chats with O’Brien while sitting in Yechury’s empty seat.

When Congress’s Vivek Tankha makes his points, Chidambaram again thumps his table.

5.14 pm: CPM’s Tapan Sen goes up to Smriti Irani and has a long chat. Jairam, who had left, again walks in and chats with Chidambaram.

As speaker after speaker make their speeches, S C Mishra goes to Chidambaram and talks to him with a copy of the Constitution.

6.53 pm: Azad, Motilal Vora, Ahmed Patel, are all back while CPI’s D Raja is praising Chidambaram’s speech. “Hope Congress reviews its economic policies after listening to Chidambaram”, Raja says. Chidambaram doesn’t react. As RJD’s Prem Chand Gupta ends his speech, Chidambaram thumps the table.

7.28 pm: Anand Sharma begins his speech to wrap up the debate, and 7.33 pm, Mayawati walks in — the first time in the afternoon session, followed by Mishra. She stops by Ahmed Patel and asks him about Sonia Gandhi’s health, before taking her own seat.

8.02 pm: Jaitley makes his speech, and midway, Goyal is seen asking for water for Jaitley’s glass to be refilled.

As voting begins, nine new BJP members press wrong buttons and there is banter in the air. Congressmen are heard shouting and giving them tips to press the green buttons to say yes.

As the voting numbers fluctuate between 197 to 203, Yechury says, “miracles are happening, even before the GST…numbers are going up.” To which, Jaitley responds with a smile and folded hands.The vote is finally passed at 9.46 pm.

There are two silences, one of absence, another of presence: Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not step in the Upper House through the day. And former PM Manmohan Singh who attended and voted did not speak a word.

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