On the eve of the midnight meeting to mark the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the Congress on Thursday announced its decision to boycott the event, calling it a “publicity gimmick” and “tamasha”. While the Trinamool Congress was the first to announce its boycott earlier this week, other Opposition parties like the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left have also decided to stay away.
The JD(U), however, reiterated its support to the tax reform measure, and said it would leave the decision to its MPs. But the party criticised the BJP for what it termed as an attempt to project the GST launch as “a great historic moment”. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday appealed to the Opposition parties to reconsider their decision, asking them to “display broad shoulders” and not “disassociate” from the decision they were a party to.
Announcing its decision at a press conference on Thursday, the Congress cited various reasons — from the choice of venue to “killings of minorities and Dalits”, violence against women, and farmer suicides. Party leaders said former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was specially invited to the event being held in the Central Hall of Parliament on Friday night, would also stay away. “These are the two reasons… the ongoings in the country and the fact that functions held in the Central Hall in the past were related to India’s independence,” said Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad.
The party said midnight sittings have been held in the Central Hall only thrice in the past — on August 15, 1947; in 1972 to mark the 25th anniversary of India’s independence; and in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary. The Congress said that by convening the function in the Central Hall, the government was “insulting the very memory of India’s freedom struggle and the sacrifices associated with it”. “Perhaps for the BJP, 1947, 1972 and 1997 may be of no relevance because they played no role in securing India’s freedom. So perhaps they don’t give it much importance… But we give importance,” said Azad.
Stating that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his ministers and the BJP’s chief ministers were silent on the “developments” in the country, he said: “That is the second issue… the distress faced by farmers… their suicides, the merciless attacks and killings of minorities and Dalits in several states… There is no action, the continuing violence against women… The government is deaf to the cries of the poor, women, Dalits, minorities… The worsening security situation in the country, the situation at the border, the fall in GDP… The government is not paying attention to any of these issues.”
The party said the GST was “neither a perfect Bill”, nor did it ensure “one nation, one tax” as being touted by the government, and argued that the country was “ill-prepared”. Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress’s leader in Lok Sabha, said the UPA government had passed several significant Acts like the RTI Act, Food Security Act, MGNREGA and Right to Education Act, but never held such celebrations in the Central Hall.
“This is a taxation law. It can be amended tomorrow. It can be amended several times. The government just wants to indulge in publicity… they are masters in publicity,” he said. Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma said the “midnight spectacle, ignoring the harsh realities of the country, the distress of farmers, rising unemployment, growing insecurity, intolerance, cannot be endorsed. The Congress cannot be party to such a tamasha, a publicity gimmick merely for taxation purpose.” Jairam Ramesh said the government had converted GST into a “Grand Self-Promoting Tamasha”.
He said GST was first mentioned in 2003, and was included in the Budget speech for the first time in 2004. In 2007, he said, the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram set April 2010 as the deadline for rolling out GST, but two BJP chief ministers — Narendra Modi of Gujarat and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh — blocked it for seven long years.
“Kal ke virodhi aaj ke maharadhi ban rahe hain,” he said, adding that while the Congress supports GST, the current Act needs several changes. “GST was conceptualised and taken forward by us… It has been possible today because the Congress has been a responsible Opposition…” said Sharma. He added that the GST Act still has several infirmities, as over 40 per cent of the revenue base — petroleum, electricity, alcohol, real estate — have been kept out. Supporting the Congress stand, RJD national spokesperson Manoj Kumar Jha said the party had decided to “boycott this mega spectacle of optical illusion”. “Though we have been in favour of GST, we believe there are pressing concerns, particularly among the small and medium level traders and manufacturing units, which remain unaddressed,” he said.
The JD(U), however, took a different line from its allies, soon after its earlier decision to back NDA presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind. “We have been supporting GST from the very beginning and will lend our support in the final moments. We, however, have left the decision on attending the meeting to the discretion of our MPs. We have not issued any whip,” said JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi.
He said it would be unfair to link any political motive to the decision. “Bihar is a non-manufacturing state… it is basically a consumer state which will gain immensely from GST. The Bihar Assembly and Council passed resolutions in its support,” said Tyagi. He, however, took on the BJP for seeking to project the implementation of GST as “a great historic moment, in parallel with the ‘freedom at midnight’ moment”. Tyagi said Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would not be able to attend the session because of prior engagements, but senior minister Bijendra Prasad Yadav would represent the state government.
Meanwhile, urging the Opposition parties to attend the event, Jaitley said: “I can say this without fear of contradiction, that there has never been this (kind of) exercise… this kind of political consultation and political consensus in bringing the GST… They must now display broad shoulders and own up (to) this decision. Symbolic boycotts are not an evidence of any kind of disassociation from these decisions.” Every government, he said, has been an equal participant in the decision, and nobody, through “a symbolic political gesture, can disassociate from it”. “Every political party should have the courage to own up (to) a reform for which they voted,” he said.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu said the midnight event was not a celebration, and neither the BJP nor the NDA government had tried to take credit for the final launch of GST. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on several occasions, complimented and thanked all political parties and state governments for their constructive contribution to make GST a reality from July 1. So, this is a Team India event. The Congress, in its wisdom, has chosen to opt out of this Team India event. I am sure they will repent, besides paying a heavy price for this,” he said.