On Wednesday in Rajya Sabha, a rare sighting: A nearly seven-hour-long rigorous debate was followed by unanimous backing, across party lines (minus the AIADMK), for a transformative economic reform. Of course, there is a back-story to the frame that is not so picture-perfect. The passage of the constitutional amendment bill that will underwrite the Goods and Services Tax regime, came 11 years after the GST was first mooted in parliament; there has been prolonged political haggling and histrionics over it since. It is also true that the passage of the constitutional amendment bill is only the first step in the implementation of the GST and that difficult decisions and tough legislation still lie ahead. Yet, the political truce in the Upper House on Wednesday is a moment to savour in a noisy, argumentative democracy. And for it, congratulations are due to the Narendra Modi government.
Ever since it came to power two years ago, the Modi government has appeared to come up short on a crucial count: It has failed to strike a working relationship with its opposition. This has been especially visible in parliament. Despite its decisive majority in the Lok Sabha, its moves have been stalled in the Rajya Sabha where the opposition has banded together to obstruct and to oppose. On several pieces of vital legislation, like the land acquisition bill, the apparent unwillingness or incapacity of the ruling NDA to engage parties of the Opposition, in order to persuade and to negotiate and to bargain, has resulted in serial impasse. In this environment, doubts have also grown stronger about the NDA government’s own stomach for game-changing reform. Success on the GST, therefore, could mark an important point of departure. On the GST, the Modi government successfully reached out to both the Congress and regional parties, meticulously brought the latter (except the AIADMK) onto the same page and eventually made it difficult for the Congress to stay outside the consensus. Going ahead, the challenge for the Modi government will be to learn from itself, to recall and replay the astute strategy that has paid off for it — and the nation — on the GST.
If this GST moment should teach the government that a majority is not enough, and that it does not obviate the hard labour of politics, there is a lesson here for the Congress as well. Whatever the reason for the Congress finally giving in — a calculation that the government is bound to trip on the implementation, or its discomfort with the charge of obstructionism, or deference in the last instance to national interest — the party must know that to be a credible party of the opposition, it must choose its battles with greater judgement and care. Now that the GST bill has been passed without incorporating its major demand for a constitutional cap on the tax rate, the party must tell the nation just why it held out for so long.