The politics of GST

While GST implementation will revolutionize taxation in India, it will also upend power hierachy in the tax bureaucracy, fiscal federalism and corruption template


Finance minister Arun Jaitley and revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia at the ongoing GST council meeting. Photo: PTI
Finance minister Arun Jaitley and revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia at the ongoing GST council meeting. Photo: PTI

The goods and services tax (GST) juggernaut has now begun its journey and there is no looking back. The new tax system promises to revolutionize life for the entire value chain starting from goods and services producers all the way to consumers. But the GST also promises to upend many other established systems—such as the power hierarchy in the tax bureaucracy, the known fiscal federalism model and the prevalent corruption template. These changes, in turn, will dictate the final shape of the new tax regime.

The first signs of impending trouble can be found in the notification regarding the GST council. The press release announcing the creation of a GST council, under the provisions of the Constitution (101st Amendment) Act, 2016, states the council will be chaired by the Union finance minister, with his junior minister and finance ministers from states as members.

The fun and games begin thereafter. The secretary (revenue) in the finance ministry is the council’s ex-officio secretary, and he will be assisted by one additional secretary and four joint secretary level officers. The chairman of the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC)—a body created under Central Boards of Revenue Act, 1963—has been reduced to a permanent invitee.

This has set in motion a power struggle between officers from the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) for control over the council. This is manifestly a fight to gain oversight over what will inarguably become the country’s richest financial pipeline. Although finance minister Arun Jaitley has assured IRS officers that their grievances will be heard the first round seems to have gone to IAS officers.

Similar signs of the IAS cadre inserting itself into the fiscal framework can be found in the GST Network (GSTN), an information backbone for the new tax system. The network has been set up as a not-for-profit company with shareholding from the Centre, states and financial institutions. The company’s website calls it a “non-Government, private limited company”. Both the chairman and chief executive officer’s posts are occupied by former IAS officers, as are many other board seats. Of the total 13 board members, there is only one CBEC representative.

Smooth GSTN operations will be critical to the GST’s success. A lot will hinge on registering all buyers and suppliers, calculating and crediting input tax to intermediary stage producers on time to induce more producers to register with GSTN.

Excise and customs officers have planned a series of agitations, which stretch all the way to budget day in February 2017. Interestingly, the power struggle spilled over into the direct taxes domain in July when income-tax officers rebelled against the secretary (revenue)—this required the finance minister’s intervention.

With the oversight of the financial pipeline changing, there are no guarantees that corruption will be completely eliminated. There has been a lot of discussion on the likely corruption model that will replace the legacy structure. The earlier indirect-tax regime had many loopholes, inserted by the industrialist-politician-bureaucrat nexus. Tax experts have pointed to some gaps created at the GST’s birth. One springs from the threshold fixed for exempting goods and services from GST, Rs20 lakh, which could motivate many assessees to break up operations into an informally connected web of small units. Second, allowing states to exercise oversight over units below Rs1.5 crore annual turnover might open up another escape hatch. This is an evolving space; tax officers have already put the new code through the wringer and alerted seniors about possible loopholes.

Finally, GST has altered the fine balance of India’s federal structure by reshuffling taxation powers divided between the Centre and states in the Constitution. It is quite likely that states will attempt to regain some of this equilibrium through the GST council. The amended Act gives the council members enough powers to decide on which goods and services will be subjected to or exempted from GST, to decide the differential GST rates, and much more.

The catch is in the decision-making process. All proposals will be decided through a voting system, with the principle of one-state-one-vote. Under the voting formula, the Centre has one-third weightage of total votes cast, with the states apportioned two-thirds weightage. Any proposal needs a majority of at least three-fourths of the weighted votes cast. Assuming a full house present (quorum requirements are 50%), a Centre-sponsored proposal can succeed with 18-19 state votes.

The current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) combination rules over more than 10 states (either singly or in coalition) and has the support of three regional state governments. The fate of Arunachal Pradesh hangs in the balance. Five states—Goa, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Punjab—go to the polls in 2017. Another seven states will battle it out in 2018. Of the 12, if NDA manages to win six-seven, they will have enough firepower to push through proposals in the council. This gives a completely new meaning to the concept of fiscal federalism.

Intense politics preceded the birth of GST. But it would be a mistake to think that only good economics will henceforth guide the remaining workload to get GST off the ground. The real politics starts only now.

Rajrishi Singhal is a Mumbai-based policy consultant and journalist. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal

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