New Delhi: “I wish to point out to the honourable finance minister that there are still pieces of clumsy drafting in this bill... if the honourable finance minister reads it more carefully, he will find that these are exquisite pieces of clumsy drafting.”
Former finance minister P. Chidambaram was at his vintage best on Wednesday during the Rajya Sabha debate on the Constitutional amendment to roll out the goods and services tax (GST).
Chidambaram, 70, opened the debate for the Congress party in the upper House and, along the way, tried to secure assurances from the government on various issues concerning the GST.
Also read: GST bill: Our reading list
Apart from trying to ensure the Congress got its share of credit for pursuing GST during the 10 years it led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Chidambaram also tried to convey to the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that his party’s support depended on assurances from the government on enabling legislation.
Chidambaram insisted the government should not try to bring supporting legislation—GST, integrated GST and central GST—as money bills, on which Rajya Sabha has little say. Instead, the government should try to get them passed by the upper House, he said.
The veteran leader was recently elected to Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra and has been a key interlocutor in the talks between the Congress and government which finally led to a consensus on GST.
Earlier, leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad and deputy leader of the Congress in the upper House Anand Sharma were the key go-to persons for political talks.
Leading the opposition in the debate, Chidambaram on Wednesday acknowledged the conciliation and emphasized the need for consensus to facilitate this tax reform initiative.
“I welcome the friendly and conciliatory tone of the finance minister’s speech... It is far too important a legislation to be passed on a partisan basis. The Congress party has never opposed the idea of GST,” he said.
His speech, which lasted over half-an-hour, was appreciated by members of opposition parties as well.
Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), praised Chidambaram, saying, “It was very wonderful and nice to hear my old friend, colleague, somebody with whom I have interacted for two decades and somebody with whom I had many a contentious arguments and on this particular issue as well. It was wonderful to hear him again; so, welcome back. But I would also add as a compliment, and not in any other way, that he sounds much better on the other side of the aisle (opposition) than this (government),” he said.
Chidambaram reiterated several times that the Congress, as the original author of the bill, was opposed to the bill proposed by the NDA, not to the concept of a GST. His sharpest criticism of the government was reserved for its rejection of the demand made by the Congress to cap the revenue-neutral GST rate at 18%.
Chidambaram demanded that finance minister Arun Jaitley commit to capping the standard GST rate at 18% in the supporting legislation that will follow. “The central government will have to include the tax rate in the GST bill that will follow the Constitution amendment. The Congress will launch a sustained campaign to ensure that the GST bill that will subsequently be brought by the government for Parliament’s approval should mention the 18% cap on the standard rate,” he said.
Later in the day, Chidambaram also held the party’s media briefing on the issue.
“Chidambaram was very impressive in his speech,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst who said that the Congress leader has “made his presence felt” in Parliament.
“He made some great points and also enhanced the scope of the debate by asking for assurances. This is his subject, he is naturally good at it. He was the former finance minister, who has worked on the legislation; so, he was a good choice to begin the debate,” Rao added.