New Delhi: After a 17-year roller-coaster ride , the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was launched in Parliament at the stroke of midnight, much like the solemn function which marked India’s Independence. Addressing a packed Central Hall of Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself drew this parallel, underlying the historic nature of the tax reform which he dubbed the ‘Good and Simple Tax’.
It was the Central Hall, Modi said while addressing ministers, opposition leaders, MPs bureaucrats and select businessmen, where Jawaharlal Nehru and other national leaders had ushered in India’s Independence and where India had accepted its Constitution.
Modi also drew two other interesting parallels. One was between the number of chapters the Bhagwad Gita was divided into and the number of times the GST Council had met — 18. The other being the number of taxes before the implementation of GST and the number of self-governed provinces in India before they were brought under one government by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — 500.
“Just like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel united over 500 provinces into one India, there were 500 different types of taxes spread across 29 states and seven Union Territories that we are bringing into one tax regime…. The best brains in the country have been working to make GST a reality and today it has become an exemplar of cooperative federalism in the country,” Modi said. The GST is a not just an economic reform but a social reform, he added.
Modi also invoked Albert Einstein and quoted him saying, “If there is one thing that is most difficult to understand, it is income tax. I wonder what he would have said had he seen our tax system.”
The other interesting thing, in the launch of GST, was who and where some people were spotted sitting in the Central Hall. As Modi addressed a packed Central Hall, the table right in front of him was occupied by an interesting mix of people — BJP president Amit Shah, senior BJP leader LK Advani and NCP chief Sharad Pawar.
The Samajwadi Party and the BSP, which hadn’t made their stance on attending the midnight GST session clear, in the end seemed to have decided to mark their presence. From SP, Ram Gopal Yadav was present in the hall. The BSP sent two leaders, Rajya Sabha MPs Veer Singh and Raja Ram, to represent it in the special session.
Also spotted at the venue was Ratan Tata, who perhaps was the only big corporate leader to be invited to the event. Actor Amitabh Bachchan and singer Lata Mangeshkar were also invited.
Modi’s speech was followed by the speech of President Pranab Mukherjee. In his address, Mukherjee decided to mention his own role in the actualisation of GST. “It is also a momentous occasion for me personally. I had introduced the Constitutional Amendment Bill in 2009 as the Finance Minister.”
The President went on to say that some Chief Ministers, during his term as the Union finance minister, had also raised some contentious issues during the discussion on GST, “including the Chief Minister of Gujarat”, but “I found that most of them had a constructive approach.” The then Chief Minister of Gujarat, needless to say, is the present Prime Minister of the country.
Apart from Modi and Mukherjee, the third speaker in the Central Hall was Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
“At the midnight hour, we will be launching the biggest and the most ambitious tax in history,” is how Jaitley began his speech. He went on to compliment the quality and maturity with which various political stakeholders had come together to make GST a success. “This is a high point in Indian politics,” Jaitley said.
The government has claimed that GST will create a national market, enhance ease of doing business and improve tax compliance. While the Opposition, including Congress, the Left and the Trinamool Congress, who chose not to attend the event, has criticised the hurry with which Centre introduced GST. The Opposition called it a “blunder”.
With the proceedings coming to a close in Parliament, all eyes will now be on the implementation of what many have called the biggest tax reform in India’s history.