Speaking at the launch of the State Bank of India’s 2nd Economic Conclave in Mumbai on Tuesday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley decried the practice of continuous disruptions of Parliament by opposition parties and urged them to rise to a level of statesmanship to end the impasse in Parliament.

Jaitley also asked the audience to build public opinion against such obstructions which had held up key economic legislation like the Goods and Services Tax Bill.

“In this battle between growth and obstruction, public opinion has to create a sense of revulsion against obstruction. It is only then when political cost of obstruction is very high that you will find obstruction being knocked out as a political strategy,” he added.

"It is not necessary that you take to the streets," Jaitely told the audience that included corporate leaders.  "The media is an important instrument, social media is a powerful instrument. Even meeting and questioning those who you think must change is also an important instrument. That is how civilised debate and opinion takes place."

Earlier in its eagerness to push through the GST Bill in the recently-concluded monsoon session of Parliament, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party launched a nation-wide campaign to dub the Congress as “anti-development”. At the same time, business leaders started an online petition urging the opposition not to derail Parliament and block the GST Bill.

On the face of it, the finance minister can hardly be faulted for his observations. But the national Democratic Alliance government’s purpose would be better served if Jaitley and, more importantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to personally speak to the Congress leadership to resolve their differences instead of using a public podium to build opinion against the opposition.

This may help the government score a political point over its opponents but the strategy could prove counter-productive if the Congress does not cooperate in the passage of the GST Bill.

Eventually, the government will have to engage with the principal opposition party, whose support is crucial in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling alliance is in a minority.

And yet, there has been no effort by the NDA government to reach out to the opposition. Ever since the monsoon session ended, there has been talk that the ruling alliance is planning to convene a special session of Parliament this month-end or early-September for the passage of the GST Bill. But the opposition has been kept in the dark about these plans.

'Worst since the Emergency'

Congress leaders are quick to point out that when the previous United Progressive Alliance government’s GST Bill was held up by Modi, it did not hesitate to have a dialogue with him. Former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh was despatched to meet Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, and address his concerns.

Similarly, Ramesh had also met senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, who was then leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, to clear her party’s apprehensions. But the BJP refused to budge.

The current breakdown of communication between the government and the opposition has elicited a sharp comment from former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who is known otherwise to be restrained and diplomatic in his comments. In an interview to The Economic Times, Pawar lamented that the Prime Minister had not taken the initiative to enter into a dialogue with his political rivals and even went as far as to state that the bitterness between the two sides is at “its worst since the Emergency.”

Blaming Modi for the logjam, he said: “Whenever there is a crisis in Parliament, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the House functions. And the person who is the head of the ruling party has to take the initiative, which is missing in the present set-up.”

Who's having second thoughts?

While the government continued with its opposition-bashing, the Congress hit back in the same vein. Jairam Ramesh reminded Jaitley that it is not the Congress which was having second thoughts about the GST Bill but it is Modi who has had afterthoughts about it.

The previous United Progressive Alliance government had introduced the GST Bill in the Lok Sabha in 2011 but it was Modi and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha who had opposed it. Modi, who was then Gujarat chief minister, objected to the Bill because he felt his home state would suffer a financial loss.

“The finance minister has no moral authority to speak the way he is speaking on GST because the prime minister single handedly sabotaged GST for three years and his party colleague Yashwant Sinha took two and a half years to submit his report to the Standing Committee on Finance on the GST,” Ramesh reminded the ruling alliance.

In fact, Gujarat government officials who recently deposed before the parliamentary committee scrutinising the Bill, continued with their opposition to the Bill but they were subsequently overruled by the Gujarat finance minister.

Consensus possible

Unlike the case of land acquisition, the Modi government can forge a consensus on the GST Bill because the Congress is not principally opposed to it. However, it has repeatedly stated that it will not support it in the present form. It has proposed three changes to the present Bill:  The tax levied should not exceed 18%, the 1% additional tax being levied to offset the losses suffered by the manufacturing states be dropped and the legislation provide for the constitution of a dispute settlement mechanism.

The Congress has consistently maintained that it is willing to cooperate with the government if its amendments are accepted. However, the government has rejected these changes, stating that this is a mere ploy to block the GST Bill. It is hoping the Congress will buckle under public pressure. At the same time, it is confident it has successfully created schisms in the opposition ranks by winning over regional parties.

With both sides unwilling to meet each other midway on the GST Bill, it appears that the Modi government and the Congress are set for yet another confrontation. While waiting for the ruling alliance to make the first move, Ramesh sent out a clear message to the Modi government: the GST Bill cannot become a reality without the support of the Congress.