Finance Bill who?: India's newspaper front pages ignore sweeping changes

Large systemic changes seem to be taking place under the cover of noise about Hindutva.

On Wednesday, the Lok Sabha passed the Finance Bill 2017, along with amendments that changed or tweaked the provisions of 40 different laws. The amendments make the Unique Identity number, Aadhaar, mandatory for filing tax returns and validating Permanent Account Number cards, replace important tribunals or merge them with others, remove caps for corporate funding to parties and and allow them to make donations anonymously, and lower the limit for cash transaction.

Documents on these amendments were circulated in Parliament on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, they were passed before most members of Parliament could even say Yogi Adityanath. Rajya Sabha may discuss them, but since this is a money bill, none of its recommendations will be binding.

Taken together, the amendments could have far-reaching implications for the way our political economy operates, for the rights and privacy of individual citizens, for the transparency of the electoral system. Pretty momentous changes for a single day, one might say.

But, going by the Delhi front pages the next day, they might have never happened.

It was, of course, a day of dramatic and distressing developments. By night, news of the attack on the British Parliament had broken, and most papers made it their top story.

The Times of India, once you peeled through several pages of advertisements, told you about the terror attack and the doctor’s strike in Maharashtra. One paragraph on the edge of the front page went under a headline quoting Finance Minister Arun Jaitley: “Aadhaar for I-T returns needed to plug evasion”.

Meanwhile, the freshly minted Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath, lost no time swinging into action, declaring a crackdown on allegedly illegal slaughterhouses. While meat shops were burnt in one Uttar Pradesh town, the state police’s newly constituted “Anti-Romeo squads” went around heckling couples.

These reports edged out the Finance Bill from the front page of the Indian Express. The Hindu, for its part, was also preoccupied with developments down south, with the RK Nagar bypoll and the fight over the All Indian Anna Dravida Munnnetra Kazhagam’s election symbol.

One could argue that a blast and majoritarian harangue take precedence in general newspapers. But what of financial papers? The Economic Times relegated it to the inside pages, carrying only a pointer saying Jaitley defended the stance on Aadhaar. Damning proof, perhaps, that the amendments to the Finance Bill have only a tenuous link to finance or money? Opposition parties, after all, have accused the government of taking the money bill route to slip in changes not related to finance, mainly in order to bypass the Rajya Sabha.

The only paper that did cover the bill prominently was the Hindustan Times, which highlighted the removal of the tribunals, the dangers it posed to autonomous bodies, the accusation of this being a “backdoor bill” and Jaitley’s defence.

But if the other front pages are to be believed, everything but the passing of the Finance Bill happened. Which leads to this worry: are fundamental systemic changes taking place under the cover of the noise about Hindutva?

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