Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to the first Lok Sabha majority in 30 years in 2014. He then followed that by leading a campaign that won his party a whopping 312 seats in the 403-strong Uttar Pradesh Assembly this month, giving a huge charge to the BJP at the Centre. So why then is the BJP, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in particular, operating as if they have something to hide in the Lok Sabha?
What did Jaitley do?
The original draft of the Finance Bill, tabled annually with the Budget and meant as the legislative vehicle for the government’s taxation changes, included amendments to less than a dozen other laws. That was on February 1.
On March 22, the Finance Bill that Jaitley had introduced along with the Budget more than a month prior, came up for discussion in the Lok Sabha. Even as members began putting forward their points about the Bill, including the sweeping powers it proposed to hand to Income Tax authorities and its introduction of electoral bonds, it became clear that Jaitley was expanding its scope.
What was the Bill hiding?
Suddenly it emerged that Jaitley had added 33 more clauses to the Finance Bill draft, taking the total number of amended laws up to 40. And these were not nips and tucks meant to simply square off bits of errant legislation. They were sweeping changes.
One amendment made the Aadhaar mandatory for filing Income Tax returns, despite a Supreme Court order declaring that the Unique Identity number can only be voluntary. Another altered electoral funding laws to remove limits that had been imposed on companies donating to political parties, and deleted a provision requiring them to disclose donations, effectively opening the door to anonymous corporate funding of politicians.
These amendments came so late that many of the lawmakers simply did not have time to go over them. Some had already used up their allotted time to speak about the Finance Bill, before even seeing the amendments.
Why is that a problem?
The Budget Session in India’s Parliament is split into two halves, with a recess in between, so that lawmakers can pore over the details of the government’s proposals and suggest changes. While even that three-week period may not have been long enough for members to consider a change as substantial as electoral bonds, at least it means lawmakers and the public have had a chance to hear about the government’s suggestions.
The Finance Bill is also one of those things that, like the Budget, is expected to pass every year, since it is the will of the majority party. It is rarely held up, in part because it usually simply contains taxation proposals and nothing more ambitious than that. Moreover, Finance Bill is usually treated as a money Bill – a specific type of legislation that only covers taxation or spending, and can be passed without the assent of the Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley’s tactic abuses each one of these customs. Despite being expected to table the Bill more than a month before passage, he introduced sweeping changes less than 48 hours before the Lok Sabha voted. Because it was the Finance Bill, and because the government has a brute majority, it was passed. And though it will come up in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, that discussion will be academic.
When pushed on the matter in the Lok Sabha, Arun Jaitley took up a discussion of what the word “only” means, and said the criticism of his approach was “much ado about nothing.”
Why should BJP supporters care?
The BJP has a majority, and most people have treated the result in Uttar Pradesh as confirmation that Modi continues to have a mandate nationally. Some might see this as good enough reason to say the BJP can do as it likes. But the BJP won a national mandate promising to not act like the Congress, and to take everyone along with it. And Jaitley alone is not the BJP.
What would the finance minister have lost if he had fully tabled all of its Finance Bill proposals along with the Budget instead of introducing them at the last minute?
Parliament is meant to be deliberative, and the BJP promised to not be a High Command party that makes all of its decisions behind closed doors. Before the Budget Session, Modi reached out to all parties and said Parliament ought to function, since it is a mahapanchayat.
It is not without reason that many, even within the party, continue to call Arun Jaitley the BJP member who fits most easily into Lutyens’ Delhi and could comfortably have been a member of the Congress. The danger with acceding to a process where even BJP MPs do not have enough time to examine Jaitley’s proposals means giving the finance minister power that should trouble even those in Modi’s party.
The government has submitted hastily drafted legislation in the past – the Land Acquisition Ordinance being one example – that turned out to both have errors in it, and turned the public against the BJP. Jaitley introduced last-minute amendments that go against Modi’s stated objective of increasing political transparency in political parties, and include a blatant disregard of Supreme Court’s orders that might end up inviting its wrath. Does the BJP really trust Arun Jaitley to bring in last-minute legal changes with little oversight from even within the party?
Is there a bigger picture?
As NK Premachandran, an MP of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, suggested during the debate, the government might as well introduce all of its legislation in the Finance Bill and do away with the other Sessions.
The BJP might feel that it is going to be in power for some time, but even it is not hubristic enough that it believes that will last forever. Successful abuse of the Parliamentary system doesn’t end up as an anomaly, it turns into a custom.
At the end of the day, every MP in Parliament – including the BJP ones – represents their constituency. The Anti-Defection Law may not allow MPs to vote as they please, but that’s why a deliberative process at least permits questions to be raised about the specifics of legislation. By doing away with that too, Jaitley is enshrining a High Command culture where he alone drafts the laws, introduces it at the last minute, brushes away discussion and opens the door for other parties to abuse the same process in the future.