When Finance Minister Arun Jaitley introduced controversial last-minute amendments to the Finance Bill in the Lok Sabha on March 22, Biju Janata Dal member of Parliament Tatagatha Satpathy was one of the few to immediately oppose them. The amendments, including provisions that make political funding more opaque and Aadhaar mandatory for income tax returns, were mostly drowned out by coverage of the appointment of Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister, Adityanath. But a few parliamentarians have continued to speak up about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s legislative tactics and what that means for Parliament as an institution. Excerpts from an interview with Satpathy, who is party whip for the Biju Janata Dal in the Lok Sabha:
What do you make of the last-minute Finance Bill amendments?
The amendments came in at that time while the discussion on the bill was about to begin. There was no warning. The excuse given was that the sections of the ministry that produced these provisions, they had worked overnight and presented them on Friday. But they could have worked on them and presented them over the weekend. Or on Monday. And there was nothing in it that needed urgent last-minute rectification.
Do you think the government felt empowered by their big victory in Uttar Pradesh?
I think so, yes. They wanted it to be insidious. They didn’t want people to know and discuss and discover.
Have you seen the Finance Bill treated like this before in Parliament?
Not in the last three Lok Sabhas that I have been a part of. Even in this Lok Sabha, the last two times the Budget was presented, they didn’t do this. Only now.
Does it indicate a shift in Parliament?
Yes, I think it indicates a shift in the style of functioning. Bringing a bill in at the last moment, getting it passed in the House, making sure people don’t discover what it contains, and once the laws are in place, they can be used any time required. It’s like 66A (the section of the Information Technology Act, 2000 dealing with “offensive”, “menacing” and “false” information sent through a communication device), which was passed in some six minutes. Like that, people don’t realise while passing them.
Like the Collection of Statistics (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which I opposed. That’s also just a small little change here or there, and mostly it will go unnoticed.
The Congress side is unwilling to oppose this because the Congress ego is completely smashed. And, since these are mostly projects or schemes that were started by the Congress, they have no moral right now to oppose them. So that keeps them quiet.
The BJP speakers, whoever participates, say what their party has written out for them or guided them to say. So they are all gung-ho about the government. So, with both major parties gone, it is left to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal. And after the Biju Janata Party, it is the Telugu Desam Party and Shiv Sena, which usually support the BJP, and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which is neither here nor there, and YRS Congress, which is here and there.
Do you think others in the Lok Sabha even fully understand what had happened?
I doubt it. I don’t think people really got it, before it [Finance Bill] was passed.
What do you make of the political funding changes, removing caps and disclosures on corporate funding?
Now, everything becomes incognito. You are not liable to give your name, whom you funded. You can just write political funding. There might be many companies that will write political funding and take out 30% of the money, and not have to show whom they’ve paid, and the owners can even cheat in the name of political funding. That also opens up an opportunity. Because there is no limit that a company making this much profit or more can alone donate. Anybody can donate.
And what about making Aadhaar mandatory for income tax returns? This came up in the Supreme Court soon after.
The Supreme Court has only been giving out opinions, they haven’t been giving rulings. So these people are just going ahead steamrollering. The Supreme Court, if it has something to say, should either give a judgment or shut up.
There is no point in just giving wise opinions, who wants their wise opinions? There’s no point in being wise. They are on the right track, their understanding is correct. But their actions don’t display that sincerity.
Where do you see Aadhaar going from here?
The concept of privacy doesn’t exist with us Indians in the Western sense. What is the word for privacy in Tamil? In Hindi? In Konkani? In Oriya also, I don’t know. The word doesn’t exist. There is secrecy, not privacy. There is solitude. There is no concept of privacy here. So that is what they are cashing in on. The few Indian languages I know, I have not been able to trace a word that signifies or denotes the English word privacy.
That just goes to show that in our culture, this does not exist. Not in a country where Draupadi was treated the way she was, or Sita’s situation was discussed.
Does that mean the fight against Aadhaar is a lost cause?
We are in the 21st century. If you go to a metro city like Mumbai or even Kolkata... [there are] small rooms, small apartments, whole families living there, so for married couples to have a private moment, they have to go out to a park or railway station or elsewhere.
And now, with the present system creating these anti-Romeo gangs, that too is gone. So you are actually pushing people into a very basic naked stage. Finally, those couples will have to make love in front of their parents. Because they have no alternative. If they go out, what will they do? Carry their marriage certificate? First they will get beaten, then they will show their marriage certificate, and if it has started in Bengaluru and Uttar Pradesh, I don’t see… in the near future, it will happen all over.
Unless people become conscious. It’s all interconnected, our social mores, sense of privacy, political leanings, everything is getting intertwined. And they want that.
“You’re wearing clothes? There’s a soldier dying at the border. Take your clothes off.” It may sound like a joke to us, but that’s where it is all going. A soldier is doing a job, and the job is a paid-for job. The taxpayer is paying for it. And it’s a voluntary Army. We do not have conscription in this Army.
Do you have an Aadhaar number?
I don’t have Aadhaar till now. I don’t know how I will file returns. Eventually, I think I will have to get Aadhaar. I’m entering a cul-de-sac.
I don’t see the Supreme Court being sincere in its purpose. As for the old adage that the law will take its own course – the statute books are not living objects, they are dead; the law will not take its own course. The law has to be made living through the people who implement it. The judiciary is not moving, so, therefore, the law is dead in this country.
Isn’t law also the responsiblity of parliamentarians?
What can we do? We have introduced the Right to Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill (to decriminalise defamation). Do you really think it will ever see the light of day? The moment people hear of the speech bill, they ask what it is about. I say it’s freedom of speech while striking down criminality. Their response: “Does that mean jo chahega wo bolega [people will say whatever they wish to]?” That’s always the first reaction. “How can you do that?” “Hindustan mein Pakistan zindabad bolega [in India, people will say long live Pakistan]?”. But why would anyone say that? Our bill, the understanding is that you will also be responsible. It’s not to make citizens irresponsible. It is there to trust the citizens.
What do you make of the government’s money bill approach?
I think money bills should also go to the Rajya Sabha. Should be a balancing factor. Especially in times when a brute majority turns brutal.
Are they devaluing the institution of Parliament?
They have destroyed it. They’re not devaluing it, they’re destroying Parliament with the sole intention being that since we can’t do away with it altogether, we will make sure that it is as mechanical as possible.
These are bleak times. And they will get bleaker.
And what about the Opposition’s role?
The Congress is done for. Nobody’s interested, nobody comes forward. Without the Gandhis, they feel like it’s an anath ashram (orphanage). They probably, individually, don’t think they can get re-elected and come back. Look, I may lose next time, let’s be honest, but I’m going to put up a fight. Winning, losing, I can’t tell you now but I’m going to put up a fight. Because my party has the wherewithal, I’m not just talking about money, I’m talking about the base network, we can put up a fight in Odisha.
But these people don’t feel that. They feel they will lose Karnataka, like Assam, for which they had a lot of hope, went very easily. They are blaming themselves. Once you start feeling acrimonious within the organisation, then it can only dissolve into itself. That has probably set in. See, I don’t know internal workings... but what I see as an outsider.
There’s no leadership in the party. Except Mallikarjun Kharge, nobody even sits (in Parliament) regularly.
You tweeted that the BJP is trying to break apart the Biju Janata Dal too?
They won’t succeed. We’ve put a spanner in their works.
What about the tweet from Biju Janata Dal MP Baijayant Jay Panda (whom the press presumed Satpathy was referring to)?
I tried to be civil in Parliament and if colleagues come up and take pictures, I can’t stop them… But I like that people want my selfies now. I feel like I’ve arrived. And I’m nobody. I’m like some guy who has some belief, he’s nuts. He’s not into big business, nobody knows him. Mukesh Ambani won’t recognise me in a crowd.