GST and NC’s naked emperor

Views from Srinagar
Jehangir Ali

In the summer of 2013, soon after taking over as Chairman of the empowered committee on Goods and Service Tax, the stalwart of the Opposition National Conference, Abdul Rahim Rather, sought adequate “safeguards” for the special constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir under the new tax regime. His remarks are recorded in the minutes of that meeting, a public document accessible to all.
Come 2017 and Mr Rather did a volte face his party is notoriously known for in the State. In the penultimate meeting of the consultative group set up by the J&K government to evolve a consensus on GST, he opposed extending the Constitutional Amendment 101 to J&K, arguing it will erode the state’s “fiscal autonomy” and, instead, demanded a “separate legislation” to govern the indirect taxation system of the state.
The new tax regime, the first major economic reform since independence, took more than 10,000 hours of deliberations between the states and the Centre to become a reality. These were also attended by Mr Rather. He never advocated ‘separate’ law for J&K. But let’s not pretend to be surprised. The National Conference, the granddad of politics in J&K, has always latched on to non-issues for making itself relevant in public discourses. If the party president Dr Farooq Abdullah can eulogise militants to book his seat in the Indian parliament, no harm in Mr Rather’s backtracking on GST.
To reestablish the constitutional morality and authority of the Jammu and Kashmir legislature, which is the most empowered among the states’ houses of lawmakers in the country, our government decided to take the debate on GST to the people by holding consultations with stakeholders. 46 Constitutional Amendments have been extended to J&K since 1954. Not one has been debated in our legislature where they belonged. J&K is a different state with its own constitution. We acted differently. Our intent was clear: transparency in governance and broader consensus on issues of public importance.
In order to revitalise the lost culture of debate on an important constitutional matter like GST, more than dozen meetings were held in May and June, including by the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, with the state’s lawmakers, trade, business community, constitutional experts and other stakeholders to hammer out a roadmap for bringing J&K under the new tax regime without compromising our fiscal autonomy and thus safeguarding the special constitutional position of J&K under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
Besides being the nuisance factor, the opposition party contributed little, other than raising the bogey of ‘erosion of fiscal autonomy’. The Presidential Order issued last night has exposed those claims. Not only has the special constitutional position of J&K been safeguarded but the state has also got a veto power on decisions taken in the GST Council “impinging on the constitutional provisions” of Jammu and Kashmir. The order reads:
“Notwithstanding anything contained in this order, the power of the state of J&K as per section 5 of the Constitution of J&K shall remain intact. The Legislature of J&K shall have powers to make laws with respect to Goods and Services Tax levied by the state.” Section 13 of the Presidential Order notes: “Nothing in this article shall affect in any manner whatsoever the legislative competence of State of Jammu and Kashmir as guaranteed by virtue of section 5 of the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir.”
The Presidential Order has safeguarded the special constitutional position of J&K and respected the sanctity of the J&K Legislature which has never been the case when the National Conference was in power. On 13 November, 1974, Beg-Parthasarthy accord was signed on J&K. On 24 February 1975, the then Prime Minister said clock can’t be turned back. As if moving on a script, the National Conference followed it up by saying that “J&K is not an issue” anymore.
The party reaped this betrayal’s harvest on 25 February 1975 when Sheikh Abdullah took oath of office as Chief Minister, the only legislator from National Conference with wholesome support of 58 Congress legislators. This was followed by a presidential order which took away the powers of the J&K Assembly to make laws without president’s consent, rendering the highest seat of governance impotent. The last vestiges of the state’s constitutional position were trampled upon on July 30, 1986 when the power of parliament to make laws on state list subjects, was applied to J&K. Four months later, Dr Farooq Abdullah signed an accord with the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
If this isn’t the lust for power, pray, what is!
If there is one party that has lynched the constitutional morality of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, it is the National Conference, of course, with overt and covert support of the Congress. Today, the party stands exposed in the eyes of public for whipping up passions on GST to make itself relevant. The party kept harking on the issue of ‘erosion of state’s fiscal autonomy’ but the Presidential Order has belied all those claims. The facade has fallen. The politics of deceit and hypocrisy stands exposed. The emperor is walking around, naked. Someone offer him clothes, please.

— Courtesy: Greater Kashmir

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