In a symbolic victory over the government, several Opposition parties came together in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday to force five amendments to the Finance Bill 2017-18. The government’s embarrassment will be short-lived since the Finance Bill is a “money Bill” and the Rajya Sabha can only recommend amendments. The amended Bill will now be sent to the Lok Sabha, where these amendments are set to be defeated.
The voting on the Bill, however, underlined the government being in a minority in the House. The government claims this has hobbled its legislative agenda. Its strategists have been saying the government will be forced to convert all Bills into money Bills if the Rajya Sabha continues with stalling tactics.
Uttar Pradesh rivals Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) voted together, along with the Congress and members of Left parties for the amendments. The SP and BSP have shown unity of purpose in Parliament after being drubbed in the recent Assembly polls in UP. The Trinamool Congress staged a strategic walkout. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) members made themselves scarce at the time of voting, while Biju Janata Dal (BJD) members were also absent. After the BJP’s recent electoral victories, the Trinamool has recalibrated its approach towards the Modi government. It has dropped its earlier aggression, to adopt an “issue-based” approach.
Three of the five amendments were moved by the Congress’ Digvijaya Singh, and the other two by Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury.
Two amendments moved by Singh related to the Finance Bill giving more powers to income tax officials. The Congress leader said the Bill gives “unbridled” powers to the tax bureaucracy for search and seizure, which would lead to harassment of taxpayers.
His other amendment related to the Finance Bill’s proposal to tighten rules that regulate charitable organisations run by companies. The Congress MP said the Modi government has carried out a sustained campaign against non-governmental organisations.
Yechury moved two amendments related to clauses dealing with political funding. He said the Finance Bill’s lifting of restrictions on money donated to political parties by corporate groups would lead to floating of shell companies for money laundering, and increase the play of money in the political system, which would further distort democracy.
Several members, including BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal member Naresh Gujral, criticised the proposal to give more power to junior-level tax officers. Singh said this would lead to inspector raj. “There is a concern that you are empowering junior officials while taking away power from the senior officials who sit in the tribunals,” Gujral said. Congress’ Jairam Ramesh accused the government of “Finance Bill terrorism”, with an agenda to reduce Parliament to irrelevance.
On his electoral funding proposals, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the ruling is “large hearted” in framing a scheme under which people would be without fear of consequences willing to give to somebody who was not in power. He also tried to allay Opposition’s apprehensions on the merger of tribunals. He said misgivings on more powers to tax official misplaced.