Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi held an unprecedented meeting on Friday to find common ground on various issues before Parliament, brightening the prospects of the long-awaited GST bill going through this winter session.
They sat over tea for 45 minutes at the PM’s residence in across-the-table negotiations on the crucial reform legislation, pending in Parliament since 2011.
An hour before the meeting, Modi pulled out all stops to woo the principal opposition party. He praised the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the Lok Sabha, declared that he wants Parliament to run on consensus, acknowledged the contributions of “all PMs and all previous governments” and repeated a BR Ambedkar comment that the Congress chief had read out on Thursday.
Former PM Manmohan Singh, finance minister Arun Jaitley and parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu were also present in the meeting.
Gandhi, according to sources, appreciated the government’s move to talk with the Opposition and underlined the Congress’s three key demands on the GST bill.
Jaitley explained the government’s position and is believed to have told Gandhi about the possible consequences of accepting the Congress’s demands.
Manmohan Singh briefly intervened during the discussions, said sources.
“We discussed matters related to the winter session. There was also discussion on the GST Bill. Congress leaders gave their suggestions, we also told them our opinion,” Jaitley said.
Gandhi said at the meeting she would discuss the government’s proposals with party leaders before responding to them. Naidu told her that if she wants, the government can again hold such a meeting.
“It has been a constructive engagement and a work in progress. It is not a question of going back or going forward,” said Anand Sharma, deputy leader of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley maintained the government will establish “fresh contact” with the Congress after it completes internal discussions.
The GST aims to replace the complex system of nearly 20 different taxes and levies imposed on commodities by different states as part of Modi’s promise to streamline government and support businesses.
Replying to a debate to commemorate Constitution Day and BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, the Prime Minister said, “Building consensus is more important than majority rule. In a democracy more strength lies in walking on the path towards agreement. Taking a decision through a majority rule should only be the last effort. But before such a situation arrives, consultations must be held.”
Modi has often been accused by political opponents of trying to undermine the legacy of Congress prime ministers.
On Friday, he recalled a debate where socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia argued on an issue with facts and figures. “Nehru was such a great man, he stood up and agreed to what Lohia said,” Modi pointed out.
While Modi’s invitation to the Congress president for negotiations is seen as a major step to reach out to the Opposition, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi maintained that the meeting was called “under public pressure”.
“It is quite natural that they (the government) should talk to the Opposition, but the Prime Minister has invited Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh only after public pressure. This was not his intent and this is not the way he functions,” Rahul told TV channels outside Parliament.
Modi’s unprecedented approach to reach out to the Opposition comes amid the NDA government’s urgency to push the GST bill and other reforms.
During his speech in Parliament, Modi avoided any confrontation with the Opposition and maintained that the mindset of “you and I” must make way for “the united spirit of we”.
Though he pointed out how Congress MP Giridhar Gamang cast his vote against the first Atal Behari Vajpayee-led government leading to its defeat, Modi added, “Long ago, Ghulam Nabi Azad and I used to go for TV debates. Away from the camera, we used to chat and drink tea together.”
At the end of the debate in parliament, leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge shook hands with Modi.
“Dil mile na mile, hath toh mila hee sakte hain (We may have differences but we can still shake hands),” he quipped.