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GST Launch: Manmohan Singh Lost His Place in History Yet Again By Toeing Sonia Gandhi’s Line

File photo of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh (PTI)

File photo of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh (PTI)

As the incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee stood at the podium, on June 30, in the Central Hall of Parliament, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave the launch of Goods and Services Tax (GST) a miss as requested by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

News18 Sunday Feature
As the incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee stood at the podium, on June 30, in the Central Hall of Parliament, former prime minister Manmohan Singh gave the launch of Goods and Services Tax (GST) a miss as requested by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. It must have given Singh a sense of relief that Mukherjee, who was finance minister in his Cabinet, had got a message across: The seed for GST was sown during the UPA term. But ironically the man credited with liberalising Indian economy in 1991 chose to toe the party line, skipping the launch of the country’s biggest tax reform.

For a man who is still considered as one of the best economists in the country and had led policymakers to lay the groundwork for GST as the PM, absenting the GST launch was a historical loss.

Hours before the midnight function, MoS finance Santosh Gangwar had said that a personal invite was sent to Singh and that he would “definitely come”.

But soon before the ruling BJP-led government had sent out the invite, Sonia Gandhi met the former PM and conveyed the party’s position of boycotting the event. Sources in Congress say Gandhi was worried that if Singh attended the function in his personal capacity, it would take steam out of the entire Congress campaign.

A top leader of Trinamool Congress, the other opposition party which had boycotted the event, confirmed to News18 that the Congress was indeed worried. “Congress has been worried ever since Meira Kumar filed her nomination for Presidential elections. Singh had not openly come out in support of Kumar. His silence had begun to worry the party,” News18 was told.

Gandhi had it her way and sources say Singh chose to watch the event on his TV set. A Congress leader said Singh couldn’t say no to Gandhi who had given up PM’s chair for him.

“Two women kept two GST heroes away from the historic Parliament event: Sonia and Mamata prevented Manmohan Singh and Amit Mitra, respectively,” tweeted Singh’s former media advisor and author of ‘The Accidental PM’ Sanjaya Baru. In complete contrast to what Baru hinted, Congress put up a show of strength and said that decision to boycott the launch was unanimous and that Singh was always on board. Singh, from his newly launched Twitter handle, had also posted a picture of meeting traders to ‘discuss how badly the GST will impact the economy’. Desperate attempts, many would argue, were made to make sure the world thought that Singh did not want to go for the GST launch.

Reality, however, remains that Singh was caught in his party’s desperate attempt to stay relevant. With a dwindling Opposition and the rise of Modi juggernaut, Congress is doing everything possible to stay afloat in the run up to the 2019 elections. So, it partnered with the TMC and boycotted the launch, calling the rollout a ‘publicity stunt’.

But was the party right in doing so? Following the TMC, which has a completely different roadmap to political success, may not have panned out well. Mamata’s concern about small traders and hawkers (which is her vote bank) being affected by the ‘hurried push out of the new tax system’ was her reason for the boycott. Does Congress have a similar reason of treading to a particular vote bank lobby? No.

The lone argument that the grand old party had for boycotting the event was calling it a publicity stunt, and, of course, saying that the BJP had initially been against the GST when UPA had put forth the idea. Many say, Singh differed from the party.

“He wanted the party to make its point clear by attending the event. In a similar, subtle way that President Mukherjee did. But Gandhi had a different idea,” sources said. And the Congress chief’s decision made Singh look bad.

This is not the first time that the Congress, especially Gandhi, had cornered Singh. In 2009, Singh was clear that he did not want controversial ministers like A Raja on his team. But the threat of losing out on support from the DMK made Sonia pitch for Raja and the rest, as they say, is history. The 2G scam continues to be Singh’s Achilles’ Heel.

Again, in 2011, when Singh wanted an expert like Montek Singh Ahluwalia or C Rangarajan has his finance minister, Sonia Gandhi rolled out her own list of the Cabinet and Singh’s suggestions were ignored. Gandhi’s support to then environment minister Jairam Ramesh and the latter’s problem with Singh are known to all. And it wasn’t just Singh who was cornered by the party. Singh’s then media advisor Baru was also shown the door for fiercely defending the PM whenever he got the chance. The party soon chose Harish Khare, and after that Pankaj Pachauri, both of whom enjoyed Congress’s confidence and not that of Singh’s.

Congress heir Rahul Gandhi’s legendary tearing up of the controversial ordinance, which could have negated the Supreme Court verdict on convicted lawmakers as ‘complete nonsense’, while Singh was in the United States, was yet another insult to Singh.

So, why did Singh, after all these humiliating incidents, decide to toe the party line and listen to Sonia Gandhi? As a close aide of the former PM admitted, “Now that he was out of power, he could have shown some spine.” Sadly, he didn’t.

“When I am no longer around, history will look at me more kindly than you all have,” Singh had once said towards the end of his tenure as PM.

Sympathetic and pitiful eyes, Mr Singh, is how history looks at you as of now.

(More Sunday Features)
first published:July 02, 2017, 14:52 IST