Angiography

It's a tragedy the media failed to see how Finance Bill endangers idea of India

How is it that something that’d turn political funding totally opaque, and the very idea of citizenship fragile, wasn’t deemed ‘newsworthy’?

 |  Angiography  |  20-minute read |   24-03-2017
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Barely anybody tweeted, so it barely made the headlines, or even a ticker on our so-called 24X7 news television. Biggest journalists in the newsroom either had no idea that Finance Bill, 2017 was passed in Lok Sabha on the evening of March 22, or they chose to remain tight-lipped about it.

Barring a few journalists from independent opinion portals, and committed chroniclers of Parliament such as Meghnad S (Twitter handle, @MeMeghnad), who assists the BJD MP, T Sathpathy, and fellow live-tweeter, @HasParlAdjYet, there was mostly silence, and occasional snark from a handful of scribes who thought it was worthwhile to follow Lok Sabha TV, let alone cover Parliament proceedings. Occasional murmurs in the glitzy newsrooms of Noida and New Delhi, never made it to have even a word uttered on the enormity of what should be ideally called the “Finance Bully, 2017”.

But everyone who stayed silent contributed to the passage of a Bill that would be responsible for the crumbling of Indian democracy in ways hitherto unimagined. To say that the first act of a sinister opera of the slow destruction of both constitutional democracy and our rights as citizens of a democratic republic has been enacted, with our largest circulating newspapers and 24x7 TV channels glossing over what would easily be one of the most draconian chapters of the post-2014 Indian story, would be an understatement.

How is it that something that would turn political funding totally opaque, and the very idea of citizenship fragile, wasn’t deemed “newsworthy”? But for our mainstream media, and those who never forget to remind themselves and 1.3 billion Indians that they are in fact the country’s agenda-setters, Finance Bill, 2017 wasn’t “news” enough.

What is Finance Bill, 2017?

The Finance Bill, 2017, that was passed in Lok Sabha on March 22 evening, was a bulk Bill with amendments to a number of taxation (and non-taxation) related laws. There’s the first line of breach, because by definition, the finance bill is the annual legislation that deals with only taxation laws and new levies, if any.

Finance Bill, 2017, however, had clauses that related to amendments to non-taxation laws such as the Representation of People’s Act, which determines how political parties operate, including their funding structure. What Finance Bill, 2017 did was remove the hitherto 7.5 per cent of net profit cap on corporate funding of political parties as well as the requirement to disclose the names of beneficiaries by private companies.

This means boundless and anonymous donations from companies to political parties, and essentially to the one in power, peddled as “corruption-free governance” to you.

But that’s not all. The clause mandating the highly fraud-prone Aadhaar, or the biometric-based unique identity number issued by the UIDAI, (Unique Identity Authority of India), for filing income tax returns and to obtain and retain PAN cards, in addition to making it compulsory for availing a number of government services, as well as welfare subsidies for some of the most vulnerable groups, was smuggled into the Finance Bill, 2017 as a last-minute amendment on March 21.

jaitbd_032417123841.jpg When Jaitley introduced Finance Bill on the day of Union Budget, he proposed to reduce the limit of anonymous individual cash donations to political parties from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000.

This clause, that would turn perfectly ordinary citizens into non-compliant, tax-evading criminals if they don’t have Aadhaar, was circulated only after most of the Opposition members of Parliament in Lok Sabha had finished challenging what they were made to think was the ever-changing draft of the Finance Bill, 2017.

Subverting Parliament

Which means that neither the Lok Sabha MPs from the Opposition were given any time to register and absorb the implications of the incoming barrage of fresh amendments trafficked in as new clauses of Finance Bill, 2017, nor did they know at any point of time during the debate the what the full and final draft of the Bill read like. Essentially, every attempt to completely squash debate and obliterate informed discussion in Lok Sabha to give a free rein to this Bill was made.

With well over 330 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the BJP-led NDA government can virtually pass any Bill, with the sheer force of brute majority. That is why discussion in Rajya Sabha, the crucial Upper House of Parliament, where MPs are elected by political parties to allow the erudite stalwarts among them to continue to guide a hubris-prone majority government, is essential.

Because the ruling BJP does not have enough strength in the Rajya Sabha, and because it is crookedly aware of the gross constitutional violations that the Finance Bill, 2017 is teeming with, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley ensured that his Bill to sledgehammer democracy didn’t have to withstand scrutiny and vote from the Upper House, where it would have been surely stalled. By introducing Finance Bill 2017 as a “Money Bill” and bypassing Rajya Sabha evaluation and vote altogether, Jaitley subverted Parliament once again.

Why is this particularly ominous? Because the next time the BJP-led NDA government wants to shove a Bill that it knows to be blatantly unconstitutional down our collective throats, it would once again take the Money Bill route, now that the example has been set. Until of course, it manages to paint the Rajya Sabha saffron and assumes brute majority in the Upper House as well.

etb_032417124029.jpg Even business dailies didn't give much space to Finance Bill, 2017, as it was passed in a manner that’s unfit to be part of a healthy functional parliamentary democracy?

In effect, the role of Parliament as the body to debate and dissect the pros and cons of every draft legislation has been diminished, and how. Not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who treats his parliamentary speeches as one more excuse to continue his permanent electoral engineering, even his Union cabinet ministers, particularly finance minister Arun Jaitley, have been pulling a fast one on Parliament by disrespecting its very core and disregarding the fundamental values that guide the legislature of India’s parliamentary democracy.

Opaque political funding

For a party whose election campaign in 2014 was corruption-free “maximum governance, minimum government”, the ruling BJP, under the stewardship of Narendra Modi, and aided electorally by national president Amit Shah, and legislatively by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, whose brainchild Finance Bill, 2017 is, has come a long way. Because in the garb of ensuring transparency, it has, for all practical purposes, given a free rein to unlimited and undisclosed corporate funding of political parties.

When FM Jaitley introduced Finance Bill, 2017 on February 1, on the day of Union Budget, he proposed to reduce the limit of anonymous individual cash donations to political parties from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000. This was supposedly to tackle corruption in politics. But at the same time, he floated the idea of electoral bonds, which the RBI would issue, and which can be bought anonymously to contribute to political funding.

polfund_032417124233.jpg In the garb of ensuring transparency, the Bill gives a free rein to unlimited and undisclosed corporate funding of political parties.

While we were still recuperating from the major implications of electoral bonds as a funding scheme, another last-minute amendment to Finance Bill, 2017 was brought in on March 21 that would allow political parties to receive unlimited anonymous funding from private corporations.

A PRS Legislative reading of the clause sums this up as follows:

"Currently, a company may contribute up to 7.5 per cent of the average of its net profits in the last three financial years, to political parties. The company is required to disclose the amount of contributions made to political parties in its profit and loss account, along with the name of the political parties to which such contribution was made.

The amendments to the Finance Bill, 2017 propose to remove: (i) the limit of 7.5 per cent of net profit of the last three financial years, for contributions that a company may make to political parties, (ii) the requirement of a company to disclose the name of the political parties to which a contribution has been made.”

This is a succinct summary of what has been done in the name of transparency to political funding. Essentially, we are now by law cut off from the goings-on in the corporate-political nexus, since neither are we, as self-governing citizens of a democratic republic, entitled to know how much money which political party is getting from which private company, nor can we demand to know.

The fig leaf in this complete overhaul of political funding is the claim that most of the transactions will be made digitally, and would therefore be transparent. And that they would file their income tax returns. That’s just hogwash.

Because even though payments are made via cheque, bank draft, electronic means, or electoral bonds, no disclosure would be mandatory by law. That means unlimited anonymous money limited only by individual discretion. And, that we know, is no limitation at all.

When coupled with the FCRA amendment that was smuggled in as part of the then Finance Bill, 2016, the story becomes even murkier. Last Union Budget session saw the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act tweaked retrospectively to allow donations to political parties from foreign sources and companies. This was achieved by changing the very definition of what constituted a “foreign company”, and that too applied retrospectively from 2010 onwards, because that was when the UK-based Vedanta group started pouring in money to the kitties of both the BJP and the then ruling Congress.

Little wonder then that Finance Bill, 2017 has met with least resistance from Congress stalwarts, who are otherwise super active on Twitter and giving bytes to a perpetually TRP-hungry beast called the mainstream TV media. As FM Jaitley chirpily said in Lok Sabha, “This will benefit the Opposition too. For that, you need a big heart.”

Truer words were not uttered, and never has been a law so un-ironically one-sided, so brazenly pulling the shutters on political transparency, so smugly self-assured of not meeting legislative (and as it turned out, journalistic) challenge in Parliament, was brought in and passed in such a shady manner.

How has it come to this?

Steamrolling tribunals

An important and somewhat reported aspect of Finance Bill, 2017 has been the merger of tribunals and appellate tribunals that oversee disputes and settle conflicts between companies in areas as important as the telecom, national highways, cyber security etc.

The Bill has in effect merged a number of autonomous tribunals with existing ones, giving unsurpassed powers to the central government to appoint the heads of the merged tribunals, as well as the terms of service and termination thereof.

PRS Legislative gives a tabulated account of the eight tribunals that have been replaced and merged with existing ones. Tribunals listed in the left hand side, such as the Competition Appellate Tribunal, Airports Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal, Cyber Appellate Tribunal, Copyright Board, National Highways Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal for Foreign Exchange, etc, have ceased to exist, and their functions and oversight would be taken over by those on the right.

It’s however not in the replacement per se but in the clause that empowers the central government to determine who will lead and how the tribunals that the real story lies. Tribunals are extra-governmental autonomous bodies that are supposed to look at conflicts and disputes among companies, state governments, sectors, etc with an impartial eye. Without autonomy, these tribunals mean nothing but extensions of the central government and that political party that occupies it.

How will cooperative federalism be achieved if central government has overarching powers on every issue that needs dispassionate and bipartisan grievance redressal? Short answer: to hell with federalism, unless it’s the same party in the state as in the Centre. Or, goodbye, real federalism.

Reign of tax terror

The Finance Bill, 2017 gives the already over-empowered income tax officials a hand so free that it will be justified to call the days and months to come as the “Age of Inspector Raj”. A clause in the Bill is an amendment to the Income Tax Act, which gives unprecedented powers to I-T officials to raid any property any time, without even producing a sufficient reason for doing so, saying simply that they have “reason to believe”.

There will be no need of court orders, and no legal recourse to stop the raid can be reached, unless of course the government doesn’t want it, to carry out an income tax raid and seize cash or property of anyone at will. In addition, the amendment within Finance Bill, 2017 says even the “explanation … [for conducting the raid] shall not be disclosed to any person or any authority or the Appellate Tribunal”.

Yes, by passing the Finance Bill, 2017, the legislative nod has been duly given to a ruthless regime of tax terrorism in the name of eliminating tax evasion and making citizens tax compliant. The I-T officer can now turn anyone into an “assesse”, who’s under tax scrutiny for reasons s/he is not legally required to disclose, and can “attach provisionally any property belonging to the assesse...”

Whom will this affect the most? Let’s see: anyone who’s not in government good books. Because essentially, that is the current definition of corruption. Which includes Opposition MPs, leaders of rival political parties, whistleblowers, journalists critical of the establishment, academics, public intellectuals, civil rights activists, freedom of speech agitators, students who utter words like “azaadi” (unless they are booked under a soon-to-come crazily reconfigured sedition law) and generally everyone who speaks truth to power.

Goodbye, dissent. Goodbye to criticism of the government. Oh, if it hasn’t already died, goodbye to India’s dying journalism of courage.

Aadhaar versus citizens

The final nail in the coffin of civil liberties is of course what has been talked about somewhat and has been the primary focus of what little debate that has been raging in the public sphere. It of course relates to Aadhaar, or the biometric-based unique identity number issued by the UIDAI, and the amendment in Finance Bill, 2017, making it mandatory for filing income tax returns and to obtain and indeed retain one’s PAN (permanent account number).

aadharbd_032417124312.jpg Not only has Aadhaar been made compulsory to avail a number of government services and subsidies, after July 1, 2017, not having an Aadhaar number would be effectively a crime.

In stark and blasé contravention of Supreme Court order of August 2015, not only has Aadhaar been made compulsory to avail a number of government services and to access welfare subsidies aimed at the poor and the vulnerable among us, after July 1, 2017, not having an Aadhaar number would be effectively criminal as citizens will not be able to file their income tax returns, thereby inadvertently committing the crime of (forced) non-compliance and tax evasion.

Since PAN is central to all bank transactions and for filing I-T returns, attaching mandatory Aadhaar to PAN is one more way of ensuring that everyone must have Aadhaar in order to execute basic civic duties such as filing one’s tax returns.

Though the chant – “Aadhaar is surveillance technology masquerading as secure authentication technology” – has taken social media by storm, and though resistance to Aadhaar as a mandatory proof of identity, and now, by extension non-criminality, is growing, the government is in a tearing hurry to ensure that everyone of the 1.3 billion Indians has an Aadhaar card by July 1, 2017.

The insidious way to control citizens by tabbing each and every aspect of their digital lives (which as of now, is almost their entire lives) in the name of curbing corruption is the sound of a totalitarian government beating its own drums of glory.

Why is Aadhaar such a threat to the very idea of citizenship? Not only does it affect the privacy of a citizen, by exposing every salacious commercial, civic and social detail of his/her life to the all-seeing government and the thousands of private entities that handle supposedly secure cash transaction, it also enables the government to turn off and on at will who is legally allowed to be a citizen and avail all the rights, and who isn’t.

There is no hyperbole in stating the obvious, which has so far received zero concerns from the government, or the UIDAI, which has rolled out the monster called Aadhaar.

As the author of this searing article, St Hill, points out, just typing Aadhaar number, followed by someone’s name, and “filetype:xls” in a basic Google search leads anyone to ministry and private databases with excel sheets carrying names and details of thousands of people, with their Aadhaar number, date of birth, address, etc.

That the government, via UIDAI, can easily suspend or deactivate an Aadhaar number in case of a breach, and that the citizen concerned would have no way to address this grievance, is one of the biggest problems of making Aadhaar a mandatory proof of identity. Because it is so prone to fraud, and anyone could do a random Google search to get details of Aadhaar, makes hacking into anyone of the several Aadhaar-linked databases a virtual cakewalk for cyber terrorists and criminals.

As noted in this article, “the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, fails to specify what protection individuals will be accorded in the instance of their Aadhaar numbers being deactivated – which the Unique Identification Authority of India is authorised to carry out and has been doing in large numbers.”

How does the citizen defend himself/herself when his/her Aadhaar is deactivated for no fault of his/her own? Isn’t this a way to turn citizenship off at the click of a mouse, if the government so wishes, as if it were a switch to remain regime-friendly?

Role of media

Exactly as constitutional democracy was being upended and citizenship turned into a fragile, ever vulnerable digital shadow of its once robust, constitutionally-guaranteed offline version, where was Big Media?

Why did none but one major English-language non-business daily give any space to Finance Bill, 2017, as it was passed in a manner that’s unfit to be part of a healthy functional parliamentary democracy?

tvyogi_032417124612.jpg Media too busy reporting on Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Hindutva poster boy Yogi Adityanath.

Why was there virtually no discussion and debate on Finance Bill, 2017 on our perpetually screaming and shouting news channels? Why were they too busy reporting on Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Hindutva poster boy Yogi Adityanath’s dog, his breakfast, and his relatively insignificant state Cabinet when the central government was appropriating practically limitless opaque corporate funding for political parties, ushering in a regime of inspector raj, and turning citizens into numbers whose digital lives would be permanently impoverished and threatened by Aadhaar’s manifold in-built insecurities?

It is absolutely correct to say that not only did Big Media FAIL to carry out its basic duties, its willing blindness to the enormity of Finance Bill, 2017 betrays its utter and absolute collusion with the powers that be.

Let there be no doubt about the now overtly established fact that media is least bothered to call the government’s bluff. Indeed by its selective silence and outraging on issues scripted by the regime, media has been reduced from being the fourth estate and a pillar of democracy, to, in fact, a gigantic propaganda machine that chooses bulldozing citizens’ rights to feed its TRP-crazy monster of digression.

Not just fake news, “no news” is as much about complicity and corruption within the media, as it is about the government whose lies and deceits the media is covering up. This is such a willing sickness that no admonition in the opinion pages of newspapers and prime time television can cure.

This is India’s Big Media at its most supine and abject. This is Indian government at its most draconian. And guess what, they are on the same side.

Also read - Finance Bill puts India at risk: The way Modi government passed it is worrisome

Writer

Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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