The HINDU Notes – 24th December 2019 - VISION

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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 24th December 2019

📰 Safeguarding constitutional morality

The post-poll developments in Maharashtra and the hastily passed CAA have been in conflict with constitutional values

•On the occasion of Constitution Day, at a joint sitting of Parliament to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, President Ram Nath Kovind, (quoting B.R.Ambedkar) made a significant observation that all three organs of the state, persons occupying constitutional posts, civil society members, and citizens should abide by ‘constitutional morality’.

•The reiteration by the President of an essential truth came not a moment too soon. Concerns are increasingly being voiced by different segments of people regarding violations of the Constitution by those in authority.

•Concerns about the future of democracy and democratic traditions are, no doubt, growing across the world. In quite a few democracies, moreover, one can also perceive a decrease in democratic freedoms and a trend in favour of illiberal populism. India was hitherto perceived to be an exception to this, being protected by safeguards found in its Constitution — the product of a Constituent Assembly that consisted of not only the best legal minds, but also of compassionate individuals who espoused the finest human values.

Article 370, and after

•Recent developments in India, however, seem to ‘singe’, without as yet undermining, the basic structure and principles of the Constitution. Steps need to be taken expeditiously to prevent any further slide. For instance, much has been made of the fact of diluting Article 370, that it was a temporary provision. The reality is that it was, nevertheless, a provision made in the Constitution for a specific purpose, which clearly required more detailed and careful treatment before being peremptorily invalidated. Even if the end justified the means, the haste was unwarranted.

•Again, while the Indian Constitution provides for a federal system with a unitary bias, the Central and State Governments both derive their authority from the Constitution. This implies that States are not exactly subordinate to the Centre. Splitting Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two Union Territories, without due consultation with different segments and shades of opinion there, including its political leadership, ran contrary to this essential principle. It violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.

•Furthermore, while secularism is becoming an ugly word today in many parts of the globe, we in India were free of any such bias. Lately, it would seem, that some of these biases are beginning to emerge in many circles in India as well, undermining our long held secular precepts. In its seminal judgment in the Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case (1973), the Supreme Court held that secularism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution and cannot be trifled with in the name of security or other considerations.

•These are all portents of danger, and call for a great deal of introspection. They merit a calibrated response. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be happening. Those in authority would do well to heed the warning given by former President Pranab Mukherjee while delivering the second Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture that “A numerical majority in elections gives you the right to make a stable government. The lack of popular majority forbids you from a majoritarian government. That is the message and essence of our parliamentary democracy”.

Drama in Maharashtra

•Constitutional capers are aggravating this situation. The unfortunate drama enacted after the Maharashtra State Assembly results were announced could have been avoided if constitutional proprieties were adhered to. A pre-election alliance of the BJP-Shiv Sena had secured a majority, but the inability of the two allies to resolve issues relating to sharing of power led to a breakdown. President’s rule had to be invoked. Later, after a compromise was reached between the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress to form a government, the President’s rule was revoked in a midnight charade using the Prime Minister’s ‘special powers’, and a BJP-led government was sworn in. The State also witnessed unseemly incidents such as sequestering of MLAs who were taken to safe havens to avoid poaching in the event of a trial of strength in the Assembly. That the attempt to impose a BJP-led government did not succeed is less important than the fact that provisions of the Constitution and the position of constitutional functionaries had been compromised.

•A still more expedient experiment, which conflicts with some of the basic precepts contained in the Constitution, has been the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). On the face of it, the CAA only makes it easier for refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to gain Indian citizenship. The fine point, however, is that it excludes certain categories, such as Muslims. This denies people belonging to one particular religion recourse to the new law.

•While the CAA implicitly violates India’s liberal traditions, when combined with the move to compile a National Register of Citizens, it carries an ominous ring. Many experts had apparently warned that the proposals were in violation of the Constitution, but these warnings were not heeded. That the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed through both the Houses without any detailed debate or discussion thereafter is, hence, unfortunate, giving an impression that a majority in Parliament is adequate to push through Acts which may or may not be in tune with the Constitution.

A study was needed

•Whatever be the merits or demerits of the CAA, given India’s many-layered democracy and the existence of different religious communities spread across different regions of the country, a more detailed and in-depth study was called for before pushing through such a key measure. Granting citizenship may be the sole discretion of the Centre, with the States having no role. Yet, this could still be unconstitutional if it violates Articles 8 and 14 of the Constitution.

•The violence in varying degrees of intensity that has erupted across the nation is a testimony to the divisive nature of this latest piece of legislation. The issue of refugees from neighbouring countries has been pending for long. No satisfactory outcomes were readily forthcoming. Given that the Constitution has been the guarantor of equal treatment to people of all religions and regions, and irrespective of geography and history, the issue of refugees called for not only greater understanding, but also more time, so that the fundamental principles of the Constitution were not violated. While piloting the Bill, the Home Minister had mentioned that “if the Congress had not divided this country on the basis of religion, there would have been no need to bring in this Bill”. This is hardly a valid argument. On the other hand, it raises more questions as to what were the real reasons behind the enactment of the Act.

•What is also not understood is the haste with which the Bill was pushed through Parliament. India has been grappling with several more critical issues in recent months, including the state of its economy. To raise this matter at this time seemed uncalled for. At this juncture, it may be worthwhile to quote Winston Churchill ‘the price of greatness is responsibility’. Is India acting responsibly?

📰 A decision without forethought

The government’s decision to implement the CAA has thrown the Northeast into turmoil and shaken investor confidence

•Every cause has an effect and that is why every government decision must be preceded by careful thought about its potential repercussions. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 has had huge consequences on both the domestic and foreign policy front. In India, widespread protests that began in the Northeast are now raging across the country. On the international front, soon after the protests broke out, two Bangladesh ministers cancelled their visit to India, the Japanese Prime Minister postponed his visit to the country and the annual India-Japan summit was cancelled. From the perspective of India’s ambitious development plans and strategic diplomacy, the question that arises is whether the Central government factored in the ramifications of the CAA on India’s Act East Policy and its potential side effects on the country’s relationship with foreign stakeholders heavily invested in the Northeast.

Repercussions on various fronts

•Apart from being the unique region that links India with ASEAN nations, the Northeast is also the springboard for India’s engagement with Southeast Asia. This is precisely why New Delhi roped in Tokyo to fulfill its ambitious plan of expanding its global footprints via development in the Northeast. As part of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, Japan has been investing in the Northeast in a big way. Recently Tokyo decided to invest ₹13,000 crore in different projects in the Northeast. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is actively engaged in building Northeast road network connectivity, water supply projects and economic modernisation of the region. It will be financing the construction of India’s longest bridge between Dhubri in Assam and Phulbari in Meghalaya. Japan has contributed official development assistance loans for the North East Road Network Connectivity Improvement Project. Private Japanese organisations are also financing a host of developmental projects in the region. It is but natural that the CAA protests and Internet shutdowns in the region would have come as a huge shock to Japan and its investment plans in the region which hinge on stability and a business-friendly environment conducive. Given these considerations, the government could have done well to analyse how such a decision would affect the economic development of the Northeast.

•Second, in case Japan has a rethink on these development projects, will it do so keeping in mind only the Northeast or the rest of India too? JICA is involved in various big-ticket infrastructure projects in Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Odisha, etc. Third, the volatility of the Northeast can possibly be a setback to the collaborative efforts between India and Japan in providing an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Fourth, besides being a development partner, Japan is also a member of the Quad, which came into existence to counter Chinese economic prowess and unlock India’s potential in the Indo-Pacific. Last and most importantly, when Kashmir is already volatile, can India afford to open another frontier of vulnerability in the Northeast?

•Clearly, the government did not take various stakeholders into confidence while taking this decision. The proof of messy diplomatic pudding is in the eating as the UN has described the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory”. The U.S., the U.K., Canada and others have issued travel advisories to those visiting the Northeast. Why did the government not utilise diplomatic channels to put forth its views before the stakeholders in the international community? Had it done this, it could have avoided the embarrassment it is facing today. It is high time that decision-makers of the BJP learnt the basic difference between raw muscularity and successful diplomacy before taking such measures.

Viewed with suspicion

•The blunders of the BJP government are straining and staining India’s foreign policy. India has been described as the “Internet shutdown capital of the world”. Senior political leaders are under detention, Parliament is passing laws to grant religion-based citizenship to migrants of selected countries, and the youth of the country is out on the streets protesting. Will all this not shake investors’ confidence and dent the ease of doing business in India? The Indian economy is already going through a rough phase and the loss of investor confidence will only add to our woes. At the global level, India has always been respected for its diversity and inclusive character. It is because of parochial decisions like the CAA that India will now join the rank of nations which are viewed with suspicion because of their political and economic climate. Instead of being on an expansion mode, thanks to the government India will now be on an explanatory mode.

📰 A hard Brexit?

Breaking down the key features of the revisedwithdrawal agreement bill

•More than 40 months after the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, Britain will exit the EU on January 31. But nearly a fortnight since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s landslide general election victory, Downing Street has scotched all speculation about a smooth transition out of the bloc a year hence. On Friday, the House of Commons voted 358-234 for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The new version of the Bill has several key changes, of which three are particularly significant.

•First, a new clause outlaws an extension to the standstill transition period that would expire on December 31, 2020. The contentious step fulfils the Conservative Party’s election promise, and precludes the possibility of seeking any further extension beyond December 2020. Following the announcement, the pound slid 1.1% against the dollar relative to the gains after the election results, reviving market anxiety.

•The hostile stance on an extension is rooted partly in the Tories’ resentment going all the way back to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, against the country’s EU membership contributions. Besides the £33 billion settlement contained in the withdrawal deal, any extension after next December would entail additionally about €10 billion a year. The resistance also carries echoes of the Tory Eurosceptic stance in the previous Parliament. Eliminating the threat of leaving without an agreement, the party had argued, would diminish the government’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the EU.

•Second, the bill dispenses with the need for parliamentary approval, for the government’s negotiating mandate as well as the final agreement on the country’s future relationship with the bloc. The blueprint is to be ready by the end of February and the defining post-transition agreement by November. The provision risks sidestepping normal democratic channels for industries and trade unions to influence the shape of their future trading relations with the EU, worth an estimated £90 billion.

•Third, guarantees on labour rights previously included in the withdrawal bill have been removed. This vindicates sceptics’ fears about a drift to a low-tax low-regulation U.K. economy after Brexit. EU leaders have described Mr. Johnson’s cramped time-table as highly problematic to finalise a zero-tariffs, zero-quotas free trade agreement. Brussels is wary of granting these concessions to a major economy such as Britain. In exchange for any flexibility, the EU insists on a close regulatory alignment and a level playing field on state subsidies, competition policy, and labour and environmental rights to safeguard its single market. Such demands are at odds with the Eurosceptic vision of Britain wresting control of its laws and borders. In any case, a narrow ‘goods only’ deal excluding the large services sector from any agreement would deprive Britain of the benefits from its pre-eminence in financial and digital services. If no agreement is within sight by this time next year, a cliff-edge exit on WTO terms is a very real possibility.

Challenges ahead

•Under the terms of withdrawal, Northern Ireland will continue to remain within the EU jurisdiction after Brexit. The government will enforce customs checks for goods traded across the Irish Sea to the rest of the U.K., increasing costs for the bulk of small enterprises. The regulatory divergence within U.K. territory is the compromise London has conceded to protect the EU’s single market. The arrangement would maintain the existing soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which has underpinned the region’s tenuous peace since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The new scenario could strengthen demands in Belfast for unification with Dublin, potentially imperilling the U.K.’s constitutional integrity. Brexit has strengthened calls for a second referendum on independence by the Scottish National Party, which won a big majority in the UK elections. Mr. Johnson faces challenges on many fronts.

📰 Aadhaar to be made mandatory for GST

Bid to curb malpractices: Sushil Modi

•With 66.79 lakh new dealers registered under the Goods and Service Tax contributing just 15% of the total revenue under the tax regime, the GST Network has decided to make Aadhaar authentication or physical verification mandatory for new dealers from January 1, 2020, to check malpractices.

•Briefing about the decisions taken at the GST meeting here, Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, who heads the Group of Ministers on Integrated Goods and Services Tax, told the media here that 66.79 lakh new registered dealers were paying just 15% of the taxes, constituting about Rs. 10,000 crore in monthly collections.

•Monthly collections had crossed the Rs. 1 lakh-crore- mark in six out of eight months during April-November, 2019, he said.

•The number of registrations under GST stood at 1.21 crore and of this, 55.04 lakh dealers had migrated from the pre-GST regime and 66.79 lakh were new registrations since the launch of GST. He said dealers who migrated to the GST contributed 85% of the total revenue.

•“Aadhaar authentication will be made mandatory for new dealers for registration. We have noticed in two years that a large number of operators are registering themselves as GST dealers. They make fake invoices also.” He said those who declined to give their Aadhaar numbers would have to undergo physical verification.

•A total 24.86 lakh fake or bogus registered dealers had been weeded out from the GST.

•Mr. Modi ruled out any hike in GST rates in the near future. He said the Centre and States were not ready to raise tax rates as the economy was in a slowdown, affecting revenue mobilisation.

•For ensuring smooth compliance by taxpayers and transparency, he said it was decided to launch the new GST returns filing system from April 1, 2020. Noting that “it will be a game-changer, ” Mr. Modi said the new system envisaged the concept of regular invoice upload and proposed to be fully automated involving the reconciliation of invoices before proceeding with input tax credit claims.

📰 PM chairs first meet on investment

•The newly-formed Cabinet Committee on Investment and Growth (CCIG) held its first meeting on Monday as the government looks to boost spending to bring back a sputtering economy on track.

•Sources said Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the meeting of the CCIG. No details of the decisions taken at the meeting were immediately known. The panel has four other members — Home Minister Amit Shah, Highways and MSME Minister Nitin Gadkari, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Commerce & Railways Minister Piyush Goyal.

📰 Detention centre rules not new

Minister told Lok Sabha that manual on ‘model’ centres was issued to States in Jan.

•The Ministry of Home Affairs has been instructing the State governments since 2009 to set up detention centres to “restrict the movements of foreign nationals staying illegally so that they are physically available at all times for expeditious repatriation”, according to the government response in the Lok Sabha.

•Going by a reply of Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai on July 2, such instructions were issued to all the States and Union Territories from time to time in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2018.

•Mr. Rai also said a detailed manual on ‘model detention centres’ was circulated to all the States on January 9.

•Addressing a rally in Delhi on December 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “These rumours of detention centres being spread by the Congress and Urban Naxals are completely false... The Muslims of the country are neither being sent to detention centres nor is there a detention centre in India, this is a white lie.”

•The 11-page manual was prepared in the aftermath of a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander on September 20, 2018, in the Supreme Court, highlighting the plight of families languishing in six detention centres in Assam where members of the families, who were declared foreigners, were put in camps separated from each other. It was argued that the State did not make any distinction between “jails and detention centres” and thus between “detainees and ordinary inmates” and the camps were being governed as per the Assam jail manual.

•When this lacunae was highlighted in the court, the Ministry informed the court on November 5, 2018, that it was framing guidelines for keeping illegal foreign nationals in detention centres across the country.

No approval needed

•The manual says the States require “no specific approval” from the Ministry to set up “detention centres/holding centres/camps”. It lays down that these centres should be set up outside the jail premises and their numbers and size should be decided by the States keeping in view the actual number of foreigners to be housed as well as the progress in deportation proceedings.

•Assam has six detention centres, the highest among the States. Ten more are expected to come up in the near future in the wake of the final publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on August 31 that excluded 19 lakh out of the 3.29 crore applicants.

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