Finance Ministers' panel to meet today to elect new chief

Amit Mitra of the Trinamool Congress is the front-runner for the chairmanship

After nearly five months, the Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers will meet on Monday to elect a new chairman in place of Asim Dasgupta, who had to bow out after his defeat in the West Bengal Assembly elections.

The meeting, to be presided over by Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, is also expected to pick up the threads and knit the way forward to implement the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST).

It is a matter of coincidence that Dr. Dasgupta, who as West Bengal Finance Minister was the chairman of the empowered panel since it was set up, was defeated in the elections by the former FICCI secretary-general and Trinamool Congress candidate Amit Mitra, who is now the Finance Minister and a front-runner for the chairmanship of the committee.

Another strong contender is Kerala Finance Minister K.M. Mani who, according to reports, wrote to Mr. Mukherjee last month, expressing his interest in taking over as chairman. Mr. Mukherjee, on his part, sounded out Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP for the post. However, Mr. Modi, who handles the Finance portfolio, declined the offer because of his preoccupation with the State affairs.

Madhya Pradesh Finance Minister Raghavji, who has been the most vociferous in presenting the BJP's point of view on the draft Bill, said the objective of Monday's meeting was to find a consensus candidate. “The meeting has been called to elect the new chairman of the Empowered Committee, which fell vacant after the exit of [Mr.] Dasgupta. We are hopeful of electing a suitable candidate through consensus.”

The most important job of the new chairman, Mr. Raghavji said, would be to work with the Centre and all States on the implementation of the proposed GST.

As things stand, the BJP-ruled States, along with Uttar Pradesh (under the rule of the Mayawati-led BSP), raised a number of objections to the first three drafts owing to issues of autonomy, and are also not willing to accept the current draft Bill that has been circulated by the Centre.

Citing infringement of the rights of the States in taxation issues, the BJP-ruled States have objected to the proposal to bring sales tax under the ambit of the GST. Because of such basic differences, Mr. Raghavji said the roll-out of the GST looked slim, as “the concerns we had raised still remain.”

Seen as a major reform in the indirect taxes regime, the GST, if and when implemented, will subsume most of the indirect levies such as excise duty and service tax at the Central level and value-added tax and other local duties at the State level.

However, the Bill for amending the existing laws to facilitate the implementation of GST requires parliamentary approval with a two-thirds majority, along with the consent of half of India's 28 States. So, the BJP's support is crucial, both at the State and Central levels, if the GST regime is to be implemented.

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