At Inchon, 50 km east of Seoul, South Korea, stands the main secretariat of Association of World Bodies (A-WEB). Established formally in October 2013, the Association aims majorly to “foster efficiency and effectiveness in conducting free, fair, trans- parent and participative elections worldwide”. During the Cold War, democracy promotion activities in Asia and Africa were an arm of US diplomacy. The disintegration of the Soviet bloc, and consequent termination of the Cold War, triggered a proliferation of electoral democracies around the world, already on growth curve since 1976. Samuel J. Huntington called the phenomenon “Democracy’s third wave” shortly before the Cold War ended. Since many of those nouveau democracies in third world suffered from institutional weaknesses, and scarcity of trained human resources, etc, multilateral electoral assistance bodies like International Foundation for Electoral System (established in 1987) and International IDEA (established in 1995) came into existence. The A- WEB, which has 115 institutions from 106 nations as members, is the newest and only one from Asia.
Asia’s first international electoral assistance body emerging out of South Korea should amaze us. It is true that South Korea became independent on 15 August in Parliament 1948 — exactly on the first anniversary of India’s Independence. However, where- as India has maintained an uninterrupted record of democracy, South Koreans had to wage a long struggle to reclaim it.
Syngman Rhee, President (1948-60), though democratically elected, made no secret of his authoritarian instincts. He held on to power beyond two terms through constitutional amendments. In 1952, he responded with martial law to the Opposition members who called for introduction of parliamentary form of government. During the Korean War (1950-53) he liquidated thousands of imaginary opponents on suspicion of being Communist agents. Even if one discounted Rhee’s regime, South Korea suffered two military dictatorships as well. Major General Park Chung Hee, who came to power though coup d’état of 19 May 1961, ruled until his assassination on 26 October 1979. General Chun Doo Hwan ruled between 27 August 1980 and 27 June 1987 before he was forced out of power by massive popular demonstrations. It was Hwan’s protégé and successor Roh Tae Woo, who notwithstanding his Army background, prepared South Korea for genuine democracy, leading a return to civilian rule of law, and allowing greater civil liberties. South Korea’s constitution had been repealed as a whole five times in 40 years between 1948 and 1987. Democracy in Korea is effectively as old as the Sixth Republic established in 1988.
South Korea, like Taiwan, is perceived as a test case where persistent economic growth under authoritarian regimes led to democratisation. The growing middle class played a palpable role in democratic agitations in South Korea. Official statistics show that South Korea’s economy grew at an average rate of 8.9 per annum between 1962 and 1987 under the two military regimes. While South Korea defeated military dictatorship to achieve democracy, it is speculative what the situation would have been if the country had passed under Pyongyong’s Communist rule in 1950. As the Korean War was triggered on 25 June 1950, the powerful North Korean army had an easy run of peninsula south of 38th parallel. Within three day, Seoul was overrun by the Communists, forcing the Syngman Rhee to evacuate his government to Pusan city on the eastern coast. By the first week of combat South Korea’s army depleted by around 75 percent. Of 98,000 troops commanding officers could account for 22,000 troops by the end of June.
The Korean War (1950-53) marks the first outbreak of hostility during the Cold War. The US, ironically, never budgeted for it, choosing to concentrate on defence of Western Europe instead. The Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, in his 12 January 1950 speech, had defined a “defensive perimeter”, wherein Korea was seen as by no means vital to America’s national interest. In fact, Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) lay outside the defensive perimeter.
South Korea’s capitulation to Communism was the last thing that President Harry Truman would have wanted. He was already frustrated at his inability to prevent China from going red in October 1949. The mission of General George C. Marshall, Chief of US Army during World War II, for a truce between Chiang Kai Shek’s Guomindang (Kuomintang) and Mao Ze- dong’s Communists in 1946 had ended in abject failure. According to Truman’s own doctrine (1947) the US would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external and internal forces. It was, therefore, obligatory on the US to intervene in Korea peninsula where democracy was in imminent danger of being extinguished by Communist aggression.
Truman’s obvious choice fell upon General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP), then based in Tokyo, overseeing the reconstruction of post-War Japan. He was called in to lead the UN forces. The UN military intervention in Korea was also the first in the history of mankind, where an organisation had mobilised force to halt aggression. It largely drew its combatants from the armed forces of the NATO member countries. General MacArthur (1880-1964), despite having crossed 70 years, chose to lead the war in person.
“Against the advice of his more orthodox superiors in Washington” says Henry Kissinger about MacArthur, “he landed American forces at Inchon (the port of Seoul), well over 200 hundred miles behind enemy lines, cutting North Korean supply lines with Pyongyong. The North Korean Army collapsed and the road to north lay open” (Diplomacy, P.480). Kissinger was referring to the Amphibian landing made by X Corps created by General MacArthur out of Army and Marine units from 15-19 September 1950. “We shall land at Inchon, and I shall crush them” were the words of the 70-year-old General. His plan went according to the script. The Inchon landing made history. Inchon, where the office of A-WEB secretariat stands, therefore acted as the launching pad of campaign touted as “battle for democracy”. The symbolism could not have been more evocative.
However, MacArthur, pursuing his two-fold military objective — punishing the aggressor in territorial terms; and, reunite nearly ninety percent of Korea under the authority of Seoul — took the war deep inside North Korea closer to Chinese frontier at river Yalu even against the advice of Washington. This provoked China to enter the war against the US-led forces on 26 November 1950. China’s vigorous counterattack again pushed the line of control 65 km south of 38th Parallel with Seoul falling into Communist hands. Almost three year were spent in that seesawing. The Korean War that began with easy victory for the US-led forces, ended in a stalemate on 27 July 1953 with both parties back to their original positions.
As Egyptians dislike Herodotus’ pontification that Egypt is gift of Nile, and prefer to call Egypt as gift of Egyptians, so South Koreans loathe seeing their democracy as gift of the US notwithstanding MacAr- thur’s bravery. While the US was against Communism, it would be an overstatement to say it was for democracy. In the aftermath of the war, Washington concluded military defence pacts with Seoul. It still maintains in South Korea tens of thou- sands of own troops as well as substantial air power, and provides massive aid to augment the South Koran army. The US has stood steadfast with military dictators. The democracy that South Koreans enjoy is their own achievement.
Late Ambassador Channing Liem, a supporter of Korean unification, said of South Koreans in 1992: “Though they remain wary of the communist North, they reject the anti-communist propaganda of their government and seek the truth. Nor do they trust the United States. The louder the US extols democracy, while backing dictatorial oligarchs in Seoul, the deeper their distrust becomes. In the face of such changed circumstances, it is incumbent upon the American people to join with Koreans in a critical re-examination of Korea’s Cold War history and to take stock of Korea’s situation today” (The Korean War: An Unanswered Question, P.2).
The writer is an author and independent researcher based in New Delhi. The views expressed are his personal.
The crisis of credibility facing Indian media
The phenomenal growth of the media in India, including the unregulated arena of social media, has brought with it a significant decline in accountability and reliability. A solution to this lies perhaps in the setting up of a new Media Commission.
The media in India is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility. Its exponential growth coupled with diminishing accountability has underlined the urgent need to draw up an agenda in the current scenario for the media to fulfil its constitutional obligations.
The media has a crucial role in promoting democratic and social values, waging a crusade against aberrations and imperfections in the polity and strengthening the edifice of democracy and ensuring good governance.
Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression, empowers the media to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased, sober and decent manner. But the moot question in today’s context is about who will define the “public interest” and whether the media can be goaded to follow any selective interpretation of this phrase.
The government and regulatory mechanisms like the Press Council of India (PCI) think it imperative that the media learn to differentiate between matters of “interest to the public” and “those in public interest”, remaining unbiased not only in covering latest developments in political, social and economic fields but also in highlighting the real issues agitating the masses, such as economic disparities, social discrimination, gender inequalities, child abuse, sanitation, environment, poverty, unemployment, education and healthcare, rather than thriving on non-issues.
But this “imperative” too can’t be enforced either by law or through an executive order. The right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) (a) is limited by the “reasonable restrictions” contained under Article 19(2) on eight vital grounds on which laws can be made. But Article 19(2) in no way takes away the right of the media to promote its own interests within these reasonable restrictions, especially in this era of liberalisation.
In Bennett Coleman & Co. v Union of India, the Supreme Court held that freedom of press entitles the media to achieve any volume of circulation and freedom, both in its circulation and content.
In the landmark case of Sakal Papers v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution permits the imposition of reasonable restrictions only within the grounds expressly stated within Article 19(2). These include security of state; friendly relations with foreign states; public order; decency or morality; contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence; and sovereignty and integrity of India.
The apex court opined that if a law does not fall within these grounds and abridges the right to freedom of speech and expression, then it is liable to be declared void.
Several professional bodies, including the Editors’ Guild of India, are seriously concerned about the behaviour of a section of the media and the inevitable fall out of all this is that “others” now seek to regulate. The media industry too is not oblivious of the tremendous pressures to self-regulate and set its house in order.
The NDA government has been adopting a very cautious approach in dealing with the highly sensitive Indian media. So far it appears to favour persuasion rather than the imposition of statutory regulation in any form. Even the previous UPA government had been unhappy about a “free-for-all” in the name of free media.
Lord Denning, a famous British judge, in his famous book, Road to Justice, observed that the “press is the watchdog and that even the watchdog may sometimes break loose and has to be punished for misbehaviour”.
The government, which sometimes appears eager to rein in the media, may like to study the report of the Lord Justice Leveson public inquiry which was set up by then British Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the infamous phone hacking scandal. The Justice Leveson public inquiry was asked to look into phone hacking and police bribery by the News of the World. It alsoconsidered the culture, practices and ethics of the wider British media. The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World was found involved in the phone hacking scandal, which rocked the British government and jolted public opinion across the world. Several high-profile heads rolled when the story behind the scandal unfolded. The Justice Leveson inquiry recommended a statutory independent regulatory mechanism with powers to enforce its decisions on the media in all its manifestations. The report castigated the British media for its behaviour which it said often “wreaked havoc” in the lives of innocent people.
The Indian media has also often drawn flak from various quarters for “sensationalism” and “trivialisation”. Intemperate language used by some politicians and social activists reflecting their gender and community bias has invariably underlined the need for the media to scrupulously avoid devoting precious time and space to “non-issues” which may be of interest to certain segments of the society but do not serve the public interest.
Several professional media bodies have been pressing for the setting up of a Media Commission on the lines of the First Press Commission and the Second Press Commission for an extensive review of the entire media industry. The proposed Media Commission may recommend, among other things, the setting up of a Media Council of India, replacing the existing Press Council, which has the mandate to regulate only print media. The jurisdiction of the proposed Media Council may include all types of media—print, electronic and the Internet/social media. But the idea has failed to take off in the face of stiff resistance from the industry.
The News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a private association of different current affairs and news television broadcasters in India, and the Indian Newspapers Society (INS), representing the print media industry, for long have enjoyed considerable clout in the corridors of power. Together they have been lobbying hard against the setting up of a Media Commission which may review the functioning of all segments of the media and address other important issues including cross-media ownership, paid news syndrome, press-politician relationship, monopolistic TV rating points, concentration of advertisement, the wage structure for employees in the media industry, etc.
The first Press Commission set up by the Nehru government in 1952 looked into the control, management and ownership, the financial structure as well as other aspects of the newspaper industry. It recommended the appointment of the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI), setting up of a Press Council of India and the enactment of the Working Journalists’ Act, besides other things. The Second Press Commission was set up by the Janata Party government, headed by Morarji Desai, in 1978. The Commission in its report wanted the media to play a responsible role in the development process. The Press Council of India was reconstituted as per recommendations of the Second Press Commission.
The media industry, both electronic and print, would like us to believe that the question as to how the media can and should focus its enormous strength and reach on developmental reporting and positive news interests could be addressed only through self-regulation. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) is India’s apex organization of television broadcasters. It promotes the interests of the Indian television industry and provides a meeting ground to ensure that its members work in consensus to achieve common goals and have a common platform to air grievances and arrive at solutions. The IBF has adopted a programme code. It has empowered the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) to impose fines on TV channels found violating the programme code.
A few channels have already been faced with financial penalty for screening obscene content and directed to tender an on-screen apology for violating the programme code. The BCCC has also been regularly issuing advisories to TV channels cautioning them about their content, particularly depicting victims of incidents of rape and acid attacks on women and girls, stereotyping of women in general and the portrayal of minority communities. But all these measures on self-regulation appear “clumsy” and the paradigm of self-regulation needs to be strengthened by reviewing this model.
It is a catch-22 situation. Self-regulation without a statutory binding to enforce it among all the players of the game will be a half-hearted attempt to make the TV channels accountable to the people. And any legal framework would be rejected by the industry as violating the right to freedom of speech and expression. A way out has to be found for an effective and smooth functioning of the media as a potent weapon to strengthen Indian democracy. And then there is the phenomenal growth of the unregulated social media with the potential to breach privacy, create social disorder and pose a threat to national security.
An answer lies perhaps in the setting up of a Media Commission (another Press Commission) for a fresh look at the whole gamut of media functioning in India. It is the need of the hour. It may be headed by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court of India and its findings binding on all the stakeholders. The proposed Media Commission may recommend a truly representative statutory Media Council in place of the existing Press Council. The proposed Media Council may encompass the media in all its dimensions with adequate provisions to enforce strict vigilance and discipline.
It may be possible sooner than later. What is required is a powerful public opinion in its favour and a strong political will on the part of our lawmakers.
The writer is a senior journalist and currently a part-time member of the Prasar Bharati Board. The views expressed are personal.
IT’S NOT JUST POLITICAL, IT’S ALSO PERSONAL
The state of Bihar is all set to go to the polls next month but equally there is another interesting battle that will take place around the same time. This is the slew of bypolls slated for 28 seats in Madhya Pradesh where the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government rules with a wafer-thin majority. Of these 28 seats the BJP needs 9 seats to cross the halfway mark on its own; and just two seats to continue in government with the help of its current allies: Currently, the BJP has 107 seats in the 230-strong Assembly. It also has the support of four Independents, two BSP MLAs and one suspended SP MLA. Since these are fickle allies who will switch sides with anyone who has the numbers, the BJP is keen to get a simple majority on its own and is targeting nine seats at the very least. For a government in the saddle, that is not too difficult an ask.
But the Opposition led by former CM Kamal Nath seems surprisingly confident, though the Congress has a much more difficult task. After Jyotiraditya Scindia defected to the BJP with his faction, the party is now reduced to 88 seats. Ideally it should win all 28 to cross the halfway mark, but even if it wins around 20 odd seats, it is confident of wooing away some of the smaller allies and independent MLAs from the BJP to wrest back the government.
However, this is not the twist in the tale for until now this is just a fight between an incumbent and a former Chief Minister. The story gets interesting when you add Scindia into the mix, for unlike Chauhan versus Nath which is a straightforward electoral battle, the Scindia versus Nath fight is very personal. Even before Scindia destabilised the Nath government, the two were rivals, for the former always saw himself as the rightful claimant to the CM’s chair while both Nath and Digviijaya Singh saw his as a bit of a pretender who whiled away his time in Delhi and only showed up to claim the prize. This interestingly is a turf war that dates back to Jyotiraditya’s father, the late Madhavrao Scindia’s time when Nath backed Digvijaya’s candidature as Chief Minister over Scindia senior’s claims in 1993.
These bypolls are as crucial for Jyotiraditya as they are for Shivraj and Kamal Nath. As many as 16 of the 28 bypoll seats are from the Gwalior-Chambal region, which is touted as his stronghold. The BJP tickets have been given to the Congress rebels who switched sides with him, thereby upsetting the BJP leaders in the area. Most of the thwarted BJP candidates have been accommodated by Nath, either within the Congress or they have his support as independents. According to senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai, “Nath has deputed a party worker for every 20 voters, he has a band of two lakh fifty thousand workers for these 28 bypolls.” This is the same formula he had used to win the 2018 state polls as well, taking on Amit Shah’s panna pramukh model with his own.
Since Scindia has not yet been accommodated in the Modi cabinet, a lot will depend on how he performs at the ground level. The cabinet reshuffle at the Centre is slated to take place after the Bihar and MP elections. And apart from Nath, he also has to take on the discontent within the state BJP which is not too happy to have ‘Maharajah’ thrusted upon them. Both the PM and the Home Minister are staying out of the bypolls, preferring to focus their energies on the Bihar elections. This leaves the field clear for the state BJP which recently came out with a star campaigners list that had Jyotiraditya as low as Number 10 with others like V.D. Sharma (state BJP chief) and Narender Singh Tomar above him. The message is not lost on those who recall that when he was with the Congress, Scindia headed the campaign committee. Equally telling is the fact that Scindia’s face is not there amongst the official BJP posters.
For Nath too, the stakes are high. This could be his last shot at relevance for one is not sure if the Congress would project him as the CM candidate in the next state elections due in 2023. He knows this and has been working hard throughout the lockdown. His team seems confident of winning at least twenty of these bypolls. and though there are WhatsApp videos being circulated by the Scindia camp to show the empty seats at Nath’s rallies, the latter’s supporters point out that these are seats at the fag-end of the tent and that too during corona times. They instead talk of his confident body language and the fact that he is leading the campaign from the front. And there are also WhatsApp videos of Scindia being greeted with Murdabad cries that are in circulation, only one is not sure whether these are from the Congress or sent by his newfound BJP colleagues.
And so while the media focus is on the Bihar polls, there is an equally interesting and high voltage battle being fought in Madhya Pradesh with the theatre of action being the Gwalior-Chambal region
A Requiem for a daughter !
Satyameva Jayate! Truth alone triumphs! This line is inscribed on the national emblem. It means what it says. But is this true today? Which is the real truth? The one seen by us, the bystanders? The truth captured by cameras? The truth as experienced by the victim? The truth as narrated by the perpetrators? Or the truth as manufactured by the authorities? The truth as presented by the spin doctors to save the guilty? Are there multiple versions of truths on account of play of Maya? Why should truth be wrapped in mystery? Why should it unravel in so many facets as the murder in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rasoman? Or truth is like an onion, as one peels off layers after layers; one inhales pungent smell and gets tears in eyes but find nothing! Or truth is like an elephant that eight blind persons try to describe by touching different parts?
Well, truth is always one.Those who want to present it, describe it as they see it: seeing is believing! But those who want to hide it for their own reasons, obfuscate facts; rather manufacture facts to weaken the case of the victim and strengthen the case of the perpetrator!
A rape is the most heinous crime against women. It’s humiliating and traumatizing beyond words. Dalit women are raped in rural India at will and left to die as they are most vulnerable. Their complaints aren’t registered in normal course, they are pressured & threatened of dire consequences including harm to their families which are intimidated, manipulated and offered monetary swap for hushing the case. The men in khaki and other investigating agencies have no interest in getting to the bottom of a case; unearth the truth and getting the culprits punished .Their modus operandi and whole narrative unfolds as per the directives of their Puppeteers: Political masters.
And political masters’ entire endeavour is to protect their supporters, save their skin, save their kursi and save the image of their party and garner political mileage even out of a rape case. Finding truth is farthest from their minds.
A rape is not a rape as there is no evidence. Advocates of this theory disregard the known reality that vaginal evidence of rape can’t be found after 12 days. Dying declaration is deliberately ignored. All chances of recovery of any forensic evidence are burnt in wee hour cremation of the dead body of the rape victim. What could be crueler than stopping a wailing mother from seeing the face of her dead daughter?
Political leaders who could do nothing to save the rape victim descend at her village, squat on the ground with family, shed some crocodile tears, mouth some practiced platitudes demand the dismissal of the Govt of the state. Those who show much stronger solidarity are booked under draconian laws and accused of receiving funds from abroad and hob knobbing with the enemies of the nation & declared anti-national!
When a Nirbhaya is raped in Delhi, it shakes the whole nation, a slew of laws are enacted .The courts continue their proceedings at snail’s speed; the Rapists are eventually punished after 12 years! But the rapists of the Dalit Nirbahya of Hathras might never be punished as there was allegedly no rape! Even if it was proved, who cares? After all, she was a Dalit !
In the meanwhile, we continue shouting from the roof top: Vasudhaiva kutumbkam! Mera Bharat Mahan!
Beti bachao! beti padao!
The author, a former Ambassador, writes on political and strategic affairs.
Partisan talk by MPs internationally not helping
Members of Parliament, when they are speaking at international platforms, should paint a fair picture of their country to an audience that is unlikely to know much about the ground reality. This applies to even Opposition MPs, who should try to appear impartial, instead of coming across as partisan and intent on scoring points against the government of the day. As else, in the process, they may go on to denigrate their own country. When an MP from the world’s most populous democracy addresses an international audience, he or she adds legitimacy to the claims he/she is making. The problem starts when such claims are outrageous, divisive and may instigate the gullible into taking action.
Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM, who is MP from Hyderabad, was recently reported to have made wild charges of pogrom of Muslims in India at a conference named “The Stories of Muslims Lynched and Oppressed under the Hindutva Regime”, organised by an Islamist outfit, Islamic Society of North America. So an Indian lawmaker claimed of minority oppression in his country from an Islamist platform and added muscle to the narrative of “oppressive” India, without bothering about the effect this might have on the radicalised, who may take it as a cue to take to arms and disturb peace in this country.
Moreover, the sub-text of such a message was in keeping with Jinnah’s Two-Nation theory— that Hindus and Muslims cannot stay together and that Muslims need a separate nation to survive. In fact, this divisive message was at the core of the Thiruvananthapuram MP, Shashi Tharoor’s recent speech to a Pakistani audience as well. His language may not have been as “intemperate” as Owaisi’s, but to claim on a Pakistani platform that the Tablighi Jamaat “super spreader” event was used as a means “to justify open bigotry and discrimination against Muslims”, is not only to speak a blatant untruth, but also sends out a subliminal message justifying the partition of India and creation of Pakistan— that the Muslim community cannot be safe in a Hindu majority country.
Ever since the Narendra Modi government has come to power, first in 2014 and then again in 2019, the forces arrayed against it have stitched up a narrative of intolerant India, with selective outrage over incidents of reprehensible violence against the minority community, thus trying to prove such incidents as the rule and not aberrations, which they are. This narrative has been sold globally by forces from within the country, so much so that USCIRF, in an outrageous move, has branded the world’s largest democracy as a “country of particular concern”, along with authoritarian powers and sham democracies such as China, North Korea and Pakistan. The intention of such propaganda is clear: to create enough doubts about India under PM Modi, so that it ultimately creates uncertainty and brings the country under attack at different fora—apart from hurting its prospect of attracting investments.
The idea also is to scare the minorities with the propaganda that their existence is under threat, and thus create unrest, the way it happened after the passage of the CAA. It is in this context that Tharoor’s use of words such as “bigotry” and “discrimination” has to be seen—they are part of the larger narrative that the outof-power has been building. However, the flippant use of such words is best avoided, for they do not reflect the reality on the ground. It is also ironic that these words were uttered on a Pakistani platform—a country whose minorities have almost ceased to exist, unlike in India, where their population is burgeoning.
Parliamentarians are expected to show better sense than this, and this applies to both sides of the political divide. In this context, a quick mention must be made of Farooq Abdullah. It is sad to see a veteran Parliamentarian, a former Cabinet Minister with Government of India and a former Chief Minister of an Indian state screaming “China” from the rooftops, seeking its intervention in the matter of Article 370! Surely someone like him can be more responsible in what he says. Words have repercussions and should be uttered with care.
PM Modi’s massive reform to honour the honest taxpayers
With a non intrusive and impartial tax charter, which will henceforth work with the basic
assumption that a taxpayer is honest and not otherwise, India has joined a handful of
countries like the US, Australia and Canada which have such a provision in their laws.
Ease of doing business (EoDB) has been high on the Modi government’s agenda—India’s EoDB ranking improved dramatically from 142 in 2014 to 63 in 2019. The new taxpayer charter, which is seamless, faceless and painless, is aimed at making life easier for businesses and taxpayers, via faceless appeals and faceless assessments, giving the concept of “minimum government, maximum governance”, an entirely new dimension altogether.
The said charter, expected to have statutory status and empower citizens by not only ensuring timebound services by the Income Tax department, but also that taxpayers are treated with the dignity they deserve, fixes accountability of tax officials, who have often been accused of high handed behaviour. As per a report by Deloitte, there are over Rs 4.96 lakh crore worth of income tax claims locked in litigation, with the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) having 92,338 pending cases, High Courts, 38,481 cases and the Supreme Court, 6,357 cases. Tax litigations are largely the result of shoddy tax compliance and evasion, stemming from a poor tax code. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s taxpayer charter, therefore, is a gigantic reform, to foster mutual trust between taxpayers and tax administration.
Effective from 13 August 2020, the faceless assessment scheme aims at obliterating human interface between Income tax department and taxpayer. The taxpayer is selected randomly through a system using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics. Territorial jurisdiction is also abolished. Faceless appeal facility will be applicable from 25 September 2020, to check corruption and arbitrariness. Under faceless appeal, in case of a complaint, taxpayers will have the right to appeal to the officer, selected in a random manner. No one will know who the officer is. The tax assessee also need not visit any office in person.
A team of officers will take a final decision on the appeal and taxpayers will also have the right to get it reviewed. Direct tax reforms started meaningfully after the Modi government slashed the basic corporate tax rate to 22% from 30%, in September 2019, akin to a fiscal stimulus of Rs 1.45 lakh crore. Effective tax rate with all surcharges came to 25.17%. For new manufacturing companies that start production before March 2023 and incorporated on or after 1st October 2019, corporate tax rate was reduced to 15% from 25%. Minimum alternate tax (MAT) was also lowered from 18.5% to 15%. Union Budget 2020 gave taxpayers the option to choose between the existing Income tax regime (which allows all existing tax exemptions and deductions) and a new tax regime with slashed income tax rates and new tax slabs. New tax regime offers lower rates, but equally, it removes over 70 tax exemptions, to simplify the tax structure and ease compliance burden.
Therefore, under the new tax regime, the basic exemption limit will remain Rs 2.5 lakh for all taxpayers, irrespective of their age. In a progressive move, the Modi government has retained 50 odd exemptions including standard deduction on rent, agricultural income, income from life insurance, retrenchment compensation, VRS proceeds and leave encashment on retirement, even under the new tax regime. Speaking of a wider tax net, if any government in the future has the conviction to tax agricultural income, it is the Modi government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a rare leader who has the courage and fortitude to do what needs to be done, without paying obeisance to political correctness.
Agricultural income is defined under Section 2(1A) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, as income earned or revenue derived from sources that include farming land, buildings on or identified with agricultural land and commercial produce from horticultural land. However, the very classification of agrarian income needs to be re-defined so that there is an end to the practice of those evading taxes, under the garb of being hapless farmers. Speaking of tax charter, the tax department shall not disclose any information provided by taxpayers to the department, unless authorized by law and the tax department shall allow every taxpayer to choose an authorised representative (AR) of his or her choice. The tax department shall also publish standards for service delivery in a periodic manner and provide a mechanism to taxpayers, for impartial and prompt disposal of complaints in a time bound manner.
Cases will be allocated on an automated random basis, with no physical interface and taxpayers need not visit the income tax office. Draft assessment could be in one city, review in another city and finalisation in an altogether new city, giving a new meaning to the concept of a transparent tax system, that PM Modi, has inked. The Union Budget 2020 took the bold step of abolishing the dividend distribution tax (DDT), thereby enabling Indian companies to share their entire distributable profits with shareholders. Earlier companies had to pay tax at an effective rate of 20.56% on their distributable profits. Effectively, out of every Rs 100 in distributable profits, companies had to pay Rs 20.56 as tax, with only Rs 79.44 left for distribution to shareholders, which is not the case any longer.
Also, enhanced surcharge, announced in the Budget earlier this year, will not apply to capital gains arising on sale of equity share in a company or a unit of an equity oriented fund or unit of a business trust liable, to pay STT. Now, retail shareholders with a total income up to Rs 10 lakh a year will benefit the most from DDT abolition, as they no longer need to suffer the flat 20.56% imposition on their dividend receipts and they will be taxed only at their much lower, applicable slab rates.
However, those in the more than 20% tax bracket will shell out a higher effective tax on their dividends, instead of a flat 20.56%, now that DDT is gone. For example, most of the promoters of big Indian companies, who are likely to fall in the Rs 5 crore or higher income slab, will have to pay 42.74% effective tax on dividends, now that DDT is gone. But promoters should not be complaining, as India now has amongst the lowest corporate tax rates globally, thanks to PM Modi’s unprecedented and bold, taxation reforms. By implementing the new DDT mechanism, the Modi government listened to long-standing demands of Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) who were disadvantaged due to their inability to avail tax credit in their home countries.
Effect of the new DDT regime would be net positive to a large pool of retail investors who do not have significant dividend income and in any case fall under lower tax slabs. There was concern that Insurance companies and other corporate investors in stocks who do not enjoy a pass-through status like mutual funds may see a dent to their incomes as they now have to pay tax on dividends at the corporate tax rate. However, there is respite to these entities too, as Section 80M benefits would be applicable to them that allows these companies to net out dividends they distribute to their shareholders, from the dividend income they receive while paying corporate tax. Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) structured as corporates can now pay tax on dividends earned in India at either 20% or lower rates, specified in tax treaties inked by their home countries.
These rates can be as low as 5% in some cases. Foreign companies that receive dividends from their Indian subsidiaries will also enjoy a regime similar to corporate FPIs. NRI investors and FPIs structured as non corporates will not reap the benefit of the 20% tax rate on dividends enjoyed by other foreign investors and may need to pay taxes at their slab rates. As an added sweetener, many of them can now claim credit for taxes paid on dividends received in India when assessed for corporate tax back home, this set-off wasn’t available with the DDT. One of the less talked about but path-breaking steps by the Modi government is with respect to removal of double taxation of ESOPs, which are meant to reward the team that helps build a successful enterprise.
Hitherto, employees were taxed even for simply signing up for ESOPs as per a vesting schedule, by treating these options as perks. ESOPs should not be taxed on notional gains but only on realised gains, when an employee has realised a benefit by selling them. In other words, earlier ESOPs were taxed both at the time of allocation and then again at the time of sale, but the Modi government removed this anomaly, in an excellent move aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship, harnessing available talent pool and rewarding the outperformers. To cut a long story short, right since PM Modi’s first term in office, tremendous progress has been achieved in terms of simplification of taxes.
Reduction in tax rate from 10% to 5% for income slab between Rs 2.5-5 lakh per annum, rise in basic exemption limit from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh and abolition of wealth tax, have been timely measures. Also, startups with turnover of up to Rs 100 crore are allowed 100% deduction on profits for three consecutive assessment years, out of ten, to encourage entrepreneurship, besides benefits like five-year deferment of tax on employee stock options (ESOPs).
Last but not the least, with a non intrusive and impartial tax charter, which will henceforth work with the basic assumption that a taxpayer is honest and not otherwise, India has joined a handful of countries like the US, Australia and Canada which have such a provision in their laws. Going forward, by removing arbitrariness, the taxpayer charter of the visionary Modi government will ensure that tax authorities have as much skin in the game as honest taxpayers.
Sanju Verma is an economist, national spokesperson for the BJP and bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal
Release the salaries of 12 Delhi government-funded colleges
The Delhi University Principals’ Association has urged Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to release the grant in aid for the 12 fully funded colleges, so that salaries of the teaching and non-teaching staff can be released without any further delay. The Association has also sought the intervention of the Vice Chancellor to take up the matter with the highest authorities in the university, since the government’s decision in withholding the grant was illegal, and in violation of the norms laid down by the University Grants Commission. The issue pertains to the colleges which receive 100 percent aid from the Delhi government, and include some institutions such as Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies, that have made a mark, both at the national and international level. The Aam Aadmi Party during the run up to the poll campaign had received tremendous support for its initiatives in various spheres, including power and water supply, mohalla clinics and education. There is no doubt that the AAP administration had done exemplary work in these areas, and it was in recognition of its commitment that people of the city made it victorious once again with a thumping majority.
Both in school and college education, the AAP has achieved many times more than its predecessor governments, and therefore must address this serious problem regarding the payment of salaries to its colleges now. For some odd reason, the Delhi government has issued an “Order/Permission” to the college administrations to exhaust the students’ money, accumulated over many years under the Students Society Fund, which is meant for the activities such as campus placements, skill enhancement, career counselling and gender sensitisation. This fund is also utilised in meeting the expenditure of the students with special needs, extracurricular activities, cultural functions, student exchange programmes, training the women students for selfdefence and maintenance of classroom infrastructure for which no grants are available. The direction that Grants in Aid (GIA) for the salaries will only be released after the Students Society Fund is exhausted will completely stop the activities for ability enhancement, soft skill learning and promotion of cross-cultural understanding among the students, so imperative for the comprehensive personality development.
The Principals’ Association has also condemned the linkage between conduct of special audit and the release of GIA for salary. It has observed that audit was a routine affair and already three types of audit (Statutory audit, LFA audit of GNCTD, and CAG) are conducted periodically and as such no such linkage has ever existed. The contention that GIA would be released after the completion of the special audit is illegal and against the current practices and rules. These are difficult times but it is does not mean that the administration should come out with ideas which are contrary to the objectives, that served as the guiding principles, when these institutions were opened. In fact, the Delhi government colleges, have been doing exceedingly well, and in many ways are at par with institutions which are much older, and thus enjoy reputation built over the years. The CM should get this matter examined and resolved at the earliest. This would be in the interest of his own government, which he has run with efficiency and dedication.
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