Nobody who has read Salman Rushdie’s classic ‘Midnight’s Children’ can be indifferent to the juxtaposition of India and Midnight in a phrase or sentence. So, the recent announcement that India’s new GST law (VAT by any other name would smell as sweet) would come into effect, amidst much fanfare, at midnight on July 1 was enough to make my heart flutter like a punkahwallah’s punkah.
The world’s biggest democracy has finally joined the vast majority of the globe’s tax-setters in a cross-twenty-nine-state system that, when the technological problems are sorted out, should improve India’s tax-raising efficiency and, thus, help that great country in furthering its economic growth.
That is not to say that VAT is the Mother Teresa of all taxes. Its biggest problem is that it is regressive – it taxes consumption at the level of the poor-man-in-the-street who, the poorer he is, spends a higher proportion of his income on surviving. This is traditionally combatted by lower rates or exemptions on basic things like food. Indeed, India – in keeping with its tradition of making everything as complicated as possible – has introduced five rates of VAT plus a stratospheric concoction for dealing with untouchables like luxury goods and tobacco.
Of course, there will still be those who manage to get round the tax, legally or otherwise. Time will tell whether devious residents latch onto the ubiquitous Carousel Fraud phenomenon (involving the import and export of the same goods multiple times – a bunch of Brits were caught a few years back when they got lazy and stopped changing the plugs on phone chargers between France and England). And then there was the hard-to-believe wheeze of the Spanish theatre that sold VAT-exempt carrots for admittance to its performances together with a worthless piece of paper called a ticket. The only problem (apart from the Spanish tax garrotters catching up with them) was that hungry patrons couldn’t prove their right to re-entry to the auditorium after a toilet break during the intermission.
At the end of the day, VAT works. One of the few countries that does not seem to agree is the ‘biggest’ democracy (as opposed to the ‘biggest democracy’). A few years ago, at lunch at a conference in Berlin, a group of American experts were discussing ways of plugging the impossible US deficit, coming up with all sorts of supply-side ideas. Thinking that V.A.T was the sort of acronym (actually sayable, like M.A.D – Mutual Assured Destruction) that Americans would die for (especially when said with an English accent), I suggested that imposition of such a tax would surely solve all their problems. I was completely frozen out. V.A.T is a dirty acronym in the eyes of Uncle Sam. My luncheon partners looked like they wanted to drag me in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. The irony, of course, is that while V.A.T undermines the ‘redistribution of income’ philosophy of most of the ’red’ nations (such as Britain and Europe) imposing it, the American belief in ‘equality of opportunity’ is completely at peace with its workings.
The Indians still have a long way to go. Their direct tax system leaves much to be desired – the witch-hunt of Vodafone to cover the seller’s capital gains in an offshore purchase a while back, and its treaty-defying Dividend Distribution Tax being but two examples of the rot.
As Rushdie put it in Midnight’s Children, ‘I admit it: above all things I fear absurdity.’ Thankfully, his beloved India is finally taking steps in the right direction.