New Delhi: The Goods and Services Tax integrates India into one economic entity, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told NDTV as he drove to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Race Course Road residence for a series of meetings on Wednesday morning.
Addressing the Parliament at the beginning of the historic five-hour debate on GST in Rajya Sabha, Mr Jaitley, "GST is one of the most important reforms in India's history."
The Finance Minister will also reply to the debate before the House votes on a bill that amends the constitution to implement the single national tax that will replace an intricate mesh of levies.
"Am hopeful of a GST rollout by April 2017," Mr Jaitley told NDTV, also detailing a long journey ahead. "It depends on a number of factors... once it's passed by both Houses of parliament it has to be ratified by states. Thereafter the supporting legislations will have to come, the minister said, adding that some "functional modalities" between the states and the Centre also needed to be worked out.
The massive IT system, which will be the backbone of GST, "is also at a fairly advanced stage," said the finance minister, who has steered the Good and Services Tax or GST bill through its bumpy and long journey.
"Yes... we are in a state of readiness and I think I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we would like to do it as soon as possible," Mr Jaitley said.
The minister has spent the last few weeks engaged in intense negotiations with opposition parties, including the Congress, which stalled the bill for months but is now on board after the government made key concessions.
"It shows Indian democracy at its best," said Mr Jaitley, adding that "a major reform like this cannot be dealt with on a partisan basis for the simple reason that... every major political party is either in power in some or the other state or is likely to be in power".
"It's a proposal which eminently requires a unanimity and overwhelming consensus. Our effort has been to avoid a split as far as possible," the minister said.
The government says its bill is now backed by 31 of 32 parties in the House. The AIADMK, which rules Tamil Nadu, is expected to speak against the bill, but has signaled that it will walk out rather than vote against it. Tamil Nadu as a manufacturing state faces losses from GST, which earns revenue from consumption.
The Congress's speakers will stress in the debate today that they had not stalled the bill so far but merely pushed for three key changes to what the party called a "flawed bill".
"The Congress is the author of the GST bill. We worked to ensure that the tax rate remains low. The states will get more say and are guaranteed compensation," said the Congress' Anand Sharma.