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Opinion | GoT and the GST face-off

The government should abide by a principle even the malevolent Lannisters of 'Game Of Thrones' live by—they always pay their debts

Even the worst of the Lannisters never reneges on a promised monetary reward or reimbursement.
Even the worst of the Lannisters never reneges on a promised monetary reward or reimbursement.

During months of the pandemic spent homebound, I have refreshed my memory of many favourite movies, and of one series that concluded its eight-year run in 2019, Game Of Thrones. My GoT watch ended last week, leaving me with a deeper understanding of characters, motives and plotlines while reaffirming the feeling, shared with a majority of fans, that the show faltered mid-way through its penultimate season and bungled its last bow.

For those unfamiliar with what was for years the biggest event on television, Game Of Thrones is set in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world where members of four houses, the Baratheons, Lannisters, Starks and Targaryens, fight to rule a continent called Westeros. The Lannisters tend to lack scruples, while the Starks are an honourable bunch. After the shocking decapitation of the virtuous Ned Stark, the first season’s lead character, his son Jon Snow gradually becomes the show’s ethical anchor.

The lone principle the Lannisters live by is that they always pay their debts. This motto has a sinister undertone, being a promise of revenge as well as a financial guarantee, but even the worst of the Lannisters never reneges on a promised monetary reward or reimbursement. They all understand that a single lapse could precipitate a destruction of trust in their word and restrict their ability to buy, bribe and cajole their way out of sticky situations in the future. They pay their debts even though the gold mines that sustained their tremendous wealth have run dry.

Jon Snow has a broader understanding of the importance of keeping one’s word. At the end of season 7, Cersei Lannister, who is queen of the realm and growing more villainous by the day, agrees to a truce with her adversary Daenerys Targaryen so that they can fight a common enemy, a zombie army that is attacking from the far north. Her precondition is that Jon Snow keep his troops neutral once the battle against the dead is won and the war between the living resumes. “I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word," Cersei sneers while making her offer.

Jon Snow is desperate for a ceasefire but refuses to accept Cersei’s deal, having bound himself to the Targaryen side already. To those wanting him to dissemble, he says: “I am not going to swear an oath I can’t uphold. When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies." It is an unusual moment of eloquence for a man who prefers action to speech.

Politicians go back on their word as a matter of habit but often fail to gauge accurately the cost of doing so. One of the most successful and stable alliances between a national and a regional party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena partnership in Maharashtra, foundered because, in the telling of the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, the BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis refused to honour an agreement to share power equally after the state election last year. Thackeray is now chief minister of Maharashtra in an unlikely coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party and Indian National Congress.

Commitments given in public by governments are held to a higher standard than oaths made by individual politicians in private, which is why the Union government’s decision to withhold taxes owed to states comes as a shock. The roll-out of a national goods and services tax required states to renounce much of their power to charge duties and tariffs, something they were loath to do. To allay concerns, the then finance minister, Arun Jaitley made them an offer they could not refuse. He guaranteed states a 14% annual growth of tax revenues for five years, with any shortfall in collections being made up through a compensation cess on products like coal, colas, cars and cigarettes.

The feared shortfall did occur, partly because India’s economic growth slowed considerably and also because the administration reduced rates on a number of products to placate trade lobbies. By the middle of 2019, the Union government’s payments to states began to be delayed, straining their finances. Then the covid-related lockdown of 2020 sent the economy plummeting from slow growth into contraction.

The 14% revenue increase promised to states looks absurd in the context of the potential negative growth in annual GDP of 5% or more. Yet the promise must be kept, for “one nation, one tax" would not have been actualized in its absence. Sadly, the Centre claims that the GST shortfall attributable to covid-19 is not its responsibility because the pandemic is, in Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s view, “an act of God". The administration has asked states to take loans to cover the arrears.

In effect, the Union government is invoking an imaginary force majeure clause of the sort inserted into contracts between private parties to remove liability in case of unforeseeable catastrophes. But a government is not a private firm. It is precisely during unforeseeable catastrophes that it is most needed. Would any Central government in the world use the “act of God" excuse to avoid helping out states after a cyclone or earthquake?

The Union government is much better placed than states to shoulder the burden of the covid-related recession. It can borrow at lower rates and print its own money when required. Rather than being fixated on a headline budget deficit number, it should be primarily concerned about boosting the economy, as countries around the world are doing. If it covers its obligations to states, salaries pending to their employees can be cleared, as can payments to contractors on infrastructure projects currently held up. Putting money in the hands of workers in this fashion will spur demand and speed up the recovery.

It will also bolster trust in the word of the government, which is crucial since legal remedy is so difficult to obtain in India. One does not expect an administration to be as upstanding as Ned Stark and Jon Snow. A certain degree of deviousness is almost impossible to avoid in governance. But surely we can expect our government to abide by a principle that even the Lannisters uphold and always pay its debts.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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