The Central Information Commission (CIC) last week (August 31) asked the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to respond to the following query of an RTI applicant from Rajasthan: ‘At the time of the 2014 election, it was announced that black money (stashed abroad in foreign banks) will be brought back to India and Rs 15 lakh will be deposited in the account of each poor (person). What has happened to that?’
The RTI applicant, Kanhaiya Lal from Jhalawar district, had moved the CIC as he claimed that he had filed the application with the PMO on February 8, but did not get any response.
The PMO official, who was present at the CIC hearing, denied that the PMO had received the RTI application; therefore, there was no way it could have given a response.
Now that CIC has asked the PMO to respond within 15 days, Kanhaiya Lal should be assured of a reply to his question.
But then this question may have been a part of an RTI query for the first time, but the same question has been raised politically by the Congress, AAP and some other opposition parties in the last two years. Even Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling BJP, has raised the same issue, much to the chagrin of the ruling party.
Opposition demand, too
The Congress party raked it up soon after the BJP-led NDA government completed 100 days in office – What happened to the prime minister’s claim that the black money in the foreign banks would be brought back within 100 days of coming to power? The BJP responded saying that the Prime Minister had never made any such claim. The fact is that this assertion had been made by the then party president (and the current home minister) Rajnath Singh.
But then, the opposition partied reminded the BJP that Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate then, had thundered that if he was voted to power the black money would be brought back and every poor man\woman would benefit to the tune of 15 to 20 lakh rupees; the BJP could not deny this assertion because it is there on a Youtube video.
The party leadership perforce had to respond to it. Amit Shah, the current BJP president, rose to the defence of the Prime Minister in a television interview to ABP News: “Modiji’s statement was an idiomatic expression (jumla) that was given during the Lok Sabha polls. Everybody knows that this black money doesn’t go to the accounts of people. The black money that would return to the country from abroad will be used to help the poor and the needy through schemes. Modiji had said that.”
The Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, also sprung to the defence of the Prime Minister. Responding to a question in Parliament on Prime Minister Modi’s Rs 15-lakh-to every-Indian claim, Jaitley said that Narendra Modi’s campaign statement was “merely illustrative”. “There are various versions of the quantum of monies. And it (Modi’s) is an illustrative statement which indicates that if any of those versions are accepted which indicate a higher amount of black money lying outside India, then pro rata that is the benefit accrues to the citizens of India. It is a statement which has been made by several people in that context and it must be taken entirely in that context,” he said.
Well, possibly, Kanhaiya Lal will be fobbed off with a similar response from the PMO in the coming week.
But then if we just accept that the then prime ministerial aspirant was merely making an illustrative statement about the quantum of black money then by his own assessment, more than Rs 2,000 lakh crore was there to be tapped and recovered.
And if Rajanath Singh’s statement of a 100-day deadline for the recovery of the black money has to be dismissed as a bogus claim, at least we should get a status report on it after a lapse of two years which is a long enough time to assess if the government is actually walking the talk.
Black money report card
The report card after two years reads this: A total of Rs 4,147 crore undisclosed wealth was declared during the 90-day foreign black money compliance window that ended on September 30, 2015. The government got a net tax of less than Rs 2,500 crore from the declarations (at the rate of 30 percent tax + 30 percent penalty). This amounts to just Rs 20 per Indian, not Rs 20 lakh, as promised.
Compare this to the Rs 7,800 crore of the black money that was recovered by the United Front government under a Voluntary Disclosure Scheme in 1997, when the national economy was much smaller.
The Modi government has, of course, opened another four-month window (June 1 to September 30, 2016) to holders of unaccounted wealth to come clean by paying 30 percent tax plus a penalty of 7.5 percent and a similar percentage of surcharge. The outcome will be known after four weeks.
But then, going by the trend, it would be a few thousand more crores that would come on board. If, in the prime minister’s own estimate, Rs 2,000 lakh crore of black money is waiting to be tapped, then a few thousand crores would be just a drop in the ocean.
Whither political will?
One obvious conclusion – it is easy to pontificate while in opposition: Modi and other leaders did the same before 2014 to embarrass the ruling Congress. Now Congress, which is in the opposition, doing the same to show up the BJP-led government.
Clearly, in both cases, the political will has been missing to go to the bottom of the black money issue. When information about the Indians parking illegal money in the HSBC bank in Geneva was given to the Indian government by the French authorities in 2011, the Manmohan Singh government sat tight over it, despite the repeated hectoring of the BJP to disclose the information. The then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee insisted that no such information could be placed in the public domain due to confidentiality clause built into the business transactions.
Well, someone could ask: Why should the government respect confidentiality in the black money deals? But that is the way our venerated leaders act and react. When P Chidambaram became the finance minister in 2012, he echoed the Pranab line. And the bigger irony is that Arun Jaitley, who was most vocal for the public display of the names of the HSBC Geneva account holders, started singing the same tune when he became the finance minister in the Narendra Modi government in 2014.
The hard fact is this: Both Congress and BJP have been bankrolled by black money. No black money stashed abroad can be recovered until the black money thriving in India is attacked first. That is a call of the tall order.