Will the Panama Papers probe go the way of the Swiss Leaks investigation? In the Swiss Leaks probe last year that involved more than 1000 Indians holding account in HSBC bank in Geneva, Switzerland, the government claimed that suitable action was taken against all those who held illegal foreign accounts. But, pray, who were those who held illegal foreign accounts and what action was taken against them?
India’s finance ministry refuses to place any details in the public domain on the specious plea that it would vitiate India’s economic environment. It is exactly the same argument that the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan had advanced when he pleaded with the Supreme Court last month that the names of the big bank loan defaulters (each of whom has borrowed more than Rs 500 crore of public money and has run away) must be held back lest financial instability sets in.
When both the finance ministry and the RBI resort to such dubious arguments, it is not surprising that those who have stashed away black money abroad have reasons to feel assured that their interest would be protected against all odds.
There is a strong likelihood that the outcome of the Panama Papers probe will go the Swiss Leaks way. Take a look at the sequence of events: Panama Papers were published in the Indian Express on 4 April. Barely a fortnight later, a senior government official told the Economic Times (ET did not disclose the identity of the official) that more than 90 percent of those whose names have appeared in the Panama Papers (there are 500 of them) have been found to be holding legal accounts in tax havens like British Virgin Islands, Bahamas or Panama.
What was the intent of the inspired leak? Is it that the government machinery has become so super-efficient that the multi-agency probe has been able to complete the investigation involving 500 persons in barely two weeks? One can only surmise that the government is only over-eager to offset the heat generated by the Panama Papers and divert attention from the black money issue at any cost.
RBI has also come to the rescue of the government to dilute the ardour of the black money expose. Referring to the Panama Papers, RBI chief has come out strongly against “the dangerous trend of questions being raised over the legitimacy of wealth.” And who are the culprits who are raising unnecessary questions, according to the RBI governor? In a lecture last week, Raghuram Rajan offered these pearls of wisdom: “If most people don’t have opportunities, then their focus will be on people who have more.”
So, to Mr Rajan, the black money issue is borne out of frustration – an outcome of envy and jealousy of the majority of Indians who aspire to the lifestyle of the billionaires but who cannot have it. He says: “One of the important sources of concern which you have seen with some of these Panama Reports and so on is building in to this notion of the illegitimacy of wealth.” And he bemoans that “earlier, the crisis built up the idea that the bankers were illegitimate.“
Rajan’s advice to the people of India who have no spare money, let alone black money: “It was important that societies worked towards legitimising wealth.” It was quite apt that the Indian Express gave the headline to the news report: Panama Papers: Dangerous to question the legitimacy of wealth, says Raghuram Rajan. With men like Rajan extending such protecting umbrella, it is hardly surprising that holders of black money are being shielded, not brought to the public domain.
There is a need for a nationwide movement to expose the shenanigans of Rajans and the like. The movement must plead for complete transparency.
Let the Panama Papers be the starting point. There are several kinds of cases within its rubric. The first pertains to the film stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai (their cases are separate and pertain to the period before Aishwarya became Amitabh’s daughter-in-law in 2008) who have gone on record to question the authenticity of the Express report and have categorically denied the charge that they had made any overseas investment. The Indian Express investigations, however, have demolished their claim. Amitabh has been shown on record as directors of four offshore shipping companies between 1993 and 1997 (when any foreign investment was illegal); what is more important, the Indian Express published documents to show that Bachchan had taken part in board meetings of these companies by ‘telephone conference.’
Records also tell us that Aishwarya Rai, her parents and brother became directors of an offshore company in 2005. The Indian Express published a letter which showed that she later that year requested her name to be shortened to A Rai ‘for confidentiality reasons’. Her request was honoured and the name was accordingly changed in all records. Despite such obvious evidences, both Amitabh and Aishwarya have gone on the denial mode.
Given the fact that Amitabh Bachchan shares a close personal relationship with the Prime Minister (he was the brand ambassador of Gujarat Tourism when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state), that he had been tipped to be the brand ambassador of the Incredible India campaign replacing Aamir Khan and that even reports projected the superstar as the likely NDA candidate for the highest office of the president of India, there is a lurking apprehension that the government departments will cover up his murky dealings. The best way to do the cover-up is to make the bland statement, a la the Swiss Leaks probe, that all appropriate actions have been taken against the guilty.
The popular demand should be to urge the government to make all investigations public.
There is another category of the people, like the corporate lawyer Harish Salve and a doctor like Jehangir Sorabjee (son of a corporate lawyer, Soli Sorabjee), who say that all the information revealed by the Indian Express are authentic, but the publication of their names is an invasion into their privacy as they have reported all their foreign investments in their income-tax returns. Fair enough. To enhance the credibility of these honourable men, the government of India must place their income-tax returns of the relevant years in the public domain.
It is not a preposterous demand: after all, the prime minister of England, David Cameron, put out six years of his income tax returns for public scrutiny when his father’s name figured in the Panama Papers and some voiced the concern that Cameron might have been a beneficiary of his father’s fortunes without paying taxes. If a Cameron’s IT returns can be made public, why not that of a Salve or a Sorabjee or, for that matter, anyone else named in the Panama Papers?
Is Narendra Modi’s India any less of a democracy than David Cameron’s United Kingdom?