If you didn’t know the name of the Prime Minister of Iceland now is your chance to top up your GK. The name of Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the Iceland PM, figures prominently in the seemingly endless list of luminaries who have used the good offices of the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca to hide their wealth, or at least some of it, from the prying eyes of taxmen and other interested parties. Thereby doing their bit to live up to the epitaph “filthy rich” that we the less fortunate like to grant them.
So far so well known. That tax havens (if it had not been Panama it could have been Lichtenstein or, there are at least twenty more to choose from) and Swiss banks exist to service the rich and famous of the world is hardly news to anyone in these internet-connected days. Yet, the Panama Papers, the 2.6 terabytes of data or over 11 million documents that have been leaked from Mossack’s secretive offices containing information about 214,500 companies in 21 offshore jurisdictions and names of over 14,000 middlemen such as banks and law firms with whom the law firm has allegedly worked, are still a revelation.
Not just for the names they contain, but also for the names they don’t. Apart from the film stars and businessmen and lawyers named and shamed by the Panama Papers, there are, it is said, the names of 140 political figures from more than 50 countries, linked either directly or through contacts with the activities of Mossack Fonseca. Yet, there is not the name of a single Indian politician in that list, not one.
The Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are there way at the top closely followed by leaders as widely dispersed as those from Syria, Argentina, South Africa, Mexico, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Ukraine, UAE. Even the name of British premier David Cameron is dragged in thanks to a firm set up in Panama by his father that promoted itself as a tax evasion option. But the Indian politician, nada, zilch. Mossack Fonseca have had nothing to do with one Indian politician, ever.
If they had the Indian Express team which, by their own admission, “meticulously crossed the t-s and dotted the i-s for eight months before revealing the list of Indian names that featured in the #PanamaPapers”, would have certainly not limited themselves to, apart from Amitabh Bachchan and his equally celebrated daughter-in-law and an Adani here and a DLF supremo there, to minor businessmen and retired government employees.
Correction, there are two in this rather dubious roll of honour who have dabbled or still dabble in politics. One, Anurag Kejriwal, who was the Delhi president of the Lok Satta Party before being expelled following a purported sting operation before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He is no longer in politics. “I am a businessman,” he told The Indian Express, lives in Delhi and has business interests in Kolkata. As has Kolkata-based Shishir Bajoria, who switched his red CPM banner for the saffron flag of BJP after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but who is still considered a businessman first and a politician later despite his frequent appearances on Bengali television channels as a BJP spokesman.
But our politicians qua politicians seem to be blissfully unaware of the benefits of Mossack Fonseca and maybe all such firms. It can’t be that our politicians don’t have the money (even minor rural leaders have more than tripled their assets as revealed by the returns filed by many Trinamool elected representatives for the ongoing polls in Bengal, for example), or that their respect for the law is unbounded (not when we have seen video images of politicians pocketing bundles of cash or know how easily they can bring themselves to bend the law to serve their own or their party’s interests). It can’t be they don’t have access to the knowhow and, anyway, if you have the money then getting to know the ways and means is no big deal. Especially with knowledgeable legal eagles like Harish Salve, with purported connections to Mossack Fonseca, at hand.
No, it must be that our netas are really not that rich, that they are yet to make it to the league of the richie-rich which is the happy hunting ground of the Mossack Fonsecas of this world. The rapid rise of the wealth of our politicians may be too obvious and in your face as they often start with zero, zero bank balance, zero physical assets, zero social capital. Their ways of making money are no less crude and obvious.
Yet, all their corruption and dishonesty and nepotism which often have disastrous consequences like the collapse of flyovers still do not amount to the takings of businessmen with their finesse and knowledge of financial jugglery. It’s time we learnt to treat dishonest businessmen with the same disdain as dishonest politicians. They pose no less a danger to the well-being of our nation as our crooked politicians. A politician caught out has to sweat out in this land if not in our jails, a businessman caught out has only to run away to London and live a life of luxury.