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Between the line
 

Laundering black money
February 09, 2011

 

I CAN see Indian political complexion taking shape. The issue of corruption is assuming such a proportion that every party, affected or unaffected, is sounding horrified. They are also taking a stand against the scams which have put the ruling Congress in the dock. The party is isolated. None of the coalition members has either defended the Manmohan Singh government or the Congress.

I fear the different disclosures may create the atmosphere which is reminiscent of the days when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was alleged to have got the kickbacks of Rs 64 crore from the purchase of Bofors guns. His government tried to cover up the scandal and even held the joint parliamentary committee’s probe, something which the Manmohan Singh government has refused to constitute to look into different scams. Rajiv Gandhi’s explanation made matters still worse. In fact, the Bofors came to substitute the word corruption even in the countryside.

Consequently, after the polls, Rajiv Gandhi’s tally of 421 members in the Lok Sabha tumbled down to 197. He lost the prime ministership. The Manmohan Singh government does not face such a situation. Parliamentary elections are still three and a half years away. Yet the withdrawal of support by 12 odd parties cannot be ruled out. The strength of the Congress in the Lok Sabha is 207 in the 535-member house.

Presuming that the parties which have its ministers in the cabinet—Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (9) and K Karunanidhi’s DMK (18) —stay with the Congress through thick and thin, they number only 27. Nothing much can be said about another ally in the government. The mercurial Mamata Bannerjee of Trinamool Congress (19) because has already criticised the Congress for rising prices. Even with the support of all the three parties, the Congress does not reach the magical figure of 267, the midway mark.

The 2G spectrum scam running into Rs 1.75 lakh crores has, no doubt, held the public attention so far. Parliament was stalled during the entire winter session. The corruption of the Commonwealth Games has got confirmed by the Shunglu Committee which the government had appointed. Yet I feel the 2G spectrum and the Commonwealth Games are elitist in appeal. Civil society is avidly interested, but not the general public.

The popular issue that is beginning to rock the length and breadth of the country is the money stashed away in Swiss banks. What makes it more explosive than other scams is the Supreme Court’s involvement. It has begun to hear public interest litigation (PIL) petitions. They have sought the court’s intervention to force the government to bring back the money that has been kept at Swiss banks. The petitions have also prayed for the disclosure of account holders.

The government has been caught on the wrong foot. It had received some time ago as many as 26 names from Germany under the double taxation treaty. Berlin had got hold of names of hundreds of beneficiaries and had offered them to all the countries for the asking.

And why is Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee saying that the names of beneficiaries cannot be disclosed? The fault is that of New Delhi which preferred to go through the double taxation route because it “wanted” the government to be put under an obligation not to disclose the names on the plea of confidence. There is yet no reason given why it opted for the double taxation method.

The Supreme Court has observed that the government should not presume that the money hidden at Switzerland was from the evasion of tax. It could be laundering of money earned through gun running, drugs, terrorism, or some other criminal act. The government is yet to give justification for choosing the double taxation method.

Indian black money in Swiss banks, according to Swiss Banking Association report, 2006, was the highest—as much as $1456 billion. The amount is reportedly more than that of all deposits put together. Dishonest industrialists, tainted politicians, corrupt bureaucrats, cricketers and film stars have put in foreign banks their illegal personal accounts sums which they misappropriated. No wonder everyone in India loots impunity and without any fear.

The stashed away cash is about 13 times larger than the country’s foreign debts. With this amount 45 crore poor people can get Rs 1 lakh each. From whichever angle you assess, this huge amount has been appropriated from the people of the country by exploiting and betraying them.

Once India gets back this huge amount of black money, it can clean the entire foreign debts at one go. After paying the entire foreign debt, we will be left with surplus amount, almost 12 times larger than the total foreign debts. If this surplus amount is invested in earning interest, the amount of interest will be more than the annual budget of the Central government. So even if all the taxes are abolished, then also the central government will be able to maintain the country very comfortably. I am talking on the basis of the 2006 figures. More money must have accumulated since.

Some 80,000 people travel to Switzerland every year, of which 25,000 travel very frequently. New Delhi should find out how many of them are Indians? “They may be travelling there for some other reason,” believes an official involved in tracking illegal money. And, clearly, he isn’t referring to the commerce ministry bureaucrats who have been flitting in and out of Geneva ever since the World Trade Organisation negotiations have begun.

Fortunately, Congress secretary-general Rahul Gandhi has said that the money stashed abroad belongs to the poor and must be brought back to India. I see the statement as a silver lining in otherwise dark clouds of secrecy and manipulation. He has said earlier that once his family takes up a matter it carries it to the logical conclusion. Let him prove this. The nation waits for the results.

The BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance have said that they have no money abroad. This statement will act as a pressure on the Congress and its allies. And some of the allies may begin to keep distance from the Manmohan Singh government. It has no option except to make the 26 names public. Maybe, the Supreme Court will force the government to do it. Then the fat will be in the fire. The situation can meander first to the fall of the Manmohan Singh government because of the allies deserting it and then leading to a hotchpotch government which may not lost for more than a year. Ultimately, the country will be left with no option except to go for a mid-term poll.

 
 
 
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