Indian Express 2/4/09 and 3/4/09
Switzerland has been accused of giving shelter to black money and there has been a lot of inflow of such wealth from India and other countries of the world.” This is not L K Advani, on election mode, speaking last Sunday, but the Swiss ambassador to India briefing the media in Delhi last year.
The occasion was the 60th anniversary of Indo-Swiss Friendship Treaty. Admitting that Indian black money gets hoarded in his country, he added that the new law in Switzerland would, not stop it, but control it “up to a certain limit”.
The Swiss diplomat authentically answers the first of the FAQs, that is, whether a lot of Indian money is really stashed away in Swiss banks. Swiss banks are not the only secret destination. There are 37 such shelters in the world, says US Inland Revenue. The secret owners of the secreted monies operate in secrecy — venal businessmen, corrupt politicians, public servants, drug lords, and criminal gangs like the D-company. The slush monies are the financial RDX for terror, besides weapons of mass destruction of national and global finance. That there is secret money is no more a secret. Only the amounts and persons are secret. But how much of India’s stolen wealth could be stashed in Switzerland? Specific estimates of this later. Before that, here is a sideshow, but a relevant one.
In the late 1980s, at the behest of The Indian Express, while investigating the Reliance scam, I had attempted to trail the Indian monies secreted abroad. In the course of the probe, I had contacted Fairfax, a US investigative firm, to uncover the Indian wealth stashed abroad. Impressed by their skills, I persuaded the Government of India to engage the firm for the task. Fairfax agreed to work for a slice of the black wealth uncovered by them as fee.
According to Swiss sources then, the Indian money secreted in Swiss banks was some $300 billion. That was enough to excite Fairfax to go for the kill. But, soon my efforts landed me in jail on March 13, 1987, when the CBI arrested me on charges that later turned out to be bogus, but were enough to stop the probe. The whole nation knew then that the real reason why rulers struck was their fear that the probe had targeted the Bofors payoff and secret money of the ruling family abroad. Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister then, moved honest and bold civil servants like Vinod Pandey and Bhure Lal out of the probe and eventually sacked V P Singh who, as finance minister then, had authorised the efforts.
The chain of events that followed led to corruption emerging as the major issue in the 1989 polls in which Rajiv Gandhi, who had wiped out the opposition in 1984 elections, was defeated, and V P Singh became the prime minister. But there is a great lesson in these developments that often goes unnoticed. And that is, the way the bold national interest initiative to unearth the Indian black wealth abroad was aborted clearly confirmed that the ruling family was mortally afraid of any probe into secret money abroad. This fear haunts the family-led Congress party even today. That is why the 1987 episode is relevant now.
Now back to the main story.
Illicit money is the dirty outcome of modern capitalism. But, after 9/11, the US realised that not just the buccaneers in business, but Osama bin Laden could also hide his funds in secret havens and use them to bomb the world. Campaigns against dirty money as high security risk commenced with the path-breaking research done by Raymond W Baker, a Harvard MBA and a Brookings scholar. He published his research as a book Capitalism’s Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free- Market System. The book was published in 2005. This set off intense debate in the US as the exposure linked dirty business and dirty money with terror and national security.
Raymond Baker had estimated, using authentic data, tools and reasons, the dirty wealth secreted in banks at $11.5 trillion to which, he found, one more trillion was being added annually. He added that in the process the West was getting an annual bounty of $500 billion from the developing countries, India included.
Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a global watchdog headed by Baker to curtail illicit money flows, has recently brought out detailed estimates of the black wealth hoarded in secret havens from different countries. GFI research shows that during the period 2002 to 2006, annually $27.3 billion was stashed away from India, making a total of $137.5 billion for the five-year period. That is, in just five years, Indian wealth amounting to Rs 6.88 lakh crore has been smuggled out of India. This gives a clue as to how much Indian money would have slipped out of India in the last 62 years, particularly during the Nehruvian socialist regime when the income tax (97.5 per cent) and wealth tax (almost equal to the income earned on investments) together constituted double the income earned.
It is undisputed that the Nehruvian socialist model forced huge sums out of India. So the amount of Indian black wealth secreted away in the last 60 years — estimated at from $500 billion (Rs 25 lakh crore) to $1400 billion (Rs 70 lakh crore) — does not seem to be wide off the mark. Economists call it flight of capital. This is the people’s money stolen from them.
See the consequence even if part of it is brought back. A portion of it would make India free from all external debts which is now over $220 billion; India will transform into an economic superpower; some 10 or 15 Indian rupees could buy a US dollar which today 50 Indian rupees cannot; a litre of petrol on our roadside would cost Rs 15 or even less, against today’s 50 plus; the cost of imports in rupee terms would be down to a third or half; India’s entire infrastructure needs can be funded; India will become so energy efficient and costcompetitive that exporters may need no sops at all; India will lend to — not, as it does now, borrow from — the world; Indian housing can be funded at affordable cost; rural poverty can be wiped out… The list is endless. But, then, is it possible to bring back the secreted monies? What are the roadblocks to such efforts?
It was unthinkable six months ago. Switzerland, once a pet of Western capitalism, is now its hate object. During World War II, the tiny nation was the common love of both the Allied and Axis powers, at war with each other. But neutral Switzerland, a friend of all since Napoleonic days, is friendless today. Its prime attraction, financial secrecy secured by law, has become its nemesis.
Germany first, France next, the US later, with the UK joining last, have, individually and together, declared a war against secret banking and tax havens like Switzerland.
It is a crusade by the West against the Swiss, says the media. Tax havens ask for no income tax from non-citizens and their banks ask no questions about their money. Modern capitalism had all along winked at secret banks and tax shelters; even nicknamed secret money ‘funny money’. But now the West chases secret money like it targets al-Qaeda.
Why this miraculous shift? The short answer: ‘financial crisis’. The Guardian of UK wrote (March 4), “European leaders grew increasingly agitated at how tax havens have fostered secrecy that has contributed to the collapse of banks the world over”. The newspaper’s Tax Gap Series estimated the unaccounted global wealth held in secret havens, including Switzerland, at $13 trillion. The annual tax evasion on the dirty fund, estimated at $255 billion was, the newspaper said, twice the global budget for poor nations. Der Spiegel, a German magazine, reported (March 3) that “Cash strapped governments around the world see the opportunity to finally put an end to bank secrecy” to access the money concealed by their nationals. It added “British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are now joining forces” and “they have set their sights on Switzerland”.
The crusade against Swiss banks was started by Germany in early 2008 when its intelligence bribed — bribed? Yes — an informant in LGT Bank in Liechtenstein and got a CD containing the names of some 1,500 tax dodgers, and raided half of them, who were its citizens. It also offered, free of cost, the names of citizens of other countries. Many accepted the offer gratefully.
Thereafter, in the third quarter of 2008, Germany pressed the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to blacklist Switzerland for protecting tax dodgers.
Switzerland is an OECD member and twothirds of the Swiss speak German. Yet Germany couldn’t care less. Soon, France joined Germany.
“We want to put a stop to tax havens”, thundered Sarkozy.
At the preparatory G20 summit in Berlin early February, European leaders vowed to launch a global crusade against tax havens at the G20 meet in London, said the Irish Financial News. Europe’s anger was explicit in its refusal to allow the Swiss plea to be presented before the G20 in London.
The US moved even more menacingly. On February 18, the US Inland Revenue threatened the largest Swiss bank, UBS, with a lawsuit — that would have bankrupted it — unless the bank disclosed the names and accounts of some 300 American tax dodgers. A frightened UBS forthwith surrendered the secret data to the US before the account holders could stall it by a Swiss court order. Later, the Obama administration told the US Senate that it would bring laws to prise open the world’s most secretive tax havens.
At this point the UK joined the crusade.
Switzerland wilted under the pressure. Spiegel wrote that, for generations, the Swiss had held bank secrecy as “not negotiable”, and added that it was “no longer” so. The magazine quoted Swiss finance minister Merz as saying that they would have “to compromise”. The Swiss justice and foreign ministers, the magazine reported, had hinted that the country might have to stop protecting tax dodgers. Subsequently, a nervous Merz met Gordon Brown on March 14 with a deal to prevent any move in G20 to blacklist his country. The deal was that Swiss banks would adopt the bank transparency rules of OECD countries. Brown claimed that it was “the beginning of the end of banking secrecy”. Yet, the US is pressing ahead with a law to punish banking secrecy.
When the crusade of the West against Swiss banks is succeeding, here Dr Manmohan Singh and his government, instead of celebrating, seem to be worried at their success. Three bits of evidence expose the Congress-led government’s not-so-well-hidden worry. First, when Germany’s finance ministry offered the LTG bank secret data to any country that needed it, the government would not ask for it despite reports that it contained some 100 Indian names. When in April last year, L K Advani wrote to Manmohan, requesting to him to ask Germany for the data, the then finance minister responded evasively. Transparency International noted India’s “stoic silence over the issue” and that it “has not approached the German government for the data’’ (Economic Times, May 25 2008]. More, the revenue secretary in Delhi has reportedly advised the Indian ambassador in Berlin not to push Germany for the details as Germany might not like it – clear proof that the government is scuttling, not getting, the details.
Second, when, in the G20 preparatory meeting at Berlin, Germany and France were threatening to blacklist Swiss and other secret tax shelters, India’s silence at Berlin was deafening.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the PM’s righthand who, along with Dr Rakesh Mohan, represented India at Berlin, did not utter a word in support of Germany and France. India, a principal victim of banking secrecy, should have been leading the war cry against it. But it did not even morally support those waging the war.
Third, when on Sunday last L K Advani told Manmohan Singh that India should join in the G20 effort to break banking secrecy, the PM did not respond. The spokesperson of the Congress Abhishek Singhvi responded that G20 was not the forum for that, being blissfully ignorant of the fact that it was a main agenda of G20 meet.
In fact just ahead of the meeting, Sarkozy had threatened to walk out unless the G20 decisively acted against secret banks and tax havens.
No need to strain further to understand Manmohan’s compulsions. The fear that drove the ruling family to abort the 1987 probe into Indian monies secreted abroad is still evident. But Advani’s threat to turn the recovery of Indian wealth secreted abroad an election issue has got the PM and his party off guard. The party has blundered, saying G20 is not the forum, when it is precisely that. Now the prime minister cannot remain silent. He has to do something. At least make a show of doing. But can he?
QED: Dr Manmohan Singh stands between the devil and the deep sea — between his party and L K Advani.
Keywords: Indian Black Money in Swiss Bank Accounts.