Business Line, 19/1/2011
One can only hope that the promised disclosure by Wikileaks founder, Mr Julian Assange, of the names of 2,000 high-net-worth entities and individuals from Britain, the US and Asian countries who have hidden their unaccounted-for wealth in Swiss banks, and whose names were ceremoniously handed to him in two compact discs (CDs) in London on January 17 by the former Chief Operating Officer of Julius Baer, Mr Rudolf Elmer, will write finis to a sordid saga that had defied all efforts at unravelling the mystery for more than half-a-century.
I am reacting to the news guardedly because of my uneasiness about the infinite ingenuity and formidable influence of the account-holders, but for which they could not have made their piles and kept guard over their hoards all this time.
One can be sure that within the government of every country to which they belong, they have extensive political and official networks with a vested interest in perpetuating anti-social and anti-national activities such as corruption, tax-evasion and money-laundering.
In India, too, we have been witness to the same kind of pretence and prevarication at work — outwardly professing keenness to unearth the long buried booty but in reality, doing precious little, by citing a variety of inventive excuses (privilege, embargo in tax agreements, need to renegotiate tax treaties, denial of permission by authorities, deficiencies in enactments).
For instance, according to the Reuters report of the media conference at London, “Some, if not most, of the material has already been handed over to government authorities in countries where the account holders are believed to reside.” This can only mean that Delhi is already in possession of much of the details contained in Mr Elmer’s CDs. Is it, or is it not? We, the people, have a right to know, but we also know we will get no answer, just as the Government has so far succeeded in holding back from us the names of 50 tax evaders handed to it by the German Government.
The usual trick is to erase the case from public memory so that it is no longer a live issue. Does anyone know what happened to the cases of Hassan Ali Khan and Chandrika Tarpuriah, on whom the Income-Tax Department served notices in January 2009, raising a demand of Rs 40,000 crore and Rs20,000 crore respectively for stashing undisclosed amounts of $8 billion and $1.6 billion in foreign banks?
It is quite on the cards that the hoarders abroad of illicit wealth have by now had enough time to sanitise their holdings, and even make them evaporate. They are capable of fighting a protracted rear-guard action, with the help of their cohorts in the political and official networks.
They can make the governments, the public, tax departments and courts of law ineffective and helpless by every conceivable means: Dubbing the information and documents as false and fabricated, resorting to their standard description of the whole operation as “politically motivated”, stalling proceedings at every stage and every level and, finally, by obliterating all record of their malfeasance!
Meanwhile, they have received the ‘godsend’ of an offer from the Swiss Banks Association, of which it is doubtful whether even the Government is aware. It has come forward to regularise the assets of foreign clients hidden from their governments by levying a flat rate tax and passing on the proceeds to those governments, freeing the account-holders from any further obligation to disclose their assets or their investment income to the tax authorities of their countries. I can see them getting into a stampede to grasp the offer.
Hence, Mr Assange will be well-advised to put the list on his Website quickly, for the longer he tarries, the greater the opportunity for the miscreants to do a Harry Houdini and make sure that the follow-up action comes to naught. My fear is that it is already too late.
Black Money of Indians in Swiss Bank Accounts