Eighteen months after the Panama Papers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, with links to 90 newspapers in 67 countries, has come out with the “Paradise Papers”, based on 13 million-odd leaked documents that give us a peep into how the world’s billionaires park trillions of dollars in offshore firms that handle their investments in myriad ways, help with tax avoidance/evasion, and camouflage the assets of fund owners in order to fool the tax authorities.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley called the exposures “a great development... because it shows nothing remains a secret”. A Multi-Agency Group headed by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) chairman has been set up to investigate the 700-plus Indians whose names figure in the Paradise Papers. Among these are minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha and BJP Rajya Sabha MP R.K.Sinha, associated with a security firm.
It is necessary to investigate as having foreign bank accounts or offshore holdings is not by itself illegal, provided the Indian tax authorities are duly kept in the picture and the foreign-held money is within prescribed limits. In the Panama Papers’ case, only 147 actionable cases have so far emerged out of 426 offshore accounts of Indians.
Since investigations into the new disclosures are only just about to begin, it is a breach of public ethics that the minister of state for civil aviation has been chosen to kick off the BJP’s anti-black money campaign in Kolkata on Wednesday, the first anniversary of demonetisation, as a part of its propaganda drive to combat the Opposition parties’ campaign to observe November 8 as a “black day”. Although Mr Sinha has denied any wrongdoing, his party’s stance can only be seen as a piece of cynical defiance of norms. The minister, like many others, may well be above board but his case too must be investigated. How can the government or the ruling party give any one a clean chit in advance?
This also appears to be the case with movie superstar Amitabh Bachchan, whose name figured in the Panama Papers too and now finds mention in the Paradise tranche of documents. The veteran filmstar has said he will cooperate with any investigation and has in a statement expressed a keen desire to retreat from “prominence” and lead a peaceful life. He has shown qualities of being a good citizen, but can he be deemed to be above other citizens in the eyes of law? The government appears to show him the same solicitude as it does the junior minister. Apparently, he is to continue with media campaigns for various government social schemes with which he is associated.
If the playing field is deemed unequal for those whose names have figured in the suspicious accounts, the investigations will not inspire confidence.