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The Modi Government's Panama Siesta

13/06/2016 12:21 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Close up shot of a map. San Miguelito, Panama pinned with a red pushpin. San Miguelito is a city and district of Panamá Province in Panama.

That masterpiece of electoral disingenuousness called "₹15 lakh black money refund in the bank account of every Indian", promised by the vociferous Narendra Modi during the election campaign of 2014, now hangs like an albatross around the Prime Minister's neck. It was at best hyperbolic rhetoric, and at worst, a despicable lie. Hence, Modi's apparent solicitude on black money recovery, expressed with monotonous regularity, sounds wholly pretentious. No one is buying it. The crescendo exposing Modi's orchestrated bluff (Amit Shah, BJP president, without any moral compunctions whatsoever, dismissed it as a "jumla") rises at election times, but then strangely quietens down until the next hustings beckon. It should not; in fact, it needs further ossification. The lame, languid and lackadaisical manner in which the Modi Sarkar has responded to the global Panama Papers money-laundering scandal is a manifestation of its dubious intentions. Of course, in characteristic style, there is a lot of media spin given to cosmetic gestures -- it's like putting a lipstick on a pig.

Compared to the promptitude with which international governments have responded, India appears to be near-comatose following the damning revelations. I wonder why.

The Panama Consul-General's office in Mumbai is housed in a colonial structure in South Mumbai, right behind the iconic Taj Mahal hotel. Wooden steps of immaculate rectangular shape lead to the first floor, where the nondescript, almost obscure office is located. Its door is locked as if those inside are snoozing in serene splendour, and that too on a regular working day, with the sweltering sun blazing away on a blistering summer afternoon. But clearly, behind that languorous, lazy appearance, lies a tale of financial licentiousness, unparalleled in its scope and dimensions; it is appropriately christened as the Panama Papers (expect a Hollywood blockbuster script already being written, funded by activist superstars, eyeing a box-office bonanza). One that has caused a gigantic eruption that threatens to incinerate many who had foolishly believed that their shady dealings would remain permanently concealed. The truth has just begun to unravel itself.

The explosive exposé of the Panama Papers, done through an eclectic collegium called the International Association of Investigative Journalists, has created an international furor. Celebrity names adorn this stigma-infected laundry list -- famous political figures, showbiz superstars, business barons, an assortment of aspiring big-league players from varying backgrounds. Mossack Fonseca, the smokescreen filter that arranged the sweetheart overseas entities in tax havens, surrounded by turquoise blue waters, appears somewhat stunned by the publicity they are receiving.

Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson has already resigned under public pressure. More heads are expected to voluntarily submit confessionals; it would make the task of unmasking the epic skullduggery easier for investigating sleuths. After all, the Panama Papers reveal a complex labyrinth of multi-layered transactions that are meant to obfuscate both actual ownership and the source of funds. The astronomical scale of the Panama Papers is mind-boggling; 2.6 terabytes of data, 12 million documents, over a 40 year period covering 214,000 offshore shell companies in 200 countries. Big names have squirmed hard for direct engagement or indirect involvement courtesy close acquaintances, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, British PM David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Xi Jinping, and the highly irrepressible South African president Jacob Zuma. Once again, HSBC finds itself in the midst of another shaming scandal.

A seeming disinterestedness seems to be prevailing in large sections of the Indian media. It is almost like a conspiracy of hush-whisperers.

Compared to the promptitude with which international governments have responded, India appears to be near-comatose on taking action, following the damning revelations. I wonder why. We heard the perfunctory motherhood and apple pie statements from Mr. Arun Jaitley, Finance Minister, with all the right platitudes, but as is wont to happen in India, barring the Indian Express that broke the sensational story, and some others who have sensed the gargantuan ruse that has been perpetrated, a seeming disinterestedness seems to be prevailing in large sections of the Indian media. It is almost like a conspiracy of hush-whisperers. I remember when the Amitabh Bachchan controversy (along with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan his name features in the Panama Papers) around him hosting the second anniversary, the marketing razzmatazz, of Modi Sarkar hit prime-time, several TV anchors seemed indignant and almost hollered angrily: "So what's the big deal?" Honestly, I think we are a morally compromised nation at the moment.

Free market fundamentalists who have propagated unbridled capital flows, as part of the globalization push in grand forums like Davos, have a lot to explain. Because, in short, the Panama Papers are about corruption. And corruption engenders inequality, it also distorts growth. In the age of internet banking, capital flows do not go through passport control. A fundamental question remains unanswered: Why does one need secrecy?

The cozy club of crony capitalists, the rich and famous, are now actively perpetuating disproportionate distribution of worldwide wealth. They lobby for lower taxes, and then adroitly dodge them by siphoning funds to sexy islands that ensure their corporate anonymity. This is dirty business. The foul among them could be indulging in massive drug trafficking, arms sales to banana republics, destabilizing governments, or manipulating even elected representatives through their negotiating power.

Interestingly, among the illustrious names figuring in this controversial list are those who have an unusual interest in gold mines, oil contracts and natural resources.

Interestingly, among the illustrious names figuring in this controversial list are those who have an unusual interest in gold mines, oil contracts, and natural resources. As we already know in India, getting access to public wealth through rent-seeking and political bribery results in monopolistic control, inefficient allocations and price disadvantage to the common consumer. Illicit wealth is invariably created using illegitimate means; it is a vicious cycle. In an age, where even nominee directors are being offered tenures on a contractual basis to keep ownership patterns secretive, and there are proxy professionals available for attractive fees, transparency is damned. Ethics seems like a bizarre expectation.

The NPA scam of the public sector banks has found a poster-boy in the flamboyant Vijay Mallya, given his pretentious lifestyle and sprawling estates in the English countryside. Every picture of Mallya is accompanied by him cavorting with bikini-clad supermodels in Page 3 parties, thus caricaturing him as the hedonistic corporate playboy. In the Panama Papers, it is the former superstar Amitabh Bachchan, probably India's most celebrated face, who has inevitably attracted maximum curiosity. But even Bachchan, although he denies wrongdoing, may yet just be the tip of a tall iceberg with a big base. Modi Sarkar is so obsessed with the perception that reality resides in the rear seat.

On the Panama Papers, it will be hard for us to duck the global attention that will eventually force local corrective action.

Interestingly, Mr. Modi's neighbouring counterpart, Pakistan Prime minister Nawaz Sharif, seems in a definite predicament over the leakages. Besides the usual ballyhoo, Modi Sarkar has been lukewarm, if not altogether indifferent to the parallel economy that generates siphoned funds from domestic shores, or converted funds that enter local territories through the Mauritius route. Money laundering, tax evasion, illegal activities... all have darling deals, usually having a bureaucrat-business-political nexus. But there is a spectacular silence on Panama Papers. Why?

Of course, India has completely forgotten the Lok Pal, an issue on which TV channels hyperventilated 24 X 7 in 2011 and Arvind Kejriwal made his OB-van-propped divine entry as the paragon of pure running water. Both Modi and Kejriwal made a massive political windfall using the corruption bandwagon. Today, they have contumaciously dumped the Lok Pal bill. It is this brazen hypocrisy and chronic myopia that is costing India dear. On the Panama Papers, though, it will be hard for us to duck the global attention that will eventually force local corrective action. It is time civil society got into the act.

Jaitley says, "The guilty will get sleepless nights". Right now though, Modi Sarkar seems to be blissfully snoring away.

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