Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson in faraway Iceland and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif share a similarity that neither are too proud of. Both are prime ministers who have been forced out of office, thanks to the Panama Papers, an investigative journalism initiative that uncovered offshore shell companies and tax havens based on leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
But while Gunnlaugsson resigned from his post, soon after the publication of the Panama Papers exposé led to protests in Iceland last year, Sharif’s exit today comes after a long-drawn legal battle ended unfavourably for him.
In India too, there is no shortage of high-profile names that featured in the Panama Papers list. It includes Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, industrialist Gautam Adani’s elder brother Vinod Adani and top lawyer Harish Salve. But compared to the pace at which the agencies and judiciary in Pakistan acted on the Sharif case, is the speed at which India is moving on the Panama Papers considerably slower?
Where the Probe Stands in India
The following is an excerpt from an Indian Express article in March 2017 by Ritu Sarin, one of the journalists who was part of the team investigating the Panama Papers.
“Nearly a year after The Indian Express published the Panama Papers, tax authorities have succeeded in obtaining 165 replies — partial or complete — from among 13 jurisdictions where Indian nationals had incorporated offshore companies through the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. According to data made available at the latest meeting of the Multi Agency Group (MAG) last month, the number of Indian clients of Mossack Fonseca, whose PAN numbers had been traced, has swelled to 424. Of these, 205 have accepted links to offshore entities named in the global expose. However, 60 other Indians named in the Panama Papers remain untraced.”
Speaking to The Quint, Sarin says that it would not be fair to say that Indian agencies have been slow in dealing with the Panama Papers.
"On the contrary, I have rarely seen the tax department move so fast. Investigating offshore is like peeling the skin of an onion — you have to go layer by layer, and it’s the tax authorities that have to do it. It’s a long process
From Bachchans to Big Businessmen
But if Pakistan completed the case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a little over a year, what about the proceedings on the high-profile Indian names in the Panama Papers? Among them, actors Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Indiabulls owner Sameer Gehlaut and DLF promoter KP Singh are a few names.
|Indians in the Panama Papers: (from left) Amitabh Bachchan, KP Singh, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sameer Gehlaut|
Sarin elaborates, “A notice was sent to each and every person named in the Panama Papers, including the celebrities mentioned. There’s a PIL in the Supreme Court. Even when the tax dept is giving status reports to the SC, they are giving numbers, not names. So if they are not obliged to tell even the SC, they are not obliged to tell you or me. Tax probes are always very confidential, that’s the nature of a tax investigation. We will only get to know when people are prosecuted.
All I can say is that each one of the people named by us were given tax notices. They must have been subsequently summoned and the case is in progress. Whenever there was a requirement or a suspicion of tax evasion, those requests were sent to the offshore jurisdictions. So that process is underway.”
Till the tax authorities move for prosecution, the status of individual cases is thus unclear.
And even as the jokes continue...
...it is well worth asking whether India’s high and mighty are at all likely to meet the same fate that Nawaz Sharif did. Or will their stature delay this probe indefinitely?
by Meghnad Bose