The many and varied exposes of the digital era—Wikileaks, Offshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks, Panama Papers, and now Paradise Papers—have rendered what was always known in stark black and white. The rich and powerful of the world do and have done everything under the sun, exploited every possible loophole, to siphon off millions to evade taxes. They seek out little islands not just for exotic beach holidays, but also to secure their grey paradise. Pleasure havens are tax havens too.
What’s startling about the recent expose is the names that have tumbled out, the sheer scale and reach of the taint. Queen Elizabeth II, Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a Kremlin firm linked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, African leaders, our own usual suspects Vijay Mallya and Amitabh Bachchan, prominent BJP and Congress politicos, and hordes of corporate players—it’s the United Colours of (Self) Benefaction.
Thanks to the leaked 13.4 million papers revealing the records of Bermuda-based firm Appleby and Singapore-based Asiaciti Trust, we see a variety of forbidden fruit salads. Take the absurdity of the British monarch investing her private estate earning in an offshore firm in alleged subversion of her own monarchy’s rules, or the jaw-dropping chutzpah with which Mallya seems have cut deals with the Diageo Group to cream off `10,000 crore. Sebi, which has decided to move against the corporate bad apples, adds a caveat: not all account-holders are law-breakers.
Secret deals and tax evasion, though, are clearly on the wrong side of the law. Hopefully, there will be a more robust investigation this time. The months of hard work journalists put in for the Panama Papers hardly yielded the kind of results one saw in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif lost his premiership and got banned from politics for life. Here, we have been kinder, more accommodating. We’ve even allowed a few of those named to not just get on with life as usual but also lecture us on social duties, tax compliance and other pious things.