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‘Black money’ fairy tale drives Indian adults

by Chandrahas Choudhury

Bloomberg

Fairy tales always end with the words “and they lived happily ever after,” which is why in our cynical age even toddlers have stopped taking them seriously.

Millions of adult Indians, however, enthusiastically propagate a grownup version of happily ever after.

In this fantasy, billions of dollars of “black money” have been siphoned out of India over decades by corrupt politicians and businessmen; it lies securely in the discreet vaults of Swiss banks. Once a “strong government” (perhaps the one just elected?) cracks the whip and brings this money home, India will cease being poor and take its rightful place among the world’s superpowers.

The first major move by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, in May was to appoint a special investigative team to look into the black-money issue, as he promised in his election campaign. This was also a way for the new government to establish its own bona fides on the issue of tackling corruption, which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party repeatedly accused the previous government of temporizing.

India’s new finance minister, Arun Jaitley, has spoken several times recently about asking Swiss authorities to make available to the Indian government a list of their Indian account holders and the sums they hold. Earlier this month, Indian newspapers declared that the Swiss had agreed to cooperate with the new government, only to run another round of stories saying that they hadn’t, actually.

Justice M.B. Shah, chairman of the special team on black money, has termed this development “a setback,” but said he will plow ahead regardless.

Perhaps it’s the memory of once being a fairly prosperous society that had its wealth slowly drained by two centuries of colonialism, or the (very legitimate) resentment felt toward businessmen, farmers and politicians by salaried Indians, who constitute the bulk of India’s very small income tax base, that explains why middle-class Indians take a perverse pride in sticking a number on the amount of wealth at stake in the black-money dispute.

The grander the sum, the more clear it becomes that the motherland has been bled dry by a small cabal of corrupt, anti-national conspirators. It’s a theme Bollywood films mine often to highlight the gulf between the rich and the poor — not the suffocation of Indian potential by the deep-rooted hierarchies of the caste system, or the sickening spectacle of gender violence in family life and on the street, or the country’s perverse incentive structure and obsession with controls and permits after more than six decades of socialist policies.

Indian opinion on black money is persistently inflamed by such moral crusaders as the yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who declared that once India has regained its lost wealth, one Indian rupee will be worth $50 instead of the other way around. Or the maverick lawyer Ram Jethmalani, the figure behind a 2009 petition that led the Supreme Court of India to direct the Indian government to set up a special task force to recover India’s lost money — and moralized in a 50-plus-page judgment on what the neoliberal order had done to make selfish monsters of Indians.

A recent study by the Indian business confederation Assocham put that figure at nearly $2 trillion. Just to put this astonishing figure in context, that’s about the same as India’s gross domestic product. Yet the naivete continues.

Even if one assumes that the Indian government could recover such a large stash of cash from Swiss banks, the proceeds would be considered a national asset and go straight into the hands of the state, whose agencies and departments would have been one of the major sources of this embezzlement to begin with. Outlays are no guarantee of outcomes. But if I could be given a dollar (at pre-black-money-repatriation rates) for every time I heard someone say, “Once we bring all that black money back, no Indian will ever go hungry,” I’d soon have enough for a little nest egg in a Swiss bank myself — or at least enough to buy a ticket to the World Cup final on the black market.

Will black money really make for a new “India Shining,” as so many believe? Why, it already has.

“One of the best places in which to invest money is India, not Switzerland or the U.S. or any Western destination,” the straight-talking economics columnist Swaminathan Aiyar wrote. “Housing prices in the U.S. doubled after 2000 and that was called a bubble, but housing prices in India rose almost 10-fold. Declarations by politicians of their assets show a huge preference for real estate over all other assets. … Most black money never leaves India, and much of that does come right back.”

If those sensational sums did ever exist, they’re no longer lying in Swiss banks, but have long since been put to use in India’s murky real estate market and in the massive war chests deployed by political parties (including the BJP) in state and national elections.

Indian politicians have long resisted attempts to regulate real estate and election finances, except when ensconced on the benches of the opposition. It suits them well to whip up outrage over black money as long as no policy changes are involved. Other sensible voices have urged the public to consider not just the sums allegedly stashed away illegally, but also the systems and loopholes that have made such large-scale embezzlement possible — and what can be done in the future to staunch such outflows and “round-tripping.”

“Sometimes it appears that the narrative has become so distant from reality that ‘bringing back’ black money is being seen as a coherent act of economic policy reform,” the Business Standard argued in an editorial. “The biggest step that the government should take on ending the black economy is to make it more difficult for people to bring black money back to India. That is, in the end, what tax evaders wish to do with their unaccounted-for cash — put it back to work in the economy they know best, not store it in distant vaults.”

But none of this advice — nor the revelation that Indian account holders hold no more than 2 billion francs in the Swiss banking system, a fraction of Assocham’s estimate — will deter millions of Indians from imagining life in the beautiful El Dorado of post-Operation Black Money India, or from supporting every team that plays against Switzerland in the World Cup.

Even adults need a fairy tale or two to make things bearable.

Based in New Delhi, Bloomberg columnist Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel “Arzee the Dwarf.”