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Why it will be tough to get back funds in Swiss accounts

April 16, 2009 10:09 IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani's plans to get India back in the black, so to speak, will take a lot more effort than he would have the country believe.

After the expose involving a Liechtenstein bank, where a former employee provided the names of citizens of various countries who had accounts in the bank, and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) crackdown on various tax havens, Mr Advani clearly believes that the famed secrecy laws of the Swiss banks are a thing of the past.

UBS' decision to give the US government the details of a few hundred clients who have defrauded the United States' tax authorities must also have convinced Mr Advani that his path would be a lot easier than in the days when frustrated investigators were on the trail of Bofors pay-offs.

There is little doubt that Swiss attitudes to bank secrecy have begun to change, but this does not mean that Mr Advani will get a walkover, or indeed that he will find the money.

For one, Mr Advani's estimates of the money held in Swiss banks are dubious, and implausible. Second, there is no knowing how much of it belongs to Indians -- Mr Advani quoted figures of $2.6 trillion in 2001 and $5.7 trillion in 2007 as being the total held in Swiss banks, but had no specific numbers for India.

Even if the numbers are much smaller than Mr Advani alleges or believes, what is the likelihood of getting the money back? The answer is: Pretty slim.

The Swiss authorities have never considered tax evasion a reason for breaking banking secrecy on an account; what they have acknowledged now is that they will cooperate in cases of tax fraud, which has a tighter definition.

Also, they will not permit roving enquiries or fishing expeditions; specific cases will have to be filed in India, there will need to be a financial trail demonstrated, and only then can information be sought.

Since the Indian authorities are not armed with the kind of information that they will need for serious action, the end result will be no different from the United Progressive Alliance's record and achievement: general enquiries are greeted with stonewalling, and no one is any the wiser at the end.

It is worth keeping in mind that the only reason why UBS agreed to cooperate with the US government, and why it paid the $780 million fine imposed on it, was because the US government made out an explicit case of tax fraud and showed that UBS was helping US citizens commit this fraud.

Mr Advani's government, if it does come to power, needs to establish this; but given the track record of income tax sleuths, this is not a bet that Mr Advani should be taking.

An interesting issue to keep in mind is the National Democratic Alliance's track record when it was in government. While it is true that Mr Advani was neither the prime minister nor the finance minister, he was a leading light of the government and of the BJP.

The Mauritius treaty had come up for discussion at the time, amid growing perceptions that the treaty was being misused for round-tripping investment. While the NDA had a chance to do something, eventually the party decided against it.

Is Mr Advani having the country believe that a government that he leads will move against top Indian businessmen, including perhaps even his own allies and partymen? Yes, and pigs will fly.

Business Standard Bureau
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