The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- People will pay taxes on time only if ministers set an example

He is a political animal. The finance minister cannot therefore be faulted if he indulges in one or two public relations gimmicks. He, however, walked into a blunder. He should not have delayed the filing of his return on income till the last permissible date, but should have done it much earlier, on the first day of April. The gimmick sent the most wrong kind of message to the public: be as slovenly as you can be in rendering your accounts to society.

Even worse, the finance minister combined his tax return tomfoolery with a homily for the citizenry: those amongst them who have stopped filing returns, or have not at all ever filed returns, should better reform themselves; men in his ministry are watching them; habitual tax defaulters will soon receive their just deserts.

A cackle of derision will greet the ministerial huffings; such derision is richly deserved. Tax defaulters as a class belong to the vast constituency of supporters of the two major political parties that have ruled the country in turn. This lot have been sitting, safe and prim, on their pile of unaccounted for money, otherwise known as black money, running into hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees, for years on end. The authorities have not taken particular care to bring them to book. The government keeps complaining of resource constraint, important projects affecting the life and death of the community are held back, but the black economy artistes are left untouched. Despite the substantial lowering of direct tax rates over the past decade- and-a-half, habitual tax-evaders have not felt ethically pressed to pay even a fraction of the enormous amounts they legally owe to the government. Cheating the exchequer they consider as their birthright, for they are on the right side of those in power. The currently dominant economic philosophy provides them with a kind of moral support: the government is evil, so why should we fill public coffers'

Perhaps, in his heart of hearts, the finance minister does not think much differently. He would of course protest. One test of his claimed earnestness would be to invite him to launch an investigation pregnant with possibilities. Let him pick any ' just any ' of his ministerial colleagues, who has been long in the political game, has adorned the office of a minister almost continuously and, when not a minister, has been a full-time party worker. At the beginning of his career, this person was perhaps a humble schoolteacher or an office assistant, drawing not more than a thousand rupees as monthly remuneration, with no assets worth the name and no other sources of income. Over the decades, his legal earnings, either as a minister or a party whole-timer, have been exceedingly modest. He has not received any bona fide bequests during this period either. At the end of these decades, though, he typically owns a palatial house and/or a couple of luxury apartments in the poshest precincts of New Delhi, a farm house in Tughlaqabad or somewhere else, several flats or houses in the capital city of the state he belongs to, and extensive property in his ancestral village. These properties are held in his own name or in the names of his close relatives. He has accumulated this whole lot of assets in the course of his uninterrupted career as a servant of the people. Even ignoring the liquid funds he and members of his household hold, the valuation of the properties is bound to add up to Rs 100 crore or more.

If the finance minister wants to enhance his credibility as a tax-gatherer, he should arrange that the tax sleuths under his command swoop down on his ministerial colleague and subject the latter to a searching cross-examination. This eminence could not have built all this wealth from out of his income as a minister or a full-time political worker. These assets could not but be the sum total of considerations he has received from various quarters ' as gift, as bribe, as kickback, as commission for services rendered or promised to be rendered. Had he ever bothered to file his tax returns, he must have been careful enough not to mention any of these amounts. Even when, for specific reasons, he felt it necessary to admit to ownership of any of these properties, his lawyers and accountants must have advised him on ways of evading tax liability.

Commissions received from favoured parties for sales or purchases on behalf of the government are not unknown phenomena. These have a way, gossip says, of surreptitiously contributing to a minister's non-declared earnings. There is at least one theory that India's domestic output of oil has remained constant at roughly one-third of the total internal requirement because certain vested groups are anxious not to pare down oil imports, as that would adversely affect earnings from commissions.

Many similar stories are in circulation. The unravelling of truth, however, remains elusive since revenue-collecting authorities are reluctant to proceed with their investigations beyond a point. Will the finance minister have the guts to explore the lower depths of fiscal misdoings by putting under scanner the income-expenditure accounts of at least one of his ministerial-colleagues before he expatiates on how he was going to deal with habitual tax-defaulters'

While each politician has his own unsavoury secret, there is fair ground for suspicion ' and this is the really most despairing part of the story ' that most politicians are in it together. Each of them is aware of the fact that, like himself, that benign-looking person sitting next to him in the treasury bench, or right across him on the opposition front bench, is a 'history-sheeter' of a sort, although no records exist in official files. The skulduggery of each politician is supposed to be carefully kept under wraps, but no Right to Information Act is really needed, it is general knowledge: a knows b, c, d, e's secrets, b knows about a, c, d, e's secrets, c knows about a, b, d, and e's secrets and so on down the line. A gentleman's agreement, however, is at work: whether you belong to the same party, or to a rival group within the same party, or to a different political party, it is a grand concordat of camaraderie. They are all thieves, but there is a code amongst thieves; despite the political or factional squabbles they love to revel in, they will not be so rude as to reveal in public the evil deeds of their political or factional rivals. They are even aware of the particular case where one of them received a huge sum from some source but failed to share the booty with the party he belongs to. Like bathroom manners, such things are, however, not for mention in polite society.

To be fair, there are bound to be, and are, exceptions to every rule. For a long while, the left had kept themselves away from participation ' or conniving ' in the grisly money-making games politicians play at all levels. But, as hard-core Marxism says, environment shapes the mind. Corrupt practices have a way of sprouting roots in all directions. For the left, there is a tactical constraint at work too. They are under pressure to overlook the malfeasance of a politician with a 'secular' or 'progressive' reputation: this one may be a crook, but he is a secular crook. This moral stance is qualitatively not much different from the discourse Indira Gandhi claimed the patent for: since corruption is a global phenomenon, why be bashful of it'

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