Banking secrecy spices up Indian elections

Swiss bankers? Indian villagers queue outside a polling booth at a village in Khejuri, 165km southwest of Calcutta Keystone

Forget slumdog millionaires, Swiss bank millionaires are currently the subject of some angry political finger pointing in India.

This content was published on May 14, 2009

As the final votes were cast in national elections on Wednesday, accusations that the ruling elite had squirreled billions of dollars away in Swiss bank accounts continued to fill Indian newspapers.

The Swiss Bankers Association has dismissed claims that up to $1.4 trillion (SFr1.55 trillion) in Indian money is held in Switzerland as "at best pure speculation and at worst pure fantasy".

The Indian Communist Party opened a can of worms when it first raised the issue of vast sums held by Indians in Swiss banks.

Two weeks later, India's Hindu opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) alliance, decided to make it their main campaign issue.

"If I am elected, I promise to repatriate this money within 100 days," declared Lal Krishna Advani, the BJP leader and candidate for prime minister.

Unfortunately for him, it doesn't look as though he will win – India's bookmakers peg Manmohan Singh of the Indian National Congress party the favourite to remain in the top spot.

Nevertheless, Advani's promise forced Singh to timidly do the same – and while he was at it, to ask the Swiss authorities for better cooperation and more information regarding people in India who hold Swiss bank accounts.

That wasn't enough for the BJP, which ruled India from 1998 to 2004 on a pro-business platform.

"The government should provide complete details of trips made by every cabinet member for the past five years – especially those to Switzerland and above all those that were not official visits," said Advani.

Results of the monthlong election – in which more than 100 million people across nine states were eligible to vote – are expected on Saturday.


The question of money stashed in Switzerland is awkward, as it raises another one: corruption among India's political elite.

Suspicions of dodgy dealings are rife. During each election, candidates have to publish a complete list of their belongings, including bank accounts, property and jewellery. Between elections, their wealth always increases – sometimes tenfold.

For example, Kumari Mayawati, India's richest woman politician, saw her declared wealth appreciate nicely from the equivalent of $200,000 in 2003 to $10 million in 2009. The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation opened an inquest but Mayawati cleared her name.

"No one in India is surprised if politicians get richer," said S.R. Darapuri, a social activist in Uttar Pradesh, the country's largest state. "On the contrary, the public would not understand it if politicians failed to line their nests."

Flight of capital

S. Gurumurthy, head of the BJP's financial "task force", explained that in Europe or the United States, the problem of banking secrecy was all about tax evasion.

"But for us, it's above all a question of corruption. These billions represent diverted money, a flight of capital for the country," he said.

In addition to tax fraud, kickbacks and other kinds of bribery, a study by Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based think tank, claimed $22-27 billion was moved abroad from India every year.

This puts the subcontinent fifth – behind China, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Russia – in the ranking of countries with capital flowing in the direction of tax havens.

A report by the BJP task force concluded that "wealth in Swiss bank accounts and other tax havens may be in the range of $500 billion and $1.4 trillion".

Advani said the credibility of these figures was reinforced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which at a G20 summit in London in April estimated that more than $11 trillion was held in tax havens.

Swiss reaction

But for James Nason at the Swiss Bankers Association, these numbers were "at best pure speculation and at worst pure fantasy".

"Where are they getting these numbers? Some of the figures being thrown around about 'black' money allegedly held by Indians in Swiss banks are quite incredible," he told

"No one ever gives a source for these figures, neither does anyone explain the methodology used to arrive at them and I strongly suspect they have been contrived to serve the purposes of an election campaign."

He added: "Swiss banks have no interest at all in attracting dirty money and well-established procedures exist here to identify, freeze and report funds of possible criminal origin and also to give international legal assistance to foreign countries investigating crimes."

In elections campaigns, however, the accuracy of numbers is often less important than their overall effect. In the middle of an economic crisis, Advani is giving the country's poor food for thought.

"Imagine what we could do with all that money! We could build roads, electricity grids, flood barriers – this money is the money of the people," he doesn't tire of saying.

But returning the money to India would require a list of Indian owners of Swiss bank accounts – and bearing in mind these are the country's richest politicians and businessmen, that's unlikely to happen in the near future.

Miyuki Droz Aramaki in New Delhi, (adapted from French by Thomas Stephens)

In brief

On May 13 million Indians voted in the final phase of the country's monthlong national election, amid an economic downturn and a deeply fractured political scene.

More than 100 million voters across nine states were eligible to vote for 86 seats in India's 543-seat lower house of parliament. It was the final day of voting in an election in which 714 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots at more than 828,000 polling stations.

Results of the election are expected on Saturday. According to the constitution, a new parliament has to be in place by June 2.

With no single party expected to win an outright majority, the election has become a game of securing the highest number of allies to boost parliamentary numbers.

After trailing for weeks, India's Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) alliance, may now be gaining momentum against a fumbling ruling Congress party-led coalition thanks to some savvy alliance building.

India's bookmakers make Congress's Manmohan Singh the evens favourite to take the prime ministership, while BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani is considered a 3-1 chance to win the top job.

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Evasion or fraud

People wishing to dodge paying taxes on their assets can do so by three means: avoidance, evasion and fraud.

Avoidance is the legitimate means of structuring finances so they don't fall under the scope of taxable assets. This can be done, for example, by setting up a trust fund or by changing country residence or nationality.

Evasion is the deliberate concealing the true state of assets from the tax authorities – in other words, lying about the extent of your assets. This is a civil offence in Switzerland and some other countries, such as Austria and Liechtenstein, but criminal in most states.

The main distinction between evasion and fraud is that the perpetrator tells lies on official documentation. Unless tax fraud can be proved, Swiss banks are not obliged to hand over details of client assets to investigators. In some cases this information is needed before fraud can be established in the first place.

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