Do Aur Do Panama

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Ra­jyas­ree Sen

Amitabh Bachchan. Farmer, ac­tor, singer, in­vestor. And if you be­lieve farmer, politi­cian, come­back artist, in­vestor Amar Singh, Bachchan may also be the next pres­i­dent of In­dia.

De­spite Singh’s yet-to-be-con­firmed in­for­ma­tion about Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi be­ing keen to pro­pose the Big B’s name for the Big P, it’s not been a good fort­night for Bharat Pita. At 73, Bachchan is the voice of the na­tion, lit­er­ally. Peo­ple may die, vil­lages may burn, a plague may come down upon us, but he has never ruf­fled any feath­ers. He’s seen in pub­lic ser­vice ad­ver­tise­ments, told us Cad­bury chocs have no worms, and asked us to save the tigers and breathe in a bit of Gu­jarat, ide­ally both at the same time.

He is also one of those rare pub­lic fig­ures who has man­aged to have sup­port across the po­lit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, aes­thetic spec­trum. Today, he is as much Prime Min­is­ter Modi’s BFF as he was once Ra­jiv Gandhi’s. So, when Amar Singh claimed that the PM is con­sid­er­ing propos­ing Bachchan as the next pres­i­dent, I wasn’t re­ally sur­prised. (What sur­prised me was that it was Singh who made the an­nounce­ment.) But just when conches were about to be blown, Bachchan found him­self in the news for hav­ing his name in the Panama Pa­pers.

The Pa­pers in­clude more than 11 mil­lion se­cret files from the Bond vil­lain­ously named Mos­sack Fon­seca, a law firm in the tax haven of Panama. Mos­sack Fon­seca cre­ates off­shore com­pa­nies for its global clien­tele and the files re­veal the names of those who paid the firm to set up the com­pa­nies.

Now, the clincher: for a fee, Mos­sack Fon­seca as­sists in mask­ing the ac­tual own­er­ship while still show­ing com­pli­ance. Bachchan and his daugh­ter-in­law Aish­warya Rai have both been named in­de­pen­dently in these pa­pers as two of the over 500 In­di­ans who’ve used the good of­fices of… [sin­is­ter mu­sic] Mos­sack Fon­seca.

What’s the prob­lem in hav­ing money in off­shore com­pa­nies? As long as in­comes from these off­shore funds are of­fered for tax, there is no prob­lem. The prob­lem is the ‘tax’ bit. And there is no way of know­ing how much money was placed in these com­pa­nies.

But then, look at the bright side. Bachchan, deny­ing hav­ing any money in off­shore com­pa­nies, finds the spot­light now moved from what could have blown into a big­ger con­tro­versy: of whether he charged money to sing the na­tional an­them at the In­dia-Pak­istan T20 match in Kolkata. On that, Bachchan had ba­si­cally pleaded the Fifth while Sourav Gan­guly acted as de­fence coun­sel. Gan­guly ac­tu­ally said that in­stead of Bachchan charg­ing money, he had, in fact, spent “.`30 lakh of his own money”. Post-Panama Pa­pers, Dada may have con­sid­ered it best to have also kept mum.

Bachchan has said that some­one must have mis­used his name, much like we do when we are try­ing to wran­gle a din­ner reser­va­tion at a tony restau­rant. I’ve used ‘Hi, this is Kan­gana here’ my­self. (Sorry, Aish­warya, I needed a ta­ble for two in 2016, so….)

The rea­son peo­ple are — even as the gov­ern­ment isn’t — ask­ing whether Bachchan and Rai Bachchan de­clared their full as­sets to tax au­thor­i­ties is be­cause we de­ify Big B. So, when some­one as per­fect as he is hap­pens to be named in some­thing as hera-feri as the Panama Pa­pers, ques­tions seek­ing to clear doubts’ll be raised. With­out con­firm­ing that Holy B is white as salt, we won’t be able to sleep at night.

If only Mos­sack Fon­seca’s state­ment fol­low­ing the ex­posé had de­nied that the files were legit. Or claimed that the clients named were in­cor­rect — at least those with the ini­tials AB or ARB. In­stead, the firm said they “con­duct due dili­gence on clients at the out­set of a po­ten­tial en­gage­ment and on an on­go­ing ba­sis… rou­tinely deny ser­vices to in­di­vid­u­als who are com­pro­mised or who fail to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion”. So will Bachchan and Rai Bachchan sue the In­ter­na­tional Con­sor­tium of In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ists (ICIJ) and pub­li­ca­tions that car­ried their names from the Panama Pa­pers for defama­tion? Not if they’ve re­alised that the Pa­pers can only help their cause.

In al­most two years, what the gov­ern­ment couldn’t do, the ICIJ has done for it. Soon, we shall all have .₹ 15 lakh ‘of pub­lic money’ cred­ited in our ac­counts. But more im­por­tantly, if the Panama Pa­pers are ac­cu­rate, it proves that Bachchan is a big­ger and bet­ter all­rounder than we thought.

Not only is he pa­tri­otic and an artiste ex­traor­di­naire, he is now also an in­ter­na­tional ship­ping mag­nate and an in­no­va­tive in­vestor. Pres­i­den­tial suite stuff.

Tai­lored in Panama

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