Of Black and White and Shades of Grey

“Thank God for the Supreme Court – now the government has to catch all the black money holders with Swiss Bank accounts” exclaimed my friend Swami while we were having our coffee this week.

My broker friend Jigneshbhai was unmoved and kept sipping his coffee waiting for Swami to continue.

As usual, nothing irritates Swami more than my broker friend’s silence in response to his exasperation. So his questions were bound to come.

“So on this at least, you must agree with me, isn’t it?”

My broker friend was listening, but was silent for a while.

“Well, it is making a mountain out of a molehill. A disproportionate waste of energy” he finally spoke.

Nothing confuses Swami more than my broker friend’s speech. Very often, after goading Jigneshbhai to speak, Swami has often wondered if his silence was better. This occasion was no different.

“What do you mean? Aren’t you interested in getting back the black money that the rich crooks put in their swiss bank accounts?” protested Swami.

“I am told it will add 10% to our foreign exchange reserves” he boasted. “And here you are saying it is a waste. As if you know more than everyone else” Swami continued, now almost impolite.

I looked at Jigneshbhai to check if he was perturbed after this onslaught of brashness from Swami. But my broker friend was quietly sipping his coffee. There was an eerie silence as I waited for something to happen.

My broker friend finally broke his silence.

“Well, I said it is a disproportionate waste, not a total waste. There are better things to do for the government” Jigneshbhai asserted this time. “It is not as if black money is stored in mattresses or transferred in suitcases like the olden times, and all you have to do is simply raid their houses and seize it.”

Swami was a bit surprised on hearing this. His tone got less aggressive but he was a bit confused with my broker friend’s nonchalance. As usual he demanded an explanation.

“It may not be as simple. But we have to get the black money back. The government promised it” Swami argued.

Jigneshbhai now looked up and decided to talk.

“First of all, not everyone having a foreign account is a criminal on paper” he started.

“That is fine. But for the ones who are criminals, we have to get the money back from their Swiss accounts” Swami protested, not yet ready to give up.

“Secondly, the crime can be simply tax avoidance on well-earned money, or it could be ill-gotten hidden income through corruption or illegal methods” my broker friend clarified.

“Ok. So what? It is still money on which tax is evaded” Swami said, still not convinced.

“Thirdly, the ones who really want to evade big-time tax are likely to use structures and methods that are smart enough to either go undetected or uncharged.”

“Hmm..” mused Swami, getting a bit of the complexity of what my broker friend was saying.

“Finally” continued Jigneshbhai, “for the ones who will end up being charged, the process of proving their crime and recovering the money is likely to be long drawn in the courts.”

Now, Swami and I were listening intently, more or less understanding the difficulties.

“At the end of it, there will be political posturing, media discussions and lots of legal tangling and efforts, and the money eventually India gets, if at all, may really not be worth it” claimed Jigneshbhai.

We felt that perhaps our broker friend’s views may not be fully misplaced. But Swami was still not ready to give up.

“Well but we have to do something about the black money lying abroad!” he exclaimed, by now clearly frustrated.

“Well – yes, we have to, to a certain extent. But we have to do much more about the black money lying right here, under our feet in India” retorted my broker friend. “Most people don’t pay taxes on their incomes, and those who do, convert their white to black by investing it in gold and property, and selling in cash” asserted Jigneshbhai confidently.

Swami looked at me to check if I had given up on him. But I was a spectator as usual, watching my friends argue.

“So what’s the problem? We have to get the black money abroad, and we also have to get the black money here!” Swami was incensed now, sounding almost like the TV anchors demanding an answer.

“Well, the problem is most of these people vote” said my broker friend with a sly smile on his face.

Things were clearly not simple, when it came to black money.

Just as we were trying to digest all of what our broker friend had said, we noticed that the wealthy man in the sprawling bungalow was sitting at the table next to us. He had been hearing our conversation, and walked up to us.

While we walked out finishing our coffee, he had words of wisdom for us. “In matters of money, specially big money, things are almost never black or white. There are many shades of grey.”

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