The long-awaited Special Investigation Team is to be finally established. The Modi Cabinet, in its very first meeting on Wednesday, took the decision to fulfil one of the commitments of the BJP made in its manifesto. This was in keeping with the directions of the apex court as well, which had been hearing a PIL filed by prominent citizens, including the noted lawyer Ram Jethmalani, seeking action to unearth billions of black money salted away in secret bank accounts abroad. The UPA Government had dragged its feet on the setting up of SIT despite clear directions from the Supreme Court. The NDA decision to establish the 13-member SIT, to be headed by two retired apex court judges, is expected to not only help unearth hoards of unaccounted funds kept abroad and at home, but also to suggest ways to prevent the creation of black money in the national economy. Heads and/or members of key agencies charged with supervising unscrupulous economic activities will be part of the SIT. Despite varying figures of monies illegally kept abroad, there are credible reports that much of the black funds might have come back into the economy through the circuitous Mauritius or Singapore route. This round-tripping of funds through the hawala route reportedly has found its way into the equity markets, thus accounting for the rise in the Sensex. Transparency in the share market operations was hard to enforce due to the sheer blackmail of the traders who push the markets down the moment there is any talk of stopping investment through the so-called participatory notes. Successive finance ministers have threatened to lift the veil over the PN operations, but only to beat a hasty retreat in the face of a sharp bear run on the markets. Hopefully, the SIT on black money will grapple with this seemingly intractable issue. Admittedly, post 9/11, it has become increasingly hazardous to salt away unaccounted billions in secret accounts abroad. The Americans have been unrelenting in pursuing the movement of suspicious looking funds, having nailed two well-known Swiss banks for helping their citizens to stash away black money with them. Both the Swiss banks were heavily penalised at the pain of forfeiture of their licences to carry on operations in America. And the American nationals, whose illicit accounts were unearthed, were made to pay heavy penalties and back taxes with some of them even sentenced to undergo varying periods of prison terms as well. Yet, the UPA Government refused to draw any salutary lessons from the Americans’ tough stance against foreign banks in various tax havens. Even when through a fortuitous turn of events it was provided a list of Indians holding secret accounts in foreign banks, the government refused to name and shame them. It resisted all efforts by the apex court to offer any concrete plan to unearth black money kept at home or abroad. Small wonder one of the most forceful election planks of the right-wing opposition was the attack on the Congress Party for protecting generators and keepers of illicit funds. However, the problem of black money in the economy will persist so long as systemic changes are not put in place to make it unprofitable to transact business in cash. Corruption of the authorities is at the heart of the problem. Unless the lower and middle-level bureaucracy mends its ways and enforces the law strictly, the problem of black money will persist.
Meanwhile, we find it odd that soon after its installation, a junior minister in the Modi Government has needlessly raked up controversy over Article 370. Unless there is a political design behind it, raking up such divisive issues should be avoided. Yes, Kashmiri Pandits who were virtually forced out of their traditional homes by an insensitive Congress Government nearly two decades ago, ought to be allowed to return home. Yes, there should be freedom and opportunities for all Indians to visit and do business in Kashmir. Yes, even ways ought to be found to enable Indians to work, stay and vote in Kashmir. But this cannot be done by unilaterally raking up the issue of Article 370. An appropriate political atmosphere has to be created for this to happen. At a time when the Modi Ministry is still in its infancy, any talk of abrogating Article 370 does seem premature.