Half-truths in the name of asset declaration by poll hopefuls
By Sucheta Dalal
The asset declarations by our politicians over the past ten days have forced many of us to reconsider our irritation at the string of filmstars, with no political background or record of public service, who are seeking to represent us in Parliament. At least they are more honest. We now know that Sunil Dutt and Govinda are far wealthier than some of our established political leaders, whose declared assets, in some cases seem about one-hundredth the anecdotal estimate of their wealth.
The exceptions are probably S.M. Krishna of Karnataka who declared assets of Rs 18 crore and the former Maharaja of Mysore whose wealth is immense but messy, and owes the exchequer a lot of money. Is Sunil Dutt really India’s richest politician? Certainly not. But his declared wealth at Rs 20 crore puts him at the top of the charts and probably gives even his party leader a complex. Govinda admits to having earned assets of Rs 15 crore, probably built out of post-tax income. Contrast this with the netas from Maharashtra, many whom are closely associated with the biggest property sharks.
Most of them admit to being crorepatis, but surely, a couple of crores in assets and jewellery is hardly enough to maintain the lifestyle flaunted by them or their families. Our politicians have shed their pretension of wearing ‘khadi’ and openly strut around in designer outfits, flash expensive jewellery and celebrate at five-star hotels—all of which need significantly more wealth than they have declared.
After all, their bills, unlike those of our industrialists cannot be loaded on to publicly listed companies. Clearly, they have either bluffed in their affidavits or are living off the state and its institutions. The biggest surprise is Sonia Gandhi. The Nehrus were a wealthy, upper-crust family. History books say that Jawaharlal was brought up by English governesses and had the finest foreign education and lifestyle that money could buy. Yet, his great daughter-in-law, fighting a lonely battle to keep the Congress flag flying and to carry the family legacy forward has been reduced to relative penury—certainly by the family standards. Her declaration says that she has no house in India, no cars, just Rs 20,000 in cash, minor jewellery and seems to be living off the royalties from Jawaharlal Nehru’s literary works. But this does not show in the lifestyle of her family.
Even Dalit ki beti Mayawati has declared assets of over Rs 10 crore and jewellery worth another Rs 30 lakh. It would be nice if we can now get hold of the sequence of this property acquisition and the taxes paid on it. Leaders like Sharad Pawar, Manohar Joshi, Chandrababu Naidu, Suresh Kalmadi and many others (not listed here because they are not as well-known) have declared extremely modest values to their real estate assets. They barely match the official assets of the don-turned-politician Arun Gawli. Ram Naik and Manohar Joshi are among the many who apparently own no private vehicles. Others have modest cars like Ambassadors and Zens. Isn’t a politician without a private vehicle a surprise? Are taxpayers paying for the conveyance of their entire family? In Andhra Pradesh, the asset declarations are a joke due to under-declaration of property values in posh localities. In some cases, assets previously declared by politicians have vanished from their list this time. Are the revenue authorities taking note?
Contrast politicians’ declarations with an absurd phenomenon in Mumbai. The stamp office collects stamp duty at property rates that it has decided, irrespective of the price of each transaction or the condition of the property. In many areas, the stamp office has refused to recognise the huge decline in real estate prices and wrongly forces ordinary people to pay significantly higher stamp duty. People pay up only because fighting the government through litigation is far too expensive and time-consuming. Will the revenue authorities collect politicians’ affidavits posted on the Election Commission’s website and work out the real value of assets? Will they then force our politicians to pay? After all, once politicians begin to pay their taxes—instead of bleeding the exchequer—we can hope for better tax administration.
Just before the elections, aspiring candidates across the political spectrum rushed off to pay their electricity and water bills. The size of their reported dues exposed how government owned utility companies don’t dare to recover fat arrears from the political class. In fact, it would be interesting to find out how may politicians have PAN numbers. The declarations highlight how the state machinery protects corrupt leaders.
Look at how active our revenue agencies are when it comes to other citizens. Last week, the excise department dashed off letters to Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwariya Rai, Shah Rukh Khan and other television stars who were seen in product endorsements to figure out whether they were paying their service tax. Once the Indo-Pak cricket tour is over, similar letters may go out to our cricketers. Yet, filmstars apparently pay more taxes.
Check out how many stars and celebrities dutifully turn up at weddings, anniversaries and birthdays of barely-known revenue officers. It is, after all a small price to pay in order to avoid harassment. Civil Society groups won us a major victory when they litigated to force politicians to declare their assets and criminal record. It is now up to us to ensure that the government ascertains that the assets declared are correctly valued and all their taxes duly paid.