What happens when the shady dealings of high profile individuals are exposed?
More than 2,000 years ago, the first authorial poet of the Western world, Hesiod wrote about the even more ancient myth of Pandora.
Driven by curiosity, this first-ever woman, the mother of all humanity, was said to have opened a container (often referred to as a box) that unleashed an unstoppable flurry of travails on the world. In his contemporaneous The Iliad, Homer describes how those afflicted “will be pointed at by the finger of scorn [and they] will go up and down the face of the earth respected neither by gods and men.”
That precise classical allusion wasn’t in the minds of leadership of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) -- the non-profit network based in Washington DC -- upon the release of its findings from the largest investigation in history earlier this week as the “Pandora Papers.”
The ICIJ meant only the popular notion of “an outpouring of trouble and woe” but there’s no doubt their revelations are a painful public embarrassment for many important people, including hundreds in South Asia.
As the organization’s managing editor Fergus Shiel summarizes: “The most expansive leak of tax haven files in history” has exposed “the secret deals and hidden assets of more than 330 politicians and high-level public officials in more than 90 countries and territories.”
About 11.9 million pages of confidential information from 14 offshore financial services providers, Shiel says, “Ambassadors, mayors and ministers, presidential advisers, generals, and a central bank governor appear in the files [along with] more than 130 billionaires from 45 countries … other clients include bankers, big political donors, arms dealers, international criminals, pop stars, spy chiefs, and sporting giants.”
Some prominent names “include King Abdullah II of Jordan, the prime ministers of Côte d’Ivoire and the Czech Republic, the presidents of Ecuador, Kenya, and Gabon, and the former presidents of El Salvador, Panama, Paraguay, and Honduras.”
This database of shenanigans includes more than 700 Pakistani citizens. The ICIJ notes that Prime Minister Imran Khan -- who rose to power “on the back of promises to arrest Pakistan’s ‘corrupt’ political elites” was not named. But two members of his cabinet were, as well as “family members of several high-ranking military officials [and] donors to Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party.”
Across the border in India, the ICIJ’s partner The Indian Express editorialized on October 6 that “global elites continue to exploit the cracks in tax laws and the lax jurisdiction in tax havens to ring-fence their assets.” About the 300 Indians caught out this time, it pointed out “there is a distinction between tax avoidance and evasion [but] such structures are typically used to not pay taxes, launder money gotten through illegal means, and to sequester assets.”
As you might expect, there are many usual suspects among this rogue’s gallery of shady operators: Egregious swindler Nirav Modi’s sister, the extraordinarily incompetent would-be tycoon Anil Ambani, and a string of what the Indian Express describes as “big-ticket loan defaulters who declare themselves bankrupt [but actually] hold billions via offshore entities abroad.”
In this collection of outright crooks, it’s both surprising and sad to see the name of Sachin Tendulkar. To be sure, it’s unclear the legendary cricketer has committed any wrong-doing, and his lawyers have sternly admonished Indian Express “to ensure that neither The Indian Express nor the ICIJ attributes or alleges any improper or illegal motives to Mr Tendulkar’s legitimate investments.”
But the court of public opinion can’t be controlled quite easily, because humans react viscerally to what they recognize as contradictions no matter what the legal intricacies may indicate. This is precisely what Homer was talking about all those centuries ago in The Iliad: “Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.”
What’s at stake here is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the pioneering 68-year-old billionaire entrepreneur, and founder of the biopharmaceutical giant Biocon Ltd, who is one of the most celebrated businesswomen in the world. In its October 6 report, Indian Express revealed that her husband, the British national John Shaw, owns a Mauritius-based company which “holds cash and investments of about $55 million, and real estate including four properties in London, one in Barcelona and one in a New York upscale residential building, cumulatively valued at approximately $30 million.”
Again, it’s quite possible that all of this is perfectly legal, and that’s what Mazumdar-Shaw has forcefully reiterated this week: “I would like to state that these stories have grossly misrepresented the facts.”
But the optics are undeniably ugly, especially given the context of Ms Mazumdar-Shaw’s tweet on April 8 this year (she later said it was a joke and deleted it) that “income tax payers should be given vaccine first. They are only 3 crores. If they die, how will the country survive.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.