Black Money

Ambanis are most prominent names on list of Swiss account holders revealed in Express investigation

Reliance denies any illegal accounts.

The Indian Express on Monday published an investigation into bank accounts held by 1,195 Indians abroad. The investigation is based on leaks from the HSBC's Swiss banking unit. The most significant names on the list, by far, are those of Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani. 

India's richest man does not top the list. He features at rank eight, below Sandeep Tandon, who used to be his Man Friday, managing Reliance's taxation and liaison work.

Tandon was a former Indian Revenue Service official, the same service to which Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi Party leader, belonged.

In November 2012, before the formation of AAP, when Kejriwal was still an activist of the Anna Hazare led India Against Corruption movement, he held a press conference where he revealed a list of ten names of Indian account holders of Swiss bank vaults. 

Kejriwal expose

The Hindu reported, "In a daring expose, IAC members alleged that Mukesh and Anil Ambani and Congress MP Anu Tandon, among others, had crores of rupees sitting in Swiss banks."

The choice of words ‒ "a daring expose" ‒ said it all.

In a scathing story in August 2014, describing Reliance as "a rotten role model for corporate India", The Economist said, "When it comes to governance this secretive and politically powerful private empire is not a national champion but an embarrassment."

These are words that you are unlikely to find in an Indian publication, which is why the Indian Express investigation is significant. Produced as part of a global collaboration, which saw 140 journalists worldwide go through the list of Swiss bank account holders obtained by the Paris-based newspaper Le Monde, the investigation ends the speculation swirling around Swiss bank accounts held by Indians, and puts down a credible list. On the list are the Ambani brothers among other corporates heads, businessmen, politicians, and at least two former IRS officers. Most earlier reports on the HSBC Swiss bank list have omitted the names of Ambanis. 

The paper is careful to remind its readers that not all accounts hold black money. But given the secrecy over Swiss bank accounts, the paper thought it was worth making public the information and said that "undeclared wealth is an important part of political discourse, involving the government, the Supreme Court and the central bank"

The list owes its existence to Hervé Falciani, a systems engineer and former employee of the Geneva office of HSBC, who walked away in 2008 with 11 floppy discs containing data of around 130,000 bank customers. Not all on the list were people who had stashed away illicit money. Many were legitimate account holders who had paid taxes. But the French government took the list seriously enough to pass it on to other countries. Many countries including UK, France, Spain and others used the list to initiate investigations into possible tax evasion. 

International project

In August 2011, the Indian Express reported that the Indian government had received the information and Pranab Mukherjee, then finance minister, now President of India, had asked for a probe into the accounts. "Names of several important Indian businessmen and corporates are said to be in the data received," the report said. 

Not a single name was published anywhere in India. But in January 2012, the Economic Times reported that HSBC had apologised to Mukesh Ambani "for embroiling him in an investigation by India's income-tax authorities...the bank clarified that neither he, nor Reliance Industries, was the owner of any beneficiary account with the bank's private banking division."

But three years later, as Indian Express partnered in an international project to access the names and details of 1.688 bank account holders, which it laboriously checked and whittled down to 1,195 account holders, it found Mukesh Ambani's name was indeed part of the leaked HSBC list of customers. In a response to the paper, a Reliance spokesperson still maintained, “Neither RIL nor Mr Mukesh Ambani have or had any illegitimate bank accounts anywhere in the world.”

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