India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

India’s 2G Spectrum Case: The Scam That Wasn’t?

It all started in May 2009 with a report filed by an NGO, Telecom Watchdog, with India’s Central Vigilance Commission. The NGO claimed that there were gross irregularities, likely due to corruption, in the allocation of licenses to operators for the 2nd Generation mobile communication standard spectrum (2G spectrum for short). By October 2009, India’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), had opened an investigation into the allegations, and in November 2010, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India estimated the losses to the government from the alleged misconduct at a whopping US$29 billion. Indian media called it the “biggest scam in the history of Independent India.” Time Magazine put it just behind Watergate as the second worst case of abusing executive power.

Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court of India pressing for cancelling the allocation and making sure that those behind the corruption would be held responsible. In 2012, the Supreme Court obliged, canceling all 122 licenses and imposing huge fines. The Court declared that the then-Minister for Communications and Information Technology, A. Raja, had used an inappropriate allocation procedure (first-come-first-served rather than an auction) to “favor some of the applicants … at the cost of the exchequer.” In an unprecedented move, the Court also ordered the creation of a “Special Court” to try the cases, and modified regular criminal procedure by curbing intermediate challenges, in order to ensure a speedy trial. The first case was instituted against the former Minister, senior bureaucrats, and prominent businessmen for conspiring to rig the allocation process and cheat the government of revenue.

On December 21, 2017, the Special Court announced its verdict—and it was not what many had expected: The Special Court acquitted all the accused, declaring that “a huge scam was seen by everyone when there was none,” and that “some people created [the perception of] a scam by artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels.” The Court also found that, notwithstanding the earlier 2010 report (which others had already suggested was methodologically problematic), the actual losses to the government were marginal at most.

Many commentators were stunned and dismayed by the Special Court’s decision, denouncing it as “shocking” and “flawed.” But after reading the Special Court’s decision, I find myself in agreement with the Special Court’s reasoning. While it’s impossible, in a short blog post, to wade through the merits of the Special Court’s analysis for each of its conclusions, here I want highlight some of the most important arguments in support of the Special Court’s controversial decision. Continue reading

Offshore Tax Havens: Whose Fight Is It Anyway?

By the end of 2017, offshore tax havens were (again) in the spotlight. This was largely thanks to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which helped release the “Paradise Papers”, a trove of documents primarily concerning the clientele of Appleby, a prestigious law firm with offices in the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. These documents illustrated how firms like Appleby help wealthy individuals use offshore tax havens to avoid or evade paying taxes in their home jurisdictions; this is possible because tax havens offer significantly lower tax rates compared to the home jurisdiction, and also offer a measure of secrecy surrounding financial transactions. (Tax havens often have little to offer but these discounts; they rarely have good governance, and opportunities outside the finance industry are difficult to find for the locals.)

The movement to crack down on offshore tax havens has gathered much support from anticorruption activists. Pointing to leaks like the Paradise Papers (and the Panama Papers before them), anticorruption activists argue that the secrecy associated with offshore tax havens exacerbates the problems of kleptocracy and corruption. While I agree that offshore tax havens pose serious problems, I’m skeptical whether this issue should be a focal point for anticorruption activists (rather than, say, advocacy groups concerned primarily with tax justice or global wealth inequality). There are two reasons for this: Continue reading

Fixing India’s Anti-Money Laundering Regime

In the past year, India has been among the most zealous countries in the world in stepping up the fight against money laundering and related economic and security issues. The effort that probably got the most attention was last year’s surprise “demonetization” policy (discussed by Harmann in last week’s post), which aimed to remove around 85% of the total currency in circulation. But to assess India’s overall anti-money laundering (AML) regime, it’s more important to focus on the basic legal framework in place.

The most important legal instrument in India’s AML regime is the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which was enacted in 2002, entered into force in 2005, and has been substantially amended since then. The Act defines a set of money laundering offenses, enforced by the Enforcement Directorate (India’s principal AML agency), and also imposes a range of reporting requirements on various institutions. Furthermore, the law gives the Enforcement Directorate the authority to freeze “tainted assets” (those suspected of being the proceeds of listed predicate offenses), and to ultimately seize those assets following the conviction of the defendant for the underlying offense.

How effective has India been in its stepped-up fight against money laundering? On the one hand, over the past year (since the demonetization policy was announced), banks logged an unprecedented increase of 706% in the number of suspicious transaction reports (STRs) filed, and reports from last July indicated that the total value of the assets frozen under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in the preceding 15 months may have exceeded the cumulative total of all assets frozen in the prior decade-plus of the law’s operation. And the government further reported that its crackdown on shell companies had discovered around $1.1 billion of unreported assets.

Yet these encouraging numbers mask a number of serious problems with India’s AML system, problems that can and should be addressed in order to build on the momentum built up over the past year. Here let me highlight two areas where greater reform is needed: Continue reading

Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand after her party (founded by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) won a decisive electoral victory. One of her principal campaign promises was to establish a program to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices then store the rice to reduce supply. The hope was that doing so would increase world prices—because of Thailand’s position as the leading global rice exporter—ultimately allowing the government to sell at a profit. Shortly after the election, Yingluck’s government implemented this program, and it worked well for a few months—until other global players increased their supply of rice, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in the process. This economic debacle was entirely predictable—and indeed was predicted by many experts. And the program itself was beset by allegations of fraud and corruption in its implementation.

But should the failure of the rice-buying program be the basis of a criminal charge of corruption and a prison sentence against Yingluck herself, in the absence of evidence that she was directly involved in any embezzlement, bribery, or other more conventional forms of graft? Section 157 of Thailand’s Penal Code allows for just such a prosecution, as this section makes it a crime for a public official to either dishonestly or “wrongfully discharge or omit to discharge a duty so as to expose any person to injury.” And last month, the Thai Supreme Court found Yingluck (out of power since she was deposed by a military coup in 2014) guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison. She fled the country before the verdict.

Thailand is not alone in adopting anticorruption laws that criminalize not only dishonest conduct (bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, etc.), but also negligence or incompetence. When India updated its anticorruption law in 1988, it added a new provision that makes it a criminal offense for a public official to “obtain for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” This broad offense was interpreted by a state High Court to not require any proof of dishonesty or criminal intent, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s premier anticorruption agency) has routinely employed the provision in grand corruption cases to avoid the problem of having to prove corrupt intent. In perhaps the most high-profile such prosecution, the agency went after an ex-Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh was the Minister of Coal at a time when the Government decided to liberalize allocation of coal-blocks and to sell mining rights to private parties. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office reported the policy had caused losses worth billions of dollars because the rights had been sold for too little, through a process that was too ad hoc to be considered legal. Dr. Singh was subsequently charged under India’s broad law, though his trial has currently been stayed while his challenge to the constitutionality the law is pending before India’s Supreme Court. (There are clearly concerns in other quarters about the breadth of this statute: In 2016 a Select Committee of the Upper House of India’s Parliament submitted a report that suggested India eliminate this offense. Parliament hasn’t yet acted on this recommendation, but there are signs that it has some support.)

Is it appropriate to enact broad anticorruption laws that allow government officials to be convicted for dereliction of duty, acting in a manner contrary to the public interest, and the like? Anticorruption activists and prosecutors may find such statutes appealing: It is easier to secure convictions of elected officials who are suspected of corruption, but where it is too difficult to prove the specific intent necessary for traditional corruption offenses. But in fact these broad laws are likely to do more harm than good, and countries like Thailand and India would be better off without them. There are three main reasons for this: Continue reading