Half way through this election campaign the only thing that can be said with certainty is that it has mostly been a bore. The two main political parties have done no more than raise the same issues they have raised in elections past and with such open contempt for the voter that even the speeches sound like a movie we have seen before. The regional parties offer us nothing more than divisions of caste and creed as they have always done. But, in this tale of tedium there has popped up one issue that should interest us all. It is the promise by the Bharatiya Janata Party that if we vote it back to power it will make every effort to bring back Indian money hoarded in secret accounts in Switzerland.
The BJP has found itself an ally for its new cause in its old foe, the CPI (M), and even the redoubtable Baba Ramdev has leapt in with shrill support. So committed is the BJP to bringing back those hidden hoards that it has prepared a background paper on the subject. It says, ‘The estimated illicit monies deposited by Indians ranges between $500 billion to $1,400 billion. This ranges from three to ten times India’s overseas debt and 50 per cent to 120 per cent of the nation’s GDP. This can be used to put in some Rs 50,000 to Rs 140,000 in the pockets of 50 crore Indians! What a transformation it can make to the (sic) ordinary and poor Indian lives?’
True. And, if Shri L.K. Advani does realise his dream of becoming our next Prime Minister we must hold him to his promise and keep a close watch on whether the money does get distributed among ‘ordinary and poor’ Indians. Corruption has eaten into the soul of our broken down and ancient land and is a fundamental reason why nearly 30 per cent of our population continues to live in absolute poverty.
While we are waiting for the billions to come back from Switzerland there are other measures that could dramatically help the poor. Here are some suggestions. Government, both in the Centre and in the states, is sitting on vast tracts of very expensive public land that belongs as much to the people of India as the money in those Swiss accounts. If government can be evicted and the land put to commercial use huge funds would instantly become available for public housing, schools and healthcare. In Mumbai nobody would need to live in a slum if the Navy could be persuaded to move off land that is worth hundreds of crore rupees an acre in the heart of the city. We need to ask what the Navy is doing there in the first place but nobody does just as we never ask why the wives of Defense personnel are allotted land in the most expensive part of Delhi. The Santushti shopping centre, full of glamorous shops and expensive designer ware, exists on land given to army wives for ‘welfare’ projects. Thousands of acres of very expensive public land are being similarly misused in all our cities.
When we have taken this land back from the Government we should demand that our elected representatives and bureaucrats move out of accommodation paid for by taxpayers. We are the only democratic country in the world that reserves the most expensive real estate in our cities for the use of officials. Delhi offers the most conspicuous example of this bizarre generosity on our part. The only people who live in Lutyens’ Delhi are high officials and billionaires because an acre of land in this area costs more than Rs 100 crore even in this downturn. Should the BJP with its newly discovered concern for the misuse of public money not be asking why Indian taxpayers should pay for officials to live like billionaires while more than 70 per cent of Indians can afford no more than a one-room tenement? Will the BJP promise that it will not allow its MPs to live in government houses after this election? Will Shri L.K. Advani set an example by moving out of his vast bungalow with its five-acre garden?
One last humble little suggestion from your ever-humble columnist. Will the BJP explain why it continues to take black money from rich Indians to contest elections? Since the general election was announced every big industrialist of my acquaintance has received several calls a day from chief ministers, cabinet ministers, senior officials from political parties and sundry lesser politicians asking for ‘a little something’. Donations begin at more than Rs 1 crore this time around and trust me when I tell you that most of this money is as black as the money hidden in those Swiss bank accounts. Like charity crusades against corruption must begin at home.