Days before the world’s largest election started on April 11, 300 tax officials fanned out across India to crack a racket designed to sway the country’s voters.
Over a series of raids across 50 locations, they brought in a formidable haul: Some $40 million in unaccounted cash. 252 bottles of booze. Weapons. Even precious, stripped hides of tiger.
The searches led them to a senior political official at Tughlaq Road, one of New Delhi’s most exclusive addresses, and to a solar-power conglomerate where they found handwritten notebooks detailing inflated bills and bogus loans. Tax officers ultimately uncovered 13.5 billion rupees ($193 million) worth of evaded taxes.
India’s national elections, which run in several stages through May 19, will likely be the most expensive in history: N Bhaskara Rao, chairman of research firm Centre for Media Studies, estimates that total spending will approach 600 billion rupees. Much of that comes from illicit, undeclared sources, giving India’s tax department a prime opportunity to catch moguls and companies who bring out funds that otherwise remain hidden to help candidates and their associates pay for campaigns—and even bribe voters with cash and liquor.
Foreign investors say the raids show that India is working to clean up endemic corruption in business and politics. But critics allege that the raids disproportionately target opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The government faced a backlash after tax officers conducted a midnight raid on the house of a prominent opposition politician in southern India just two days before the local polls opened and failed to find anything.
“These tax raids have become a frequent phenomenon,” said Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at think tank Observer Research Foundation. “They are actually hoping that they will get quite substantial tax revenue through these individuals and companies.”
The introduction of India’s digitally administered goods and services tax, introduced in 2017, generated vast amounts of financial data that gave authorities unprecedented insight into who is and isn’t paying taxes. Modi’s “demonetization” drive a year earlier, in which the government invalidated high-value currency and forced Indians to deposit cash into bank accounts, also gave them leads on who wasn’t declaring their wealth.
Helped by that data and a network of informants, electoral authorities confiscated 26 billion rupees in funds and assets in the first half of 2019’s campaign, Rao said.
Global companies have previously been caught up in Indian election scandals.
India’s two major parties, the BJP and the Indian National Congress, were embroiled in years-long court cases for having taken funds from London-based mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources Ltd., violating restrictions on foreign campaign funding. Gautam Adani, the billionaire chairman of multinational Adani Group, was criticized for allegedly letting then-candidate Modi fly to and from campaign events in company helicopters.
The department this month said it conducted a raid on an accountant who turned out to work for Jayadev Galla, a politician and managing director of multinational conglomerate Amara Raja Group. It added that it didn’t search Galla’s premises.
One foreign industry executive, who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said the raids have some multinational corporations worried that they might become targets. “There’s some concern,” the executive said. “On the multinational side, if anyone is caught in that they’re in big trouble.”
The executive said that companies had to be cautious in dealings with certain political figures as a result: “Over the past few years they have been quite careful about this.”
Amara Raja, Vedanta, and Adani Group didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Reforming the Reforms
Fueling the unprecedented flows of black money into the elections, researchers and tax practitioners say, are limits of 7 million rupees on what candidates can spend, leaving some little choice but to take black money to be competitive.
Modi’s government in recent years enacted a series of campaign finance measures designed to encourage companies to fund campaigns with above-board assets known to tax authorities. These include lifting limits on the share of profits companies can give, a new mechanism to do so anonymously, and another that lets foreign companies donate provided they meet certain criteria.
But critics say this anonymity and looser regulation only creates more means for funds of dubious origin to make their way into the system. Rao said he hasn’t seen any evidence that the amount of untaxed black money is decreasing in the 2019 campaign as a result of the changes.
Eswaran Sridharan, chief executive of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Advanced Study of India, said that elections will continue to be funded by black money, thereby starving tax authorities of revenue, until reforms force more transparency in India’s campaign finance system.
“It’s an opaque system, it’s a minimalist system in terms of minimal regulation,” he said. “There’s a spending arms race between the parties during elections. It’s a free-for-all.”