By T N Ninan
Chambers of commerce are business lobby groups, and their purpose is to speak in favour of policies and programmes that are conducive to the growth of business. The person who heads a “chamber”, i.e. its president, would lead the charge on all issues, including (one presumes) the lawful and ethical conduct of business. Which is why the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s (Ficci’s) election of Naina Lal Kidwai as its president has raised some eyebrows. She is a path-breaker in being its first woman president. As a recognised professional in the financial world, she has been a familiar presence on the business scene for many years. In terms of personal credentials, she is better qualified than many of her predecessors to head Ficci, which through her appointment has also signalled that it is willing to go over the heads of family-run businesses when looking for leadership. But there is the little problem of the global bank whose Indian operations Ms Kidwai heads: HSBC.
Just last week, the US government slapped a massive $1.9 billion fine on the bank for permitting (i.e. not screening, or not reporting) transactions that involved laundering Mexican drug money and dealing with a Saudi bank linked to terrorist-funding, among other things. Argentina too has imposed a (much smaller) fine on an HSBC subsidiary there for failing to report a case of money-laundering. Meanwhile, there is an India angle that has featured in the news for several months: some 700 Indians, some of them residents, held accounts in the Geneva branch of HSBC. The details of these accounts (names, numbers, addresses) came through the French government, which got the list from an HSBC employee who it would seem decided to become a whistle-blower (the bank might say he stole the list, which was bank property; or that the list is not certified and may not be authentic).
Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party has made some allegations in relation to these, and spelt out some bank account numbers; his revelations have been met with denials from the businessmen he named. Still, some of the account holders are reported to have come clean and paid up taxes evaded on the money held in Geneva. Others who held accounts in Geneva have provided justification for holding the accounts, and some have denied any connection. No prosecutions would seem to have been launched so far, though the information has been with the government for 18 months, but the finance minister told Parliament recently that investigations and follow-up work are continuing. Meanwhile, reports have been published that purportedly recount how HSBC customers would hand over cash in India, which would then show up in their accounts overseas — straight havala, in other words. These strain credulity, as it is hard to believe that any major international bank would stoop to such business practices. But since such testimony has been offered, and the people concerned have been named, HSBC owes the Indian public some proper answers.
There is no evidence that the authorities here have taken any action against HSBC, though there are telltale signs (the Reserve Bank did not give permission for HSBC to take over the RBS branches in India despite two years of waiting, and HSBC has not been given any new branch licence since 2010). Nor is it clear whether or how any of HSBC’s Indian employees were involved in the Geneva business. And the accounts of the havala operations have not been authenticated. Certainly, the authorities don’t seem to have taken action against any individual in the bank. But here’s the thing: Ficci, one presumes, speaks for honest business practices and honouring the country’s laws. So does it really think that, given the circumstances, its choice of president has been the appropriate one?