Shanker Speak: Financial frauds & the French

How many Indian politicians have been convicted for overspending in elections? Or stock brokers for insider trading?

Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy

Abhijit Shanker

It seems like a very long time ago when Francois Hollande was the President of France, between 2012 and 2017. He had made it to the Presidency after defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, who was deemed the least popular French President at the time.

Sarkozy was known to be very flashy, and the few times one saw him at the UNGA, it was amusing to see one of his cronies carry a footstool for him to stand on, while making a speech. At 5’5”, he considered himself too short and did not want others to notice. Even his gorgeous wife, Carla Bruni, at 5’10” used to be miffed with the Press for making fun of her “little chou chou”.

Sarkozy has since been trying to stage a comeback, all his attempts having fallen by the wayside. Most recently, he made news by being pronounced an offender in his 2012 re-election bid. While there is little doubt that he will spend some time behind bars, he now holds the unique distinction of being handed two jail terms since he was evicted out of office. The offence? Of having overspent the $24 million limit set by the French electoral laws, for an election campaign. He was found guilty of spending more than $50 million for his flashy election campaign. He is yet to battle a third case, which alleges that his 2012 campaign was in part funded by the late leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi.

For those in large democracies, the French overspending law may seem absurd to follow but serves as a fabulous example of no person being above the law of the land. Whether it was the Panama papers or the more recent Pandora Papers, several leading in Europe, India and Pakistan among 60 countries have been found to have engaged in financial misdemeanours. Not one is brought to book, however, or is made an example of. Either their flight out of the country is facilitated or they pay their dues to the world’s richest political party, and nobody asks a question. All one must do is to profess one’s support on social and traditional media.

The very fact that the younger brother of India’s richest man maintains over a $1.3bn web of offshore companies, declaring bankruptcy meanwhile, says a lot about the state of law in the country. Add a certain God of cricket to the list, and you have the Star of the Millennium in great company, from his involvement in the Panama Papers established earlier.

Financial frauds are not uncommon, in any part of the world. Several top business and social stars have fallen victim to the charms of money, more the merrier. It’s when the law of the land is unable to rein them in, and willingly provides a warm blanket of security and comfort, is when you realise where exactly are we headed. It’s this normalization of such revelations that we can judge the future of a society with. Bernie Madoff of the famous multi-level Ponzi scheme was handed a 150-year sentence for swindling people worth $68 million. So was Enron’s Chief Executive, Jeff Skilling, who was sentenced to 24-years in jail.

Other than Harshad Mehta of yore, who else comes to mind who may have been sentenced by our honourable courts, for committing a financial fraud? Least of all, the politicians who can spend crores over a municipal election but are never brought to book. Or the self-promoted Godmen with long beards who are handed tax holidays by their political masters and evade paying taxes, dumping spuriously manufactured cures on unsuspecting and gullible citizens. It is when the rich of the land take its laws for granted, that the trust of the poor is eroded forever.

The social promise that a citizen seeks from the elected officials through a vote, needs to be upheld to keep a society free from the rich and the powerful. The safety net that keeps a society going, despite the natural and man-made disasters, needs to be the basis on which a government carries out its policies. Not as a favour to its cronies, or the ones who provide them with chartered flights.

And for that to happen, we must all vote on ability, not caste or religion. Our leaders must not have to resort to using images from other countries to tell us about our prosperity. We must be smarter than that.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal)

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