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Panama minister visits India. But what was she up to?

In the midst of the leaks, a junior minister from Panama came to India, met government officials, and left the country without doing what she had come here to do: make a speech at a conference of women entrepreneurs.

business Updated: May 19, 2016 11:41 IST
Suchetana Ray
As Panama expressed its willingness to enter into a tax information exchange agreement with India, Maria Navarro’s visit is the first step.
As Panama expressed its willingness to enter into a tax information exchange agreement with India, Maria Navarro’s visit is the first step.(Linkedin.com)

In the midst of the leaks, a junior minister from Panama came to India, met government officials, and left the country without doing what she had come here to do: make a speech at a conference of women entrepreneurs.

Maria Luisa Navarro the vice-minister of multilateral affairs and cooperation in Panama, arrived in India on Sunday to attend the All Ladies League-Women Economic Forum at Hotel Pullman in New Delhi. But, sources say, she did not attend it. The speculation is that she realised the media attention she would attract and grew cold feet.

Several attempts to get a clear picture from the organisers of the event failed. They confirmed that she did not attend the conference on the first day, they were not clear whether Navarro cancelled her attendance. Some say she may have met the entrepreneurs at the event but skipped her speech.

An official at the Panama embassy said: “The vice-minister’s schedule in India was packed. If she didn’t attend the conference, she must have been busy”. He did not give details of what kept Navarro busy.

What is known for certain is that Navarro came on May 15 and checked into a five-star hotel in central Delhi. The receptionist at the hotel said she checked out on Tuesday night. The embassy says she left for Panama on Wednesday.

So what did she do in India?

Navarro did not go to meet anyone in the finance ministry, in fact, there has been no appointments sought from any Panamian minister for meeting anyone in North Block since the alleged money-laundering leaks started making news.

However, Navarro met VK Singh, the minister of state for external affairs. It was a closely-guarded meeting. The discussions veered around a bilateral agreement for tax information exchange. Indian authorities need original documents from Panama to proceed with investigation against Indians named in the expose. Panama, earlier this week, had expressed its willingness for a bilateral agreement with India. And sources in the government say that this is the first meeting on that.

The Panama leaks showed how a Panamian law firm, Mossack-Fonseca, helped people to park their money in tax-havens to avoid taxes. India needs an agreement to get its hands on the original documents from the law firm. In the absence of the agreement, the Indian tax authorities are finding it difficult to move ahead with the probe.