Whose taxman?

Pity the poor taxman. The not very thickly veiled threats of dethroned BJP president Nitin Gadkari, as he retreated in disarray to Nagpur, suggest that the taxman is no better than a mercenary. Indirectly, Gadkari has asked him to choose sides or, if the BJP gains the upper hand in 2014, it will smite him remorselessly. Gadkari's outburst is not unexpected. The timing of the raids on companies associated with his Purti Group does raise suspicions of persecution. And the taxman has an unfortunate history of being forced to play hatchet man for big game hunting politicians. The most recent instances are from Uttar Pradesh, where both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati have been targeted.

The IT department is a crucial player in the growth story, which would lose the plot without increasing state revenues. It has been modernised and is now capable of "360 degree profiling" of taxpayers. It can set its systems to automatically look out for transactions that fall outside established spending patterns. But the most basic step towards modernisation remains to be taken. The department must be freed of political control. Neither should parties in power be allowed to use it like a private army or intelligence unit, nor should those out of power, like Gadkari, feel free to threaten its officers.

The taxman is in urgent need of a makeover. He is depressingly corrupt and resigned to serving as a cat's paw to power. Unless he changes, he cannot possibly secure his dignity, the basis of working in a modern, professional culture. Without dignity, with only technical modernisation, he will only be a even sharper hatchet man than ever before, and a drag on the growth story that he could have helped to power.

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