Vodafone Income Tax Case

The acquisition of shares in Hutch Essar by Vodafone from Hutchison in a multi-billion dollar M&A deal last year has resulted in a dispute on the taxability of capital gains on the transaction. This dispute is currently pending before the Bombay High Court, with a decision being awaited. The court’s verdict is expected to have serious implications on costs involved in implementing M&A transactions in Indian companies, especially when the buyer and seller are overseas entities.

In this behalf, CNBC-TV18 has an interesting discussion about the possible arguments in the case, and also the impact of the decision on future M&A deals. The background is described in the opening part of the discussion as follows:

“It is a landmark case that will severely impact the Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) landscape in India. No matter which way it goes, the Vodafone versus IT department tax case will have an indelible impact on the M&A landscape of India. Last year British Telecom giant Vodafone paid Hong Kong based Hutchison International over USD 11 billion to buy Hutchison’s 67% stake in Indian telecom company Hutchison Essar. The transaction was done through the sale and purchase of shares of CGP, a Mauritius based company that owned that 67% stake in Hutch Essar.

Since the deal was offshore, neither party thought it was taxable in India. But the tax department disagreed. It claimed that capital gains tax most people paid on the transaction and that tax should have been deducted by Vodafone whilst paying Hutch. The matter went to court and was heard over the last two weeks.

Vodafone argued that the deal was not taxable in India as the funds were paid outside India for the purchase of shares in an offshore company that the tax liability should be borne by Hutch; that Vodafone was not liable to withhold tax as the withholding rule in India applied only to Indian residence that the recent amendment to the IT act of imposing a retrospective interest penalty for withholding lapses was unconstitutional.

Now the taxman’s argument was focused on proving that even though the Vodafone-Hutch deal was offshore, it was taxable as the underlying asset was in India and so it pointed out that the capital asset; that is the Hutch-Essar or now Vodafone-Essar joint venture is situated here and was central to the valuation of the offshore shares; that through the sale of offshore shares, Hutch had sold Vodafone valuable rights – in that the Indian asset including tag along rights, management rights and the right to do business in India and that the offshore transaction had resulted in Vodafone having operational control over that Indian asset. The Department also argued that the withholding tax liability always existed and the amendment was just a clarification.”

See also a previous news report about the case in the Business Standard.

About the author

Umakanth Varottil

Umakanth Varottil is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He specializes in corporate law and governance, mergers and acquisitions and cross-border investments. Prior to his foray into academia, Umakanth was a partner at a pre-eminent law firm in India.

1 comment

  • In the light of the ongoing Vodafone case, (whatever the final decision may be) it is expected that in cross border deals, that an exception would be provided for in the documentation, with respect to tax liability ( a carve out) arising with respect to capital gains or witholding obligations.

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