Wealthier candidates were far more likely to win their constituency than their less wealthy competitors, according to an analysis of election data and candidate affidavits by the Hindustan Times.
Across 689 constituencies in the assembly elections in Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh, the wealthiest candidate won 33.5% of the time, compared to just 24.6% for the second wealthiest candidate and 17% for the third wealthiest.
The odds were heavily stacked against poorer candidates. Of the 639 fifth-wealthiest candidates, just 41 — 6.4% — won their constituencies. Only four of 394 tenth-wealthiest candidates won, or just a little more than 1%.
Education, too, contributed to candidates’ chances of winning. Candidates with a doctorate degree, for example, won nearly a fifth of their races, while the poorly educated fared much worse. Of the 102 candidates whose affidavits said they were illiterate, just two – Satya Prakash Agrawal from UP and Yamthong Haokip from Saikul in Manipur – came out on top.
Yet the road to electoral victory is paved with cash, not diplomas.
“To run a decent campaign, you need a lot of money,” said Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation’s Governance and Politics Initiative. Most of the time, “the main criterion for getting selected to be a candidate is your ability to raise money or whether you already have the money bags with you.”
Voters may also be more attracted to wealthy candidates because they are seen as being better able to grease the wheels of local bureaucracies.
“The job description of an elected representative is not to sit in the assembly,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, but instead to act as a power broker between constituents and state agencies. “Being wealthy enables to you to meet, to a certain extent, the expectations of voters.”
To be sure, some poorer candidates were able to beat the odds. Of the 689 winning candidates HT analysed, four were in debt, according to their affidavits, while another winning candidate declared no assets at all.
Even for wealthy candidates, victory is not guaranteed. Of the 2,185 candidates who claimed to possess net assets of at least Rs 1 crore, 514 -- a little less than a quarter -- won their seats. Nazir Ahamad, a Congress candidate from Uttar Pradesh whose net assets amounted to more than Rs 200 crore, finished third in the Agra South constituency.
Still, a poorer candidate faces far longer odds. Of the 608 candidates who declared net assets of between Rs 0 and Rs 1 lakh, only one — Dr Harendra Prasad Singh, who declared net assets of Rs 0 — emerged victorious.
“The implication is very straightforward,” Sahoo said of the difficulties relatively poor candidates face at the polls. “A lot of competent people who are motivated to get into the democratic process and bring systemic change, people who want to work for their community, simply don’t get a chance.”
The gap between the electoral fortunes of rich and poor was starkest in Manipur, where nearly half of all seats were won by the wealthiest contesting candidate, and only about 5% of seats were won by candidates who ranked fifth-wealthiest or below.
UP was the only state in which the wealthiest candidate won less than a third of the time. Still, poorer candidates fared much worse than richer ones. Candidates facing four or more wealthier competitors were able to win just 15% of the time.
If Indian poor people have a hard time getting elected, the same is true of the poor everywhere, said Verniers.
“Money plays a central role in electoral politics in practically every democracy. Even Luxembourg, I’m sure,” Verniers, who is from Belgium, said.