Media attention is now focused on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and the unspoken underlying theme is the dominance of big money in the elections. One study has estimated that Indian politicians will be spending around Rs. 30,000 crore. Legally or illegally — it’s probably better not to ask!
Time was when ticket-hopefuls would crowd around party head offices. You know times have changed when the spectacle has moved to five-star hotels. Recently, the entire reception of a major hotel in the capital was milling with netas from Andhra Pradesh. It’s where money floats in pursuit of that elusive confirmation that so-and-so is the official candidate of such-and-such party.
For such a coarse affair, it is done with as much civility as possible. After all, these wads of cash are not even a dent in the stashed-away piles of political aspirants. Merit is not involved anymore. There is hardly any need to even pretend that you even care about social issues such as lack of water and roads.
Realising the growing role of money, the Election Commission recently raised the limit on poll expenditure to Rs. 70 lakh per candidate from Rs. 40 lakh and yet candidates are despondent. And it is with cause. They know they will be spending much more than that. It is not without reason then that Election Commissioner HS Brahma said at a CII meet that he had heard a prospective candidate from Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh was willing to spend Rs. 100 crore during the current polls.
Another politician had also apparently gently questioned Brahma about the rationale behind the Rs. 70 lakh cap and had confided in him that he was going to spend around Rs. 35 crore in the elections. Brahma observed ruefully that the more the muscle power and money power, the better the chances of winning.
Only those with deep pockets can enter this arena. In the 2014 elections Nandan Nilekani, who is contesting from Bangalore South on the Congress ticket, is clearly the richest contender in the fray, with assets worth more than Rs. 7,700 crore. The chairman of the Amrapali Group, a JD(U) contestant from Jehanabad, Bihar, comes next with assets worth Rs. 850 crore. In Kurukshetra, Haryana, the race is between two millionaires. Industrialist and sitting Congress MP Naveen Jindal, who has movable assets worth Rs. 207.87 crore, is hoping for a hat-trick. Aiming to stop him is his staunch rival and Zee chief Subhash Chandra, who is supporting the BJP candidate, Raj Kumar Saini. Saini is also a crorepati, though compared to Jindal’s his assets are worth a modest Rs. 13.28 crore.
The word in the street is that the Narendra Modi campaign is being backed by various industrial houses. The Election Commission has initiated tracking illegal movements of cash, violations of foreign exchange rules and abuse of money power by candidates. With the hawala market warming up, the income tax and police departments have been stopping suspicious vehicles to search for illegal cash.
Courting unwarranted attention is not in the best interests of these worthies. The political class can’t afford to antagonise minorities or majorities. There are potentially 810 million voters and apparently 120 million new voters.
With such vast amounts of money flying around thick and fast, can the satta bazaar be far behind? Going by the bookies, Modi will be crowned prime minister and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will be able to touch the magic figure of 272. They seem to believe that the ruling party will find it difficult to cross 75 seats. Bookies also seem to think AAP is a spent force. To quantify it, so far bets worth about Rs. 90 crore have been placed in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Indore and even distant Karachi and Dubai! And this figure is only likely to rise in the days ahead. Aren’t you tempted to put your two pennies on your candidate?
(Dilip Cherian has managed multiple communication projects for political parties and is a business analyst. The views expressed by the author are personal)