Maybe there is something to Chandrababu Naidu's claims of women's emancipation in Andhra Pradesh after all. A strange form of this is manifest in the poll-time declaration of assets filed by the State's top political leaders. In many cases, the stated wealth of a leader's wife far exceeds his own. Mr. Naidu himself leads the way. He is worth a modest Rs.1.6 crores. His wife is worth more than 12 times as much at Rs.19.3 crores.
The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Lok Sabha hopeful from Narsraopeta is also outdone by his spouse. She is closer to the Rs.10-crore mark. Her husband reports a mere Rs.7 crores. The wife of an MLA from Anantapur district is worth a full Rs. 1 crore more than her husband. The Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) MP candidate in Medak owns almost nothing, compared to his wife's assets.
Contrast that with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani who at Rs. 1 crore is doing a lot better than Mrs. Advani is. Or film star Govinda in Mumbai who owns more jewellery than his wife does. His personal collection clocks in at Rs.1.83 crores, eclipsing his wife's paltry Rs.32 lakhs. (It could be argued, of course, that men in Andhra Pradesh are given to marrying women of great wealth. But that's another story.) All in all, women's property rights do not seem to be doing too badly in Andhra Pradesh. Not if we go by these declarations of assets.
Several of those contesting have held some kind of office before. This might be at just the mandal level. Yet, even there, they seem to have acquired huge assets. In quite a few cases, obscure little men at the mandal level have declared their worth in millions of rupees. Several had no great source of income before holding elected office. (Unless they were contractors of some sort.) A share of what they have made is now invested in the hope of higher office. They've figured out this much: nothing makes more money like more money.
As one of the State's better-known investigative reporters puts it: "It has [been] proved possible to amass crores in a very brief period. The more so in a State throwing thousands of crores at `development.' That money translates mostly into contracts. So you have a very large number of contractors contesting elections. They can afford it. In fact, they can't afford not to. The polls are a serious investment in moving to the higher league." Many, watching how this is done, are spurred to enter the arena themselves.
Andhra Pradesh has raised over Rs.50,000 crores in loans in the past nine years. That is, the period of Mr. Naidu's tenure. Close to a third of that has come from external agencies such as the World Bank. And a good bit of this greases the process of primitive accumulation on in the State. Even `drought relief' translates into contracts. As do food-for-work programmes. And thus into money and assets.
Anantapur, for instance, is one of the State's poorest districts. It has seen more farmers' suicides than any other part of the country. Severe drought has also plagued the district. Yet there are perhaps more luxury vehicles and SUVs per capita on the roads here than in many big cities. (Including hundreds of air-conditioned Tata Sumos and Spacios, Scorpios and Qualises.) The greater the money coming in for `relief' and `development,' the swifter the expansion of this fleet. (The Hindu Sunday Magazine, July 13, 2003.) Most of the fancy cars here are owned by contractors and builders.
If you are an elected representative you can guide many contracts towards yourself. (Or your wife.) On the other hand, if you are a contractor, it makes sound sense to get yourself elected. Getting to be an MLA or MP also helps you get permission to build, say, half a dozen engineering colleges. Education is a multi-billion rupee business. The merging of the contractor-elected representative is moving ahead very fast in the State.
That begins to explain in part not just the size of assets declared, but also the desperation to contest the polls. There is too much at stake. Getting elected is a form of contract renewal. If you do not manage it, you could lose your source of income. It also explains how costly the purchase of your `ticket' can be. And how so many are able to afford it. The more so in a State where a `ticket' can sometimes cost upwards of Rs. 20 lakhs. Where a candidate's campaign spending in a single Lok Sabha constituency can be well over Rs. 2.5 crores. (And up to Rs. 1 crore or more in an Assembly contest.)
Add to this the groupism and caste contours of Andhra Pradesh politics and you have an explosive mix. Almost no other State has seen such a large number of attacks on party offices during the `ticket' allotment process. These were not an onslaught by rivals. Just violence from those who feared their own parties would deny them the ticket. There have been nearly a dozen such attacks, often smashing the party office. (And some public property for good measure.)
Barring the Left parties, all have tasted this fate. In Kurnool, Congress party workers torched their own office after their leader was denied the ticket. TDP men in Gudivada ran wild at their office after a former MLA was turned down.
In Hyderabad, violence erupted at the Congress headquarters, the mis-named Gandhi Bhavan. Irate ticket-seekers ransacked the BJP office in the State capital. If the TDP office in the city did not suffer the same fate, it was because of the huge police presence there to guard the party from its own members. This did not, however, prevent rival TDP groups from clashing within and outside the office. TRS men had to be physically restrained outside their president's house in Hyderabad.
Drought in the driver's seat
Why this election is different
There is a less funny side to the growing clout of money power in the polls. The media here scoff at the level of assets declared. They point to the fact that plots of land in prime locations valued at crores are listed as worth only lakhs of rupees. Even allowing for under-valuation, many candidates are worth crores officially.
The larger question is: what sort of character will a legislature full of such people have?
It is quite likely that most if not all of those elected could be worth, on an average, between Rs. 50 lakhs and Rs.1 crore. (A conservative estimate.) How representative will they be of voters whose annual average income does not exceed Rs.12,000? And is much less at the lower levels of society. Even as the wealth of those up for office (or in it) shoots up, that of the voters does not. A look at the growth of per capita income across all States in the 1990s makes that point. Andhra Pradesh's rank in per capita growth was lower than it was in the 1980s. The gap between electors and the elected widens.
However, much of this is true of other parts of the country as well. What sort of legislatures will we have? How true will they be to the issues of millions of poor Indians? Nearly 60 years ago, journalist and media critic A.J. Liebling wrote: "I think almost everyone will grant that if candidates for the United States Senate were required to possess ten million dollars, and for the House one million, the year-in-year-out level of conservatism of those two bodies might be expected to rise sharply. We could still be said to have a freely elected Congress. Anybody with ten million dollars (or one, if he tailored his ambition to fit his means) would be free to try to get himself nominated, and the rest of us would be free to vote for our favourite millionaire or even to abstain from voting..."
Liebling's own country turned his wit into reality decades ago. But he could have been writing of the current Andhra Pradesh elections. Or of money power and the polls in India as a whole. Your voting rights could increasingly mean your right to vote for your favourite millionaire.