Apart from AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)’s spectacular win in Punjab, there is another highlight emerging from the recently held assembly elections. It’s the rise in the number of winning candidates with not-so-strong financial backgrounds who seem to be finally breaking into the expensive democracy machine. How else would you explain that in a country like India where election campaigns are about pumping in crores, a candidate with just Rs 18,370 of total assets can win a seat? It’s true. Narinder Pal Singh, a 30-year-old AAP candidate won the polls from Fazilka district in Punjab, with just the above amount in his pocket.
There are more like Singh. 27-year-old Narinder Kaur Bharaj, another AAP candidate, defeated her nearest rival Vijay Inder Sighla of Congress from the Sangrur assembly seat, with just Rs 24,409 under her name. Also, 32-year-old Anil Kumar Anil Pradhan, won the Chitrakoot seat from the Samajwadi Party ticket, with just Rs 30,496 as total declared assets. As per the election affidavit, he had Rs 30,000 as cash in hand and Rs 496.00 in his bank account. His I-T return, too, has been nil in the past five years.
BJP’s Sarvan Kumar Nishad won the Chauri Chaura assembly seat in Uttar Pradesh with about Rs 72,996 worth family assets. An analysis of the winning candidates’ assets by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) -- a non-governmental organisation that works in the area of electoral and political reforms – reveals that there are four such candidates in Punjab and UP who have less than a lakh as their total declared assets.
Trend Across Borders
The trend continued even in smaller states such as Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa even though the candidates here seemed to be more financially sound than their other counterparts quoted above. 36-year-old Durgeshwar Lal from the Purola constituency (SC) of Uttarakhand has disclosed Rs 6.5 lakh worth of assets – Rs 1.20 lakh cash in hand and the rest in various bank accounts, including investments, jewellery, etc.
In Goa, 28-year-old Viresh Mukesh Borkar from the Revolutionary Goans Party who won the St. Andre assembly seat in North Goa declared Rs 8,29,155 worth of total assets. His I-T return in 2020-2021 shows that he earned Rs 2,44,820 which comes up to 20,401 monthly.
The poorest winning candidate from Manipur, Ngursanglur Sanate declared Rs 5,00,283 as total assets. He won the assembly election from Tipaimukh (St) constituency on JD(U) ticket. He is exempted from filing an I-T return on the account of Section 10 (26) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, which allows a member of the scheduled tribes' community residing in certain geographical locations such as Nagaland, Manipur, etc. to not file any return for income from any source. Sanate’s election affidavit shows he has Rs 5 lakh cash in hand and the rest in his various bank accounts.
Interestingly, all of the aforesaid candidates don’t own any land, house, vehicles or investments in any other form.
Not As Simple As It Looks
While the trend in the outset looks promising, some political commentators aren’t convinced about the truth behind declaration of assets. Professor Mirza Asmer Beg from the political science department of Aligarh Muslim University says, “How many people in this country bother about the criminal records or financial status of a political candidate? Since their source of income is largely informal, it is easy for them to declare whatever they want in their election affidavits. Concealing income or assets also keeps them out of the tax liability.”
Beg argues that rival candidates cannot raise the issue of wrong declaration of assets during elections because all are alike. “There is a conspiracy of silence and that’s the reality of our political system,” he says.
Another reason behind the ‘meager means’ of the winning candidates in question is also because they are mostly young and first-timer MLAs. “Most of them are young and don’t have any inheritance. They have the benefit to show themselves as financially clean candidates,” said Tarit Prakash, co-founder and Director at VMR, an election analyst firm. “The reality of election expenses doesn’t get truly reflected in their affidavits. It is more worrisome to note that they are being financed by someone else and they will remain a puppet in their hands as long as their political career exists.”
The Informal Truth
Contesting an election is a capital intensive activity in India, which makes us wonder, how so many candidates managed their poll activity with hardly any money in their wallet. Political observers and commentators suggest financing and sponsorship by others as the key to their victories. Obviously, that’s not what the winners agree upon.
While AAP’s Singh claims it’s his life’s purpose to serve people, also the reason why he doesn’t have any property or money in his account, many of his opponents don’t buy that claim. A farmer by profession, Singh credits his friends, family and supporters for his victory and for helping him to raised funds. “My win is a confirmation that one can win an election even if he has no money.”
But Surjit Kumar Jyani, a BJP candidate against Singh, isn’t convinced. “A pair of shoes that he wears costs not less than Rs 18,000, which is the amount of total assets that he has declared in his election affidavit. He lives in a house worth Rs 1.5 crore, plus his father has amassed a lot of money working as a patwari (village accountant). His election expenses were sponsored by a millionaire. Will you call such a candidate the poorest one?” he questioned.
Such arguments bring to the fore the untold truth about the informal sources of money floating around in the Indian political system.
The story of Chitrakoot’s Pradhan is no different. He, too, hails from a farmer’s family and insists he isn’t in politics for the money haul. “I am in social service. I don’t’ need money. People came forward and contributed money to fund my election. My total election expense was Rs 24 lakh and everything was financed by the locals. The vehicle that I campaigned in also belongs to one of my friends,” he said.
His rivals, again, don’t buy that. “He is lying. He hasn’t kept anything in his name so that he can come across as a simple and honest candidate.”
In such a scenario, even Borkar’s claims to win the polls in Goa with little money in his accounts, looks a bit unreal. That’s also because his Revolutionary Goans Party transformed from an NGO to a political party only in November 2021 and in such a little time fielded 38 fresh candidates at all the 40 assembly seats in Goa.
“I am the only candidate who has won the election out of all the 38. I only spent Rs 2.5 lakh in this election while my opponents went on a money spill,” Borkar said.
Borkar left his job at a mobile store two years ago to join politics. He claims that he didn’t have anyone to finance his election and his victory was purely due to the issues that he highlighted in the interest of the people of Goa.
Just Perception After All?
So, what really helps a candidate win the elections? Is it money, education or public appeal? MS Pal, a former MP from Uttarakhand, who lost the assembly election this year, says its perception.
“Perception management is the key to winning elections, which is possible only with money. I don’t deny that there are exceptions in politics. But massive expenditure on campaigning, social medial posts, and mass media management is the thumb rule to win any election today,” says Pal.
He said that during the 70s and the 80s, many leaders used to win elections with little money in hand but with the support from industrialists. “It was far more transparent then. Today, it’s all about money.”