Ralph Nader, the American consumer activist was so roiled by the hold of lobbies on the law-making processes of the United States of America that he substantially tweaked the famous definition of a democratic government that Abraham Lincoln had put out. Nader's definition was "Government of, by, and for the people . . . not the moneyed interests". So agitated was he over the stranglehold of the moneyed lobbies that he had to make the exclusion of that class explicit from the ideal democracy.
Now, going by the disclosures of the wealth made by the candidates in the elections to the Lok Sabha, it appears that moneyed classes are increasing their grip over the law-making processes in India. There are two categories of this class. One that is moneyed already and has already entered Parliament or is trying to get there. The other is the category that may have made their money because they are in politics. Venality, you see, is not a new thing in India. It is actually thriving.
Rich easily in
Let us deal with the first. The rich have found it easy to enter the Rajya Sabha because it is easier to deal with fewer MLAs and secure their support to get elected than get into the heat and dust of a Lok Sabha campaign. The Upper House is the backdoor to a parliamentary seat. Not that they are less eminent people, but got there because they had clout.
The rich and the famous have got there -- a Birla, the Goenkas of Kolkata, a Mallya, a Bajaj et al are good examples. What their contribution has been to the general weal remains to be assessed for no political scientist has taken the scanner to that realm yet. It would, I hazard a guess, would be quite revealing though at one point, Rahul Bajaj was pilloried for asking a question about an industry he had interests in: the two-wheeler auto sector. Vijay Mallya is on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Civil Aviation, despite the conflict of interest.
Their sources known
However, we at least know how these worthies have got their wealth. Their vast empires, built during or in spite of the licence raj of yore. Those were also the days of black money because of unconscionably high rates of personal income tax. What is disturbing now is the wealth of politicians who have been around for some time and whose source of income is unknown to the people. The common presumption of the people, therefore, would be that that kind of wealth was earned using politics as the lubricant. This could be a faulty generalisation, but people cannot be faulted for this assumption.
Yes, we know that Praful Patel, the civil aviation minister is a second generation rich man; his father had bought him a Piper aircraft as a gift for a teenaged son from the money made from rolling bidis. We also know that Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party has his rags to riches story, a stake in a hotel, a chain of shoe stores, some restaurants and a travel agency; he reported assets of Rs 125 crore to the Election Commission when filing his nomination. Likewise, Lagadapati Rajagopal of AP's reported assets are Rs 299 crore; his interests are real estate and power generation.
However, these are wealthy but dependent people. Should Sonia Gandhi just frown or simper, most of these rich and famous would perhaps quake in their boots for wealth has not made them as powerful as the lady who has no car, no house. That the country's tax-payer is looking after her in a government house, secure transport and because of the Z plus-category security, a lot of privileges is another matter. You see, an ordinary mortal, for a variety of reasons, can be made the queen-empress. That is another story. But my disbelief is patent if I am told that she is worth just Rs 1.38 crore.
Or, that her son and heir-apparent, often touted as the country's next prime minister owns about less than thrice of what is reported by his mother also makes me wonder how he acquired that wealth. I have seen many politicians who have made good, but made good in politics from scratch but also made good in their standards of living. Murli Deora started as a businessman with table space he shared with Dhirubhai Ambani and made good in plastics and is both rich and powerful on his own strength. I have known that Kripashankar Singh who sold potatoes he bought on credit from the wholesale market -- one bagful a day -- became a minister.
Source of wealth?
When he occupied a ministerial bungalow on the swanky Madam Cama Road in South Mumbai, he showed me around and pointed out to the refurbishment of the premises which did not have the touch or feel of a mindless and gauche PWD. Kripashankar Singh told me that he did not burden the PWD with a bill but did it on his own. From that payment originated is something he left discretely unspoken. That is the kind of information the common voters would like to know. And know they should. Singh is not the isolated case. His is illustrative.
There are others who have built bungalows in their native places, have managed rewarding dealerships -- from LPG agencies to car dealerships -- all acquired during their first term in a legislature or Parliament. Go to a party hosted by any of these and you would find the contractors either behaving as their equals or flunkies. Their only explanation would be that funds are collected for the political party they belong to. Perhaps, a lot more sticks to their fingers than what is passed on to the party. The audited accounts of two major parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are much smaller than that of a small engineering firm in Ludhiana.
They would also like to know what is the known source of incomes of many a petty politician who came from nowhere and have become big, who can hire crowds, pay for workers -- that tribe is now nearly extinct, those who come and selflessly work for a political cause or ideology or a leader. They have to be hired, paying per diem. They would like to know from where the politicians who drew cartoons for a living end up travelling in swanky luxury cars. Look at the lifestyle of a municipal councillor and you would be able to guess that within a year, he has improved his lifestyle. A year after election, the social worker becomes a sahib!
So the moneyed class of both kinds have a stranglehold on the political processes in the country. The poor middle classes and upper middle classes who by numbers and requirement have bigger stakes are forcibly cast aside from that political mainstream. If India is going to get into this mode of wealth being a determinant, where even those who managed to come in with a modest background but because of some political patronage but then grew in every which way, then the Lok Sabha could well be called a House of Lords!
That is happening. We are nearly there.
Unless, of course, the Election Commission with which no one wants to get into a tangle decides to ask in future not just a disclosure by way of an affidavit the assets owned by a candidate but asks for audited accounts and all sorts of provenance of where it all emanated from and how.
That could add to the election procedures but I speculate that it is worth it. The country which is not amused by the wealth of these worthies who made good because of politics deserves that. It is worth every penny of the crores of rupees that is splashed across the newspaper pages every election time. And the interesting thing is that the numbers just seem to be increasing. These worthies are worth more after every election.
Mahesh Vijapurkar is former deputy editor, The Hindu