The Hindu
New Delhi

Growing numbers of elected representatives fund their poll campaigns with corporate backing. And growing numbers of people with a big business background have ventured directly into the electoral arena.

Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s call for restraint, however mild, on the CEO feeding frenzy at the compensation trough, seems the least objectionable statement made by a Minister in months. (Contrast this, for example, with the Agriculture Minister’s warning that people should accept a further rise in food prices and blame it on drought. Or with a senior member of the Union Cabinet grumbling about the Prime Minister’s austerity drive. How much money will it save if we give up first class air travel, he wanted to know.) But Mr. Khurshid’s words were enough to spook the captains of industry into whines of protest which will steadily get stronger.

“We can hardly say we will shut our eyes to the salaries the CEOs are going to take,” said Mr. Khurshid, hoping that companies would refrain from handing out vulgar salaries. An equally mild wish expressed by the Prime Minister in 2007 saw the media come down on Manmohan Singh like they never had before. “The Prime Minister wants CEOs to create wealth for the nation. Then he wants them to take pay cuts.” That was a slogan put up by a Mumbai newspaper on huge hoardings.

This time, the media were slow off the blocks in going after Mr. Khurshid. After all, between Dr. Singh’s faux pas and Mr. Khurshid’s mild protest was a Great Recession. And to say “the Market will decide” isn’t enough, any more. In 2008, the Market decided to jump off a cliff taking much of the world with it. That didn’t stop CEOs in the United States from taking home billions in bonuses in a year they ran the globe into the ground. In fact, more CEOs got hikes rather than cuts in 2008, as an AFL-CIO study pointed out in April this year. In India, while millions lost their jobs and livelihoods, CEOs didn’t fare too badly. (How can they, in a country where the Union budget alone gives the corporate world subsidies of Rs.700 crore every day in tax write-offs and concessions? See The Hindu, August 15, 2009). It wasn’t the market which decided that $6 million of public money be gifted to the corporate sector each hour on average, it was the government. The government can though, with few qualms, cap the daily wage paid to hungry workers at NREG sites at Rs.100. That, for 100 days only — and those days to be shared by the members of each household.

So the clichés of the Market lack that warm, righteous glow they had before the meltdown. But as big business re-asserts itself, the media will find their voice. Mr. Khurshid is about to find out whose voice that is, loud and clear, if he didn’t already know. And he surely knows the power of corporate links to large sections of the political class. The two highest-paid CEOs in the country managed to save Dr. Singh’s previous government from falling in the July 2008 trust vote. And only recently, much of a whole session of Parliament went to discussing the fight between the same two CEOs. Mr. Khurshid’s comments, however, at least make for a debate on ‘austerity,’ its practice by the political class and big business — and the ever-closer bonding between the two.

Growing numbers of elected representatives fund their poll campaigns with corporate backing. And growing numbers of people with a big business background have ventured directly into the electoral arena. The links get stronger, the reps get richer. And there is much entrepreneurial joy and success.

While the CEOs top the charts by miles, the vulgarity Mr. Khurshid fears also consumes much of the political class. Take for instance, the 42 MLAs re-contesting this time in Haryana’s polls. On average, their assets have increased by around Rs.48 million each since 2004. A nice 388 per cent leap. That is to say, each of them added Rs.800,000 a month to their wealth in their last term. Or over Rs.1,100 for every hour that they were MLAs (for five years). A healthy rate of growth. Maybe we need a constitutional amendment requiring every Indian to serve as MLA for one term at least. It could be the biggest poverty reduction programme ever undertaken. (I mean across all States. It might be slightly chaotic if every citizen was required to be a member of the Haryana Assembly.)

These and other fascinating insights abound in the reports put out by the National Election Watch on the Assembly polls in three States. (October 13 is the voting day.) NEW is a coalition of over 1,200 civil society groups across the country that also brought out excellent reports on these issues at the time of the Lok Sabha polls in April-May. Its effort to bring such data to the voting public is spearheaded by the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Those who won the last time and seek re-election have led by example. The 388 per cent rise in assets per MLA in Haryana is but an average. Break it up and you find some stirring success stories. The top four MLAs clocking the best growth rates, all of them from the Congress, saw their assets increase by over 800 per cent. Imagine what they might have achieved had there been no austerity drive. The numero uno in this list has a rags to riches story. Starting from humble beginnings of less than a lakh, his wealth has risen 5,000 per cent. Inspiring. And perhaps one of the reasons — together with a love of democracy — why far more have been inspired to contest this time in this State than five years ago. The number of candidates is 20 per cent higher than it was in 2004.

Of 489 contestants whose poll affidavits NEW was able to study, 251 — 51 per cent, or every second candidate — was worth well over Rs.10 million. Though it must be conceded that those at the lower end of the crorepati chain see their assets swollen by crazy real estate rates. And as yet, these are just candidates. The crorepati ratio will go up after the results, when much of the plebeian element gets weeded out. This is not to say the austerity school has no following in Haryana. Some candidates have declared stunningly low assets. A couple of them say they’re worth less than Rs.3,000 and one, poor lamb, has declared zero assets of any kind.

In Maharashtra, compared to 2004, there has been a 60 per cent increase in political parties contesting elections. Also, a 33 per cent increase in candidates. NEW has thus far studied the affidavits of 880 of over 3,500 candidates seeking election to the State legislature. It found that almost one in every four candidates is a multi-millionaire. (Here too, though, there are a daring few claiming zero assets.) NEW has so far seen less than a third of candidate affidavits — and already located 212 crorepatis. Over half of these are from the four major parties, with the Congress (42) heading the austere list. The BJP, the Shiv Sena and the NCP all have 29 each among candidates surveyed. The MNS (21) and the BSP (11) don’t do too badly either. All these numbers will swell when all their affidavits are studied.

Around 52 per cent of Haryana’s 90 sitting MLAs were multi-millionaires. That beats rich Maharashtra where just over one in three (37 per cent) makes the cut. But Maharashtra outclasses Haryana in the number of sitting MLAs with pending criminal records: 45 per cent to 31 per cent. (It might be worthwhile for NEW to correlate criminal records with crorepati status. Even if that takes more time).

And finally, there are those who get elected to serve the CEO cause, bringing us back to the political class-corporate nexus. The present government of Maharashtra, for instance, has handed over 5 airports (including 601 hectares of land) for Rs.63 crore to a single corporation, as Imtiaz Jaleel’s excellent report on NDTV shows. A price so low that even most of the State government’s own departments opposed it. It would likely be difficult to get 601 hectares in the desert for that sum. The government’s brilliant defence is that it has not privatised an inch — just leased out the airports. Yup, for 95 years for that pittance, to the Anil Ambani group. Work out the math yourselves. I hope it doesn’t get any more austere than this, though.

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