The narrow, winding road to Hapur’s Mandi Patiya (traders market), in the heart of the bazaar, is a cliché – the distorted view of brief visits – of colour, variety and drama – but polling day has pulled the shutters down on the usually bustling, choco-block market road. The towering iron gate of the mandi is padlocked, but a clutch of traders are sitting on the patio, and surprises, enjoying an early evening whiskey!
It’s just about 5 pm, the closing time for polling in the last but one phase of the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and the mood of the traders is breezy – made easy by the almost empty bottle of Royal Stag whisky perched on the side. They are momentarily startled by the first question but are more than helpful soon.
Now, why are mandi traders relevant in assessing and following an election? They are central to the big betting syndicates of election gambling – it is here, at the dozens of mandis in a state, which tells the punters which way the wind or ‘hawa’ is blowing – and the odds for various political parties and candidates are first decided at these trading posts. More importantly, it is also at the mandi that money power is used to influence an election, even if it comes a cropper – but more of that later.
Sunil Kumar Garg is a sober, distinguished mustard flower trader at Hapur Patiya mandi despite a whiskey or two. He first explains the structure of the mandi network — a nationwide information network for the swift collection and dissemination of reliable market data for farmers and traders. The daily information flow from the villages, talukas and districts to the affiliated mandis in each state is smooth and efficient, a market information system that has worked well for commodities speculation and trading, for ages.
Garg is bashful when he says the Hapur mandi stakes are modest, but acknowledges the role of mandis, big and small, that builds the political gambling stakes pyramid. “In an election, we are the first to know which way people are inclined to vote, it is at mandis the odds are first decided, and it spreads around the state like fire,” Garg finally admits.
Hapur is barely 60 kms outside Delhi , but it is a hub for mustard flower trading, an essential commodity in the area, as the just harvested fields along National Highway 2 reveals. Rakesh Kumar Gupta, the biggest wholesale trader of Chavi matches in the region, as his minion points put, says, “Our stakes are small, Hapur is a reserved seat for scheduled castes, so there is no big money play here. The hundi (total stakes) in this election is not more than Rs 30 lakh.”
According to Garg and Gupta, the surprise in this election is Rahul Gandhi and the Congress – the odds are in favour of the party getting 55-60 seats, and with Ajit Singh’s RLD, it can go up to 70 seats. The fight in Hapur is between Congress and BSP.” The lively bunch bets the wager on the UP election is as follows – Samajwadi Party leads with 140-150 seats; Mayawati’s BSP with 105-111 seats; Congress and RLD with 65-70 seats; BJP with 50-55 seats.
It was a day before the meeting of the traders at Hapur, when a mega Capital punter, Harinder Chawla (name changed) explained the intricacies of political gambling and how the odds are decided and fortunes swayed during an election. Sitting with a Vodka Tonic (it must be the crisp spring weather for this merriment everywhere!) in the pub of the lush Delhi Golf Club, Chawla explains, “In an election, the first big hurdle is when you open the odds and decide the figures. The information comes from knowledgeable people – from politicians, to their advisors, to intelligence officials, even journalists,’’ he says slyly. “We are open to all channels of information and we know how to get to them.”
Chawla is expansive when he explains further, “The bookies are only keeper of funds, the stakes are decided as the volume of money flows in from bets. As the money rises, the volume of money decides the fluctuation of the odds and the stakes.”
For instance, in the UP poll, the most captivating for the punters, the stakes have changed over the last seven phases. Chawla says the bets opened with SP at 130-135 seats; the BSP at 125 seats; the Congress at 60; and the BJP at 50 seats. After the first four phases were over, the stakes swung wildly – SP surged ahead with 148 seats; the BSP plummeted to 105 seats; the Congress dipped to 50 seats; and the BJP gained upto 65 seats. “Suddenly, everything went on its head,” says Chawla, “the markets were reacting to various factors, it could be from Hindu consolidation due to Congress’ insistence on Muslim reservation from OBC quota, to the high voter turnout among youths. We do not know yet.”
It was Chawla who first revealed that the mandi information network is at the heart of the political gambling sweepstakes. “Traders have the pulse of every village that comes under their market. But the mandi is also susceptible to political manipulation and it is here that money power can perhaps influence an election,” he says mysteriously.
It is another mega punter Sushil Kumar (name changed), who explains what Chawla means, and illustrates it with an upside-down story — the BJP’s ill-fated India Shining campaign in the 2004 general election. According to the punter, it was alleged that one of the prime movers of the India Shining campaign had pumped in at least Rs 300 crore to manipulate the odds in the BJP’s favour, and the stakes were loaded on its side. “The idea is to create an atmosphere that it is a winning party and hope to swing voters towards it. After all, many undecided voters like to vote for the winning party.”
It is another matter that not only did the crores go down the drain and the BJP face a humiliating defeat, it did drive a stake at the heart of political betting – when the punters went wrong for the first time in a big ticket election. It was not the only time when they have gone wrong — in 2009, no betting syndicate predicted a 200-plus seats victory for the Congress in the general election. The odds were on the BJP side yet again – it was expected to get 165 seats, the Congress only 130 seats.
As the Capital’s biggie bookie, Rakesh Gaur (does not wish to be named) explains, “Rich political candidates and parties throw in Rs 20-30 crore in the market to influence the betting odds in their favour. It certainly creates a buzz in the constituency once it goes around that the bets are backing him. Money power makes a difference in a candidate’s rating.”
Unfortunately for the moneybags, elections in the country are also fought on caste, regional, religious lines, among other considerations, and until this blurs, money power can barely shift votes in a rich candidates’ favour.
So, are betting syndicates unreliable in these hot-money backed elections today? “You cannot blame us bookies for not getting the favourites right,” says Gaur, “what can we do if money comes into the market for a particular candidate? We have to adjust our books and change the odds, bookies only flow with the market.”
While Garg and friends in Hapur insist there are no big bucks behind the Congress to influence the markets in Hapur, and that party candidate Gajraj Singh’s personal charisma is working, journalists covering the election are quite perplexed by the Congress’ runaway hit in the bookies game. Says a local hack, “Rumours allege Rahul Gandhi is backed by hundreds of crores to project him as the ‘big cheez’ in this election. The Congress is likely to win here, but will it translate into votes in the rest of the state?”
At last count after the last phase today, the bets are placed at – SP is placed between 150-153 seats, and anything above and below is even (double) money. Explains bookie Deep Chand (name changed), “Unlike the general elections which gives you odds like say even money for Congress at 150, and three times more at 180-plus; in this UP election, the bets have been fixed. It’s a take it or leave it bet.” So, the BSP stands between 97-100 seats; Congress at 60-65 seats; and BJP at 75-78 seats.
Bookies and punters are equally confounded by the north-south divide in political betting. In the south, especially in Tamil Nadu, the betting syndicates have always gone wrong in predicting election results. “In the last two Assembly elections, the favourites were the losers – in 2007, Jayalalitha was wiped out, in 2011, the ruling DMK lost badly. But in Rajasthan, Delhi , Punjab, MP, Gujarat , the syndicates were closer to the mark.”
They believe it is the heady combination of money clout and influence, media power and control, which forces betting predictions to go wrong. “Media plays a bigger role than money power,” says a bookie enviously, “politicians want to own and control media, from Jayalalitha to Karunanidhi to Sharad Pawar, as it plays the single most influential role in creating the ‘hawa’ — which is why politicians and business tycoons want to own media houses. It moves money, in betting syndicates or stock markets. Media is the thoroughbred in this race.”
The punter may be right or wrong, but insider trading in political gambling seems legitimate and flourishing well.
(Excerpts of this article has appeared in Mail Today)