SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Lakhs or crores?

The manner in which the financial assets of politicians has been declared reveals some broad truths.

BITE THE BALLOT

MUKUND PADMANABHAN

Mayawati ... worth crores.

Mayawati ... worth crores.  

IT'S official. Mayawati is worth more than Rs. 10 crores; Vajpayee a mere Rs. 56 lakhs; his deputy L.K. Advani has about twice as much; Laloo Prasad Yadav owes the Income Tax department Rs. 1.48 crores; S.M. Krishna clocks in at a cool Rs. 18 crores; Sonia Gandhi has about Rs. 90 lakhs worth of assets and her son Rahul Gandhi, who owns half of the family's Mehrauli farmhouse, is a shade wealthier. Or is it?

The declaration of financial assets by politicians aspiring to win parliamentary and State Assembly seats has provoked a fair amount of amusement and vicarious interest. But as the numbers keep being cranked out, one cannot help wondering whether these declarations are doing what they are supposed to do: arm voters with the knowledge of the financial antecedents of the candidates they are voting for.

The basis for such declarations goes back to the Supreme Court's ruling that the voter had a right to know these and other antecedents of the candidates; moreover, that this right was fundamental and, therefore, independent of any statutory right voters enjoyed under the regular election laws. The idea was to make the election process more transparent and accountable; the hope was that making candidates declare such things as their financial assets (and their criminal record, if any) would help in reducing such things as the influence of tainted money and criminality in politics.

The manner in which financial assets has been declared across the country reflects a depressing pattern and reveals some broad truths:

In most cases, wealth has been grossly under-represented. There are an enormous number of candidates who have declared moveable assets of merely a few lakhs, grossly out of proportion with their lifestyles. The maximum permissible expenditure on a Lok Sabha election is Rs. 25 lakhs, a rule, as everyone is aware, is generally followed in the breach. Given this, how do such candidates afford to contest? Are we expected to swallow the fiction that political parties underwrite all their expenses?

By and large, the wives of candidates are wealthier than themselves. This serves to corroborate the well-known truth that the financial assets of the political class are lodged with members of their families. In such an environment, how can the declarations made by politicians be a true reflection of their wealth?

Ironically, those who have entered politics from other professions — particularly filmstars — have declared much higher assets. Sunil Dutt has estimated his assets at Rs. 20 crores and Govinda is not far behind. Black money is associated with both politics and the film industry, but clearly our politicians are less honest about the wealth they own, preferring to embrace the image of the humble khadi-wearing neta.

There seems to be no common standard when it comes to assessing property assets. Posh flats in Mumbai, prime farm houses outside Delhi, estates in the country have been undervalued in many cases by a long, long way. On what basis some of these valuations have been made is a mystery. If transparency and accountability are the basis for the new law that binds poll hopefuls to make such declarations, then perhaps we need to be told how some of these valuations were arrived at.

The Election Commission's rules require current market values of immovable assets to be furnished, whereas it requires only the book values of investments made in unlisted companies to be declared. It appears that this has been interpreted by some candidates to mean par value of the shares held in such companies, another reason for the undervalued declarations.

All in all, the declarations have raised more questions and provided fewer answers. Once nominations are accepted, the rules do not allow the declarations to be challenged except by way of an election petition after the results are declared. Election petitions are a time consuming affair and experience has shown that they often fail to provide justice in time — that is within five years or before the term of the winning MP or MLA is over. All the same, I wouldn't be surprised if there a clutch of election petitions after this general election.

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