Millionaires' club


Money becoming a gate pass to the Rajya Sabha

  • Pharma businessman Mahendra Prasad, with assets worth Rs 683 crore, has 82 per cent attendance in the house but has asked only one question (during 2009-2016).

Money power and allegations of horse-trading seem to be vitiating election to 57 seats in the Rajya Sabha from 15 states. The ruling Congress in Karnataka allegedly lured independent MLAs and poached Janata Dal (Secular) legislators by promising them “constituency development fund” worth Rs 100 crore each, in exchange for votes in the Rajya Sabha polls on June 11. Even as the Congress is in denial mode, it has shifted 14 independent MLAs to a hotel in Mumbai.

The party has pitched former IPS officer and educationist K.C. Ramamurthy as the third nominee against JD(S) candidate B.M. Farooq, a renewable energy entrepreneur and a real estate developer. Whoever wins, the house will be richer by a millionaire. While Farooq has assets worth Rs 687.15 crore, Ramamurthy has declared combined assets of Rs 77.27 crore.

Wresting 45 votes to win the seat is bound to be an uphill task for both. Ramamurthy will be left with 33 Congress votes after the party, which has 123 members in the assembly, elects its first and second nominees—Jairam Ramesh and Oscar Fernandes. He will need 12 more votes to win, while Farooq, who has 40 votes of the JD(S), will need five more. So, both have to seek votes from outside their parties, which do not come free.

Says Farooq, “Allegations of bribe are rubbish. At least 10 out of 14 independent MLAs had pledged their support to my candidature in writing. But the Congress chose to field a third candidate despite a shortage of 12 votes, which raises suspicion [of malpractice]. Independents had extended support to the JD(S) stating they were fed up with the Congress government. Even a tehsildar does not listen to us, they had complained.”

Danish Ali, JD(S) secretary general, who was sidelined to accommodate Farooq, brother of Congress MLA Moiddeen Bava, is upset and has joined the chorus demanding countermanding of the polls.

Political parties elect the moneyed in the hope of creating ‘resources’ for the party. But these candidates, riding on their money power, shift loyalties to get elected from a different party and even state. It is not as if they do well in the house. A survey by Association for Democratic Reforms and the National Election Watch reflects poor performance of these “parachute” candidates.

Industrialist M.A.M. Ramaswamy, who failed to get elected to the Rajya Sabha from his home state, Tamil Nadu, went to the upper house from Karnataka as a JD(S) nominee in 2004. His attendance was a dismal 6 per cent. He had neither participated in a debate nor asked a question or tabled a bill.

The national average for attendance in the house is 78 per cent, participation in debates 10, and number of questions asked, 77. Most millionaire MPs lag behind on these parameters.

It was liquor baron Vijay Mallya who started the trend of not identifying with a party. Interestingly, he was backed by the Congress and the JD(S) in 2002, and by the BJP and the JD(S) in 2010. The co-owner of Force India and owner of Royal Challengers Bangalore, who is now facing charges of financial frauds, has declared assets worth Rs 616 crore. The 'king of good times', however, spent very little time in Parliament. While his first term attendance was 45 per cent, it slipped to 30 per cent in the second. He had asked 68 questions, but not taken part in any debate or tabled a bill. However, in his second innings, he asked 216 questions.

Pharma businessman Mahendra Prasad, with assets worth Rs 683 crore, was previously supported by the Congress, and then by the Rashtriya Janata Dal. He has been elected for the sixth consecutive time to Rajya Sabha, as Janata Dal (United) nominee from Bihar. His attendance is 82 per cent, but he has asked only one question (during 2009-2016). Industrialist Rahul Bajaj, who was elected to Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra in 2006 as an independent supported by the Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena and BJP, has a much better performance in the house to his credit. Bajaj, whose assets are estimated at Rs 300 crore, had 88 per cent attendance, took part in 17 debates, and asked 57 questions.

In Uttar Pradesh, 12 candidates are in the fray for 11 seats. Prominent among them are Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party, Beni Prasad Verma of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Satish Mishra of the BJP, and Shiv Pratap Shukla and Kapil Sibal of the Congress. However, the BJP's support for the 12th candidate, Preeti Mahapatra, has upset the political calculations in the state.

A “parachute” candidate, Preeti runs an NGO and is the national coordinator of Narendra Modi Vichar Manch. “I am confident about my victory, and many MLAs who belong to different parties and some independent MLAs have promised to support me,” she said. Preeti is the wife of businessman Harihar Mahapatra, whose net worth is around Rs 23 crore.

“The BJP has made this election an open market of buying and selling of MLAs and it has made a mockery of elections by supporting an independent,” said senior Congress leader Satyadev Tripathi. “None of the major political parties has announced support to Mahapatra," said senior Congress leader Pramod Tiwari. "It is clear that BJP will have to indulge in horse trading.” BJP state president Keshav Prasad Maurya, however, insisted that his party will not transfer its surplus votes to either Samajwadi Party or Bahujan Samaj Party.

In Tamil Nadu, nominations are usually controlled by the party high command. Dissent, even if any, doesn’t spill out in the open. The Dravidian parties do not give space to businessmen or celebrities unless they toe the party line. Here, too, the seats become political rehabilitation for loyalists who fail to win assembly or Lok Sabha elections or end up as a trade-off with allies.

Jayalalithaa has nominated Vaithiyalingam, a confidant who lost from Orathanadu constituency in the recent assembly polls. The other popular name is S.R. Balasubramanian, who was formerly with the G.K. Vasan-led Tamil Maanila Congress. Balasubramanian is a seasoned parliamentarian and Jayalalithaa, as always, wants vociferous people in the upper house. In 2002, when Jayalalithaa could not contest because of the TANSI case, and later wanted to get reelected, Thanga Thamizhselvan, her confidant from Andipatti, stepped aside. His loyalty was rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat the same year.

In 2004, Pattali Makkal Katchi's Anbumani Ramadoss was elected to the Rajya Sabha. This was in return for PMK extending political support to the DMK in the general elections.

The millionaires’ club is a reality. And they contend that their entry into the Rajya Sabha is as legitimate as the entry of film stars, journalists, sportspersons and lawyers.

“The Constitution provides for participation of commoners in policy making through the Rajya Sabha," said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, media entrepreneur and independent Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka with a high performance record of 70 per cent attendance, 873 questions, 11 bills and 62 debates. "I chose Rajya Sabha because mass politics is not for me. But I never violated the code of conduct or resorted to unethical means to win an election. If some businessmen have taken dubious ways to win elections or misuse power as an MP, it is condemnable. The problem is to do with unethical practices and you should not single out businessmen.”

Farookh supports the contention. “Anyone can contest the election," he says. "I will not be a dummy MP. As a self-made entrepreneur in renewable energy sector, I faced many difficulties. I felt Rajya Sabha provides a good platform to push for greener policies and encourage young entrepreneurs. I was handpicked by Deve Gowda as he was looking for a potential minority leader from coastal Karnataka. I represent a community which has a population of 8.6 million, but is socio-economically weak. I am no opportunist.”

However, the growing trend of millionaires, especially business magnates, entering the Rajya Sabha has raised the question of money emerging as an easy gate pass to the upper house.

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