Parallel Party Systems—Whiskey, Fast cars and Luxury behind the Saffron Robes

The Date: March 8, 2009. New Delhi. 8 pm.

Chilling silence marked the white room with the big painting of a Saffron Lotus gleaming against the back wall. My friend and I sat waiting on one of the large leather sofas in the room. The room itself resembled a mix between a Hindu temple and a soap opera setting. A butler in all white entered, and asked us if we would like to have something to drink as we waited.  “A single malt perhaps?” He then proceeded to go along the long marble countertop pulling out bottle after bottle, nothing less than a Johnny Walker Blue label available.

My friend and I accepted and took a wee dram as we continued to wait for the man of the hour, a key political strategist behind the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, to return home. After nearly 30 minutes, we heard a car speeding down the long driveway, and a black Mercedes pulled in next to his prized red Lamborghini. He was among the first 10 people to receive the car in India, a car he proudly later told us was one of the many “gifts” he had received.  I was told his house in one of the main roads just beyond the India Gate, was worth at least $35 million US Dollars.

As Mr. X, whom I have agreed to remain nameless, popped out of his car we could hear the ringing of multiple phones and the butler’s voice, saying “Sir, your guests have arrived,” in Hindi.  Mr. X entered the room in his saffron kurta pajama, a solid gold lotus draped around his neck.

“Welcome, welcome.  Do you have drinks? I’m sorry for my delay.  I have been out on the campaign trail all…excuse me, I must answer this call. Hello, tell me. What’s the deal with cycles in Haryana? I thought we had agreed to provide cycles.” His conversation continued.

And as our conversation with Mr. X began we were interrupted by the constant ringing of two cell phones and similar phone exchanges throughout the evening.

First, an introduction to the man—Mr. X is well-known BJP political strategist behind the scenes of the BJP. Prior to 2006 had grown under the tutelage of the late Promod Mahajan. Mahajan had taken to Mr. X in the early days of his career, and Mr. X was largely responsible for managing Mahajan’s campaigns and party finances in the early part of the decade. This alone made Mr. X somewhat mysterious. Mahajan, murdered by his estranged younger brother in 2006, is a figure who today remains steeped in political scandal and mystery.  His political reputation in the Delhi circles had long been connected to his nightlife, his multiple affairs—including one linked to the murder of an Indian Express journalist Shivani in 1999. Mr. X had earlier had the reputation as Mr. Mahajan’s right hand. On the surface he gleamed with the round-bellied charisma of any longtime political party aficionado, but there was an equal sense of mystery about how this man had grown so powerful and remained so unknown in many respects.

In 2009 he was still deep in the party’s finances though he explained that internal in fighting among several factions of the party had resulted also in changes in the party’s financial management.  While he continued to be involved in many of the party’s campaigns, he represented only one part.

This was our second meeting. I had first met Mr. X at his office—an unassuming space hidden away in a dingy South Delhi apartment block. There he had shown me his large computer database, which had merged census data at the village level, with village level caste dynamics, and host of variables the BJP party had paid private data collection firms to obtain of village needs and electoral participation. Using this database, he centrally managed BJP party workers going to villages across the country.

At the center of it all he was the Party Man who controlled the flow of money and goodies that party workers brought with him when he went to the village.  From distributing cash to cycles, he decided the goodies.  Mr. X was the party man responsible for the BJP’s vote banks in much of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.  As our evening progressed, the phone calls he received were all about what kinds of vote bank benefits the party should be distributing in different villages throughout the country.  His caste and income-based decision making process is something we can later discuss in more detail.

Isn’t the distribution of electoral goodies to gain votes illegal? Short answer—Yes. The Election commission has rules to prevent the distribution of party benefits, but every party is engaged in the provision of benefits. And each party has its vote banks to appeal to.

A bigger question—How did I come to Mr. X’s house in the first place?  How was I among the privileged to get a seat at this man’s dinner table during the busiest time of the year, the height of the electoral season?

The answer: My accompanying friend had come to know Mr. X through his nephew, one of the few young members of the BJP party.  My friend, the owner of a spa and fitness equipment shop had previously undertaken “business” with Mr. X.  Notably, when he needed a license to start up a factory in Noida, he approached Mr. X and the came to an agreement—the gift of approximately $400,000 USD in spa and fitness equipment installed in Mr. X’s home in exchange for one Noida factory license.  This is Delhi business made easy folks.

So, this evening and this dinner were mere by-products of rent seeking. I was privileged to have an open discussion with this man about his behind-the-scenes party involvement given his past corruption, which he was quite open to discuss with me as the evening progressed. He explained, quite shamelessly, that this was the cost of doing business in India. He explained that Indian political parties did not have the great system of campaign finance that the United States has, and political parties needed revenue to succeed. He was open about the informal networks and the parallel party system that drove the BJP’s political activities throughout or dinner as we discussed everything from the kinds of rents he collected to the kinds of benefits the party distributed.  He opened up about the underside, the whiskey, the fast cars and the luxury that lay behind the saffron robes of his party.

And what about Mr. X—well he was just one of the characters I interviewed that described this parallel informal system of governance.

As the diagram displays, behind every formal action of governance that we perceive Indian political institutions undertaking, there are informal networks. Political parties are driven by vote banks—with political party actors such as Mr. X at their core.

On the one side, there is a system of wealthy elites and business interests that engage political parties with bribes, gifts and resources—rent-seeking—in exchange for political protection, permissions and favors.  On the other side, the political campaigning side, there is a system of goodies—ranging in size and expense—as well as social protections that parties provide to the average citizen in exchange for political support, votes, and loyalties. These systems of patronage, though informal, are highly institutionalized and comprise the core of Indian political life.  These exchanges are the subject of my research and will comprise a series of posts to follow this one in the coming months.

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