Monsoons and politics no sure bet in India

Posted in India | 20-Jun-07 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

NEW DELHI - Can there be a connection between Indian monsoons and electing a new president? There is in the huge underground satta (betting) market that usually centers on cricket but takes on other issues as well. Despite police crackdowns, satta is one of the most organized gaming forums.

If not cricket or monsoons, bets can be placed on election results, even for a high-profile one in the United States.

According to reports, more than Rs4 billion (US$98.2 million) in bets were placed on the recent Punjab elections, and the jostling over who is going to be India's new president next month has been an added bonus.

India could have its first female president in Pratibha Patil, a veteran congresswoman with a feisty political record in the state of Maharashtra. However, the selection will not be straightforward.

In the latest twist, incumbent President A P J Abdul Kalam has been backed for re-election by a third front, a conglomeration of non-Congress and non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) outfits.

Thus the satta continues.

"Given the different names being touted as possible candidates for president, the odds on any one being nominated provided ideal material for bets," said a satta operator who has been involved in the trade for more than a decade. He said the satta value on emerging candidates has passed Rs10 billion.

Betting on the president
The post of president, in essence a symbolic figure but who can be an irritant to any government in power, has turned into an intensely political subject.

The president is elected via an indirect vote by an Electoral College composed of elected representatives.

In a top-down approach, political parties have been resorting to slotting a vacancy on the basis of community/religion before identifying a person. Thus a Sikh dalit (considered the lowest caste) or a Muslim has been chosen in the past to pass on the right message to the concerned section of the population.

There have been persons of eminence such as President Kalam, a Muslim and noted scientist who was chosen by the previous BJP government.

This time, however, the criterion has been different, resulting in the satta market moving in.

The BJP candidate was more or less certainly Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a person of political eminence, until Kalam's name resurfaced this week. Now Shekhawat says he won't run if Kalam does.

However, the Congress, which has to carry along its left-wing coalition partners on every decision, has not had it so easy.

It did not want to support Kalam partially because of differences on a few issues such as a tradition of Indian presidents serving one term and Kalam's initial appointment by the BJP.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi was looking for someone like the gentle Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a person who can never cross political swords with her and maintains a sense of personal loyalty.

Gandhi's chosen one, however, was current Home Minister Shivraj Patil, a politician similar in demeanor to Manmohan, though not in caliber and professional acumen.

This sufficed for Gandhi, but not the left, which likes to oppose anything that the Congress proposes.

Pitching for Bengali brotherhood, the leftists wanted External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a man known to have a mind of his own, apart from being a very important minister. But he was too much of a bitter pill for Gandhi to swallow.

Left-wing compromise candidate Arjun Singh was rejected as a loose cannon, given his self-appointed status as a messiah for the backward castes.

Thus over the past week other names appeared and faded such as veteran Congress party member N D Tiwari, leftist leader Somnath Chatterjee, and Sushil Kumar Shinde.

A compromise was struck for Patil, who was plucked out of relative obscurity as Kalam was earlier, and her candidacy was cleverly couched as promoting woman power.

Patil fits Gandhi's bill nicely, too. The left had had a say and with Brahmin dalit leader Mayawati extending support, Pratibha Patil could create history unless President Kalam spoils her party.

Indeed, those who bet on a dark horse owe Patil a bit of their newly gotten wealth.

Monsoon betting
Aside from the president, the satta market is deep into an annual contest: betting on the monsoon.

There is a reason that the Indian monsoons make good satta candidates. The official weather department issues regular bulletins that are followed like stock indices.

Given unpredictable weather conditions, exacerbated by global warming, the period of May-August is marked by periodic squalls and cloudbursts, and each month could be the beginning of the actual monsoon, or otherwise.

According to reports, bets of up to Rs30 billion have been placed in Mumbai on the various aspects of the rain - the date of arrival, the total downpour, and monthly breakup.

The year 2003 was particularly difficult for gamblers as the monsoons were at their unpredictable best. A period of heavy rainfall resulted in the national weather office even declaring that they had arrived, followed by a healthy forecast for the season.

However, the rains petered out, leaving most of northern India in the worst drought in more than a decade, and many a diehard punter lost money.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.