New Delhi: The election campaign in Punjab has had political leaders falling over themselves to prove that they are “common people” who can connect with the needs of the electorate.
While Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal has boasted that his “dirty clothes” reflect his clean intentions, Congress leader and incumbent Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has listed his chair-painting and carpet-cleaning skills among his aam aadmi (common man) qualifications.
But for all the rhetoric about their virtuously modest means, political leaders contesting in Punjab seem to be rather more awash in wealth than they might care to admit.
The average asset ownership of a Congress leader contesting in Punjab is Rs 13.3 crore, followed by Rs 12.7 crore for the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and Rs 7.7 crore for the BJP. AAP leaders in the fray own an average of Rs 7 crore in assets.
The Punjab polls also have a plethora of Independent hopefuls contesting — 447 of them — and their worth in average assets owned is Rs 1.7 crore, almost four times lower than the AAP average.
About 69 per cent of AAP candidates contesting the 2022 legislative assembly polls own assets worth more than Rs 1 crore, asset affidavits submitted to the Election Commission of India (ECI), and processed by political rights observer Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), show.
In 2017, a slightly more modest 61 per cent of AAP candidates had qualified as crorepatis (back then, the party had fielded candidates in 110 seats).
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AAP is still (relatively) aam
The Congress, whose face in Punjab is currently the ‘representative of the poor’ CM Channi, is fielding candidates for all the 117 assembly seats — out of these candidates, 107 (91 per cent) are crorepatis.
The SAD, meanwhile, is fielding 96 candidates, out of which 89 (93 per cent) are in the crore club. The party is contesting in an alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has put up 20 candidates, of which 16 (80 per cent) own assets worth a crore or more.
The BJP has put up candidates for 71 seats, out of which 60 are crorepatis (85 per cent). Its ally, the Punjab Lok Congress, formed by former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, is in the running in 27 seats, out of which 16 candidates (59 per cent) are crorepatis.
The AAP, which is contesting all 117 seats, has 81 (69 per cent) crorepati candidates.
According to the ADR data, a candidate is considered a crorepati when the value of their assets costs at least Rs 1 crore. This valuation includes fixed assets (such as agricultural land, non-agricultural land, and commercial buildings) as well as current assets, including cash in hand, bank balance, and gold.
How rich is rich?
As noted earlier, the average asset ownership of a Congress leader is Rs 13.3 crore, the highest among all political parties, followed by the SAD at Rs 12.7 crore, and the BJP at Rs 7.7 crore.
The average ownership of assets for an AAP contestant is Rs 7 crore, which is the lowest among all the leading political parties.
Nevertheless, the average AAP candidate in Punjab is nowhere near as affluent as their counterpart in Delhi. In the 2020 Delhi polls, the average asset ownership of an AAP candidate was Rs 15.3 crore. Further, out of the party’s 70 candidates in Delhi, 51 (73 per cent) were crorepatis, according to ADR data analysed by ThePrint.
According to political analyst and C-Voter founder Yashwant Deshmukh, the definition of an “aam aadmi” may vary across states.
“An average ‘aam aadmi’ from Punjab has greater net worth than an average ‘aam aadmi’ from Uttar Pradesh or even Delhi-NCR for that matter,” Deshmukh said, adding that being a crorepati in Punjab was “not really a head-turner”, unlike some other states. “It’s very normal, particularly in the socially upward section of Punjabi society,” he added.
Pluses and minuses of fielding wealthy candidates
Candidates who can push their own funds into campaigns are sought after by parties to help save costs, according to Gilles Verniers, co-director of Ashoka University’s Trivedi Centre for Political Data.
“The cost of entry into politics is extremely high and parties are therefore incentivised to nominate self-funding candidates. That is especially true of parties that do not command vast resources and therefore depend on their candidates’ wealth to cover the cost of campaigning. This also extends to candidates coming from backward class and lower caste groups,” Verniers said.
However, fielding a large proportion of crorepati candidates could come at a reputational cost to the AAP, whose entire raison d’etre is its affinity for ordinary citizens. In Punjab, the party has claimed that it has opened the way for ordinary people to contest elections, but such assertions could be perceived as less credible because of all the crorepati candidates.
“In Punjab, people look for change. Still 69 per cent of crorepati contestants is significantly high… people may become sceptical when they see that AAP is not so different [from other parties] in financial terms,” Ronki Ram, professor at Panjab University’s Political Science Department, told ThePrint.
According to Ram, there was a chance that people would become “disenchanted” with the AAP due to its wealthy contestants.
Already, there have been controversies around this issue. In January, rebel leaders of AAP alleged that the party was “selling tickets” to rich candidates, most of whom were newly arrived turncoats from the Congress and the SAD. The AAP leadership had said there was no truth to these accusations.
“AAP has long become a conventional party in that regard. As there is no immediate reward in nominating ‘aam aadmi’ candidates, it follows the elitist recruitment practices of other parties,” Verniers said.
ThePrint tried to contact the official media convenor of the Aam Aadmi Party via call and text, but there was no response. The report will be updated if a response is received.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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