To beat Azharuddin and a billionaire, one Rajasthan candidate decides to fund 2,100 weddings
Makhan Lal Meena has catapulted himself to third place in the keenly fought race for Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, giving the BJP and Congress the jitters in the seat that saw the smallest winning margin in 2009.
When you’re up against a former Indian cricket team captain and a multi-billionaire, it might take a little more than just spirited campaigning to get noticed. So Makhan Lal Meena, fighting as an independent from Rajasthan’s Tonk-Sawai Madhopur seat, decided he would bring people together — literally.
Meena has pledged to fund 2,100 weddings of people from across the constituency in two mass ceremonies slated for later in the year, after elections have taken place (which allows him to avoid violating the model code of conduct).
This effort has catapulted him to third place in the keenly fought contest in this dusty seat just to the south of Jaipur behind the frontrunners: the Congress’ Azharuddin, who once captained India’s cricket team, and the Bharatiya Janata Party's wealthy businessman candidate, Sukhbir Singh Jaunpuria, whose fame also derives from a wedding: his daughter’s Rs 250-crore extravaganza.
“Both of them are outsiders,” said Devnarayan, a paan shop tender in Tonk. "The Congress is just hoping Azharuddin can be a khiladi and the BJP’s man…well, he has a lot of money.”
That is not to say Meena is the only local candidate in the fray — there’s even another candidate from the Meena community up against him — but he is the only one offering to pay for thousands of weddings. Which means he’s getting talked about.
“They say he’s going to give each of the families a motor bike at least as a gift,” said Lalit Singh, an auto driver. “Now do the math. Each family out of 2,100 must mean at least 20 votes? Marriages can be very expensive things here, they will be grateful, and will support him.”
No one is willing to say this means he can beat the big two — the Congress and BJP candidates took 93.7% of the votes in 2009 — but generating buzz alone is an important asset. And in tightly fought races, a popular third candidate can tip the balance for one of the frontrunners. In 2009, in fact, Tonk-Sawai Madhopur recorded the smallest winning margin of all Lok Sabha seats: just 317 votes, with the edge going to the Congress’ Namo Narain Meena.
“A big Meena belt starts from here, and they have traditionally been Congress supporters,” said Arshad Ali, an LIC agent in Tonk. “That means he could take votes away from Azharuddin, who was going to face trouble from his own party because he’s not from here. When the BJP also picked an outsider, he became a little less concerned — but now there’s a local who can leech votes.”
Meena has stopped talking, at least to the press, about his specific plans for the weddings and the gifts, presumably to avoid any heat from the Election Commission. He refused to speak to this reporter. He did, however, tell the Times of India that, “both BJP and Congress candidates have fielded outsiders, who, after losing the battle will never turn up in the city and have no right to accuse my social event.”
But Meena’s popularity is clearly built on the wedding buzz. Even Ali, who said he was a Congress supporter, worried that Meena would make it harder for Azharuddin. But he added that what Meena was doing wasn’t bad.
“For a poor person, how can you argue that this is somehow wrong? Meena knows he won’t win, but he’s still spending all this money to throw the weddings. And when they happen, it doesn’t matter if it’s a rich or poor person coming. Everyone will be treated the same,” Ali said. “Just take it as one of the many gifts Indian democracy gives us — once in five years.”
Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight
Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.
Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.
In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.
One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.
Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.
Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.
It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.
Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.
The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.
The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.