Stooping to feed grain to a black cow as a religious offering at his unfinished mansion, Indian politician and rags-to-riches millionaire B. Sreeramulu may need help from the gods if he is to win a hard-fought race for the parliamentary seat of Bellary.
He faces criminal charges, including attempted murder in a case dating back to 2007, and has close links with a jailed mining tycoon from the southern Indian town where the scandal has put thousands of miners out of work.
Sreeramulu’s bid for office comes as India’s 815 million-strong electorate votes in a staggered election ending on May 12 that looks set to oust the ruling Congress party, in part because of anger over corruption that is estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenue.
The anti-graft Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party came to power in local elections in New Delhi last year in a stunning debut, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), likely to lead the next government, has made tackling corruption a priority.
Yet it is the BJP who chose Sreeramulu as its candidate in a sign that, for all the rhetoric about cleaning up politics, parties are willing to back figures facing criminal charges.
Decades of experience show they frequently win. Such candidates often have deep pockets and a reputation for getting things done in parts of the country where the state is weak, making them popular with parties and voters.
Election spending, much of it to bribe voters, can exceed legal limits tenfold, officials say. Bellary, where an iron ore boom swelled politicians’ funds, is known for lavish campaigns.
Ahead of last Thursday’s vote, election officers in the town raided the homes of Sreeramulu allies after seizing US$1.4 million from a money lender that was destined, they said, to buy votes.
It was the biggest haul of suspected slush money so far out of election-related seizures of US$36 million nationwide.
‘JUST A POOR MAN’
The son of a railway station worker in Bellary, in the state of Karnataka, Sreeramulu told Reuters that all charges against him were false. He has not been convicted of any crime.
“I’m just a poor man. My father was a luggage porter,” he said, standing beneath a picture of his children smiling next to a gold, jewel-encrusted crown that was donated to a temple by his jailed associate.
In fact, Sreeramulu declared assets of US$2.5 million when he registered as a candidate in 2014, a fortune by Indian standards. When finished, his imposing house will be the size of a hotel and feature a swimming pool.
Data compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a civil society group, shows that one in six candidates registered for the first five stages of the 2014 general election faces criminal charges, slightly more than in the 2009 ballot.
These candidates have a far higher win rate than others, meaning nearly one in three lawmakers in the outgoing parliament face pending criminal cases.
“In the absence of an impartial state which can deliver benefits, protection and justice without bias, ‘tainted politicians’ can and will find support,” said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Whether locals support Sreeramulu and others like him could have a major impact on the outcome of the vote, and signs on the ground are that the contest for Bellary is desperately close.