Hyderabad: Even in Andhra Pradesh, where anyone with some clout is an aspiring politician, the run-up to the general election has thrown a surprise: At least 19 entrepreneurs and executives of listed or privately held companies, many of them first timers, are contesting from 14 of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state.
The list doesn’t include smaller businessmen or contractors in the fray for the 294 assembly seats. Infrastructure moguls, film producers, media barons, software entrepreneurs—everyone is there, waving party flags, making speeches.
Among the contestants is L. Rajagopal Rao, the country’s richest candidate. Rao, who has declared assets worth Rs299 crore, is founder-chairman of Lanco Group, the parent company of engineering and construction firm Lanco Infratech Ltd. Already a Congress member of Parliament, Rao is contesting from Vijayawada against film producer Vamshi Mohan, a Telugu Desam Party (TDP) candidate.
“I thought it is the responsibility of people with knowledge, education, commitment and sincerity to enter politics and change the system, and I am happy with my decision to enter politics,” says Rao, who first ventured into politics in 2003.
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India has a history of entrepreneurs seeking to walk the corridors of power, but not many have taken the electoral route, opting to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
Elections 2009 | (Full Coverage)
This election has seen prominent businessmen or executives jump into the fray, largely spurred by a public resentment for traditional politicians following the 26 November terror attack in Mumbai.
Meera Sanyal, executive vice-president and country head of investment bank ABN Amro Bank NV, has taken a sabbatical to fight the election as an independent candidate from Mumbai South, the seat of the November attacks. In Bangalore, G.R. Gopinath, who pioneered low-fare airlines in India with Deccan Aviation Pvt. Ltd, contested from Bangalore South, also as an independent candidate.
But no state has seen a surge as in Andhra Pradesh and not everyone believes the shift from funding political parties to actually fighting the grime comes from a turn of heart.
Several of the state’s businessmen, originally from farming communities in coastal regions, have evolved from being contractors to playing a key role in the infrastructure sector with the help of politicians, says C. Ramachandraiah, a social scientist with the Centre for Economics and Social Studies at Hyderabad.
“Traditionally, the interest of landlords-turned-contractors in politics was in the form of discreet and behind-the-scenes... one in the form of funding to political parties to receive their help in business growth. It has slowly evolved into a direct participation, with a motive of not only protecting the wealth created but also to grow it further by playing an active role in national politics,” he said.
That, though, isn’t what the candidates like to say. For them, it is about “giving back to society” according to Palem Srikanth Reddy, managing director of software firm Four Soft Ltd and a first-time candidate contesting the Kadapa constituency on a TDP ticket. He is taking on chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s son Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, a Congress candidate and owner of a Telugu daily and a news channel, apart from cement and power plants.
“Right through my childhood I wanted to take politics as my career with an objective of giving back to the society, and I was just waiting for a right time for the adventure,” says Srikanth Reddy. “I have decided to enter politics now since I have achieved stability both financially and on family front as well.”
C. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst, says Andhra Pradesh accounts for nearly 50% of the contractors in the country, and they are always in need of political support for their businesses.
Rao categorizes the businessmen-politicians from the state into three classes: traditional businessmen whom the political parties want; contractors and businessmen who require political support; and the neo-rich who have gained from the real estate and economic boom of 2004-07 and are craving for popularity through politics.
Almost all the political parties are offering tickets to businessmen with deep pockets so they can spend at least Rs2 crore in each of the five-six Assembly segments that fall under a Parliamentary constituency, says Rao.
“Playing a role at national politics will enable them (to) keep in touch with several state governments across the country and expand their businesses accordingly,” he said. Almost all the political parties in Andhra Pradesh have offered tickets to businessmen, from the ruling Congress and the main opposition party, Telugu Desam Party (TDP), to Praja Rajyam, the newly formed political outfit of actor-turned-politician Chiranjeevi.
Eight of the 19 businessmen contesting for Parliament are veterans, many of them having entered politics about a decade earlier. The others are freshers, and they are giving tough competition to their more experienced rivals. The Congress’ candidate in Khammam, Renuka Chowdhury, who entered politics in mid-1980s and is currently minister of state for women and child development, is facing the heat from TDP candidate Nama Nageswara Rao, managing director of Madhucon Projects Ltd, an infrastructure firm whose shares are listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint