Why some Indian politicians claim to be poorer than their wives

For richer or for poorer.
For richer or for poorer.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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A curious phenomenon has taken hold among Indian politicians in a key state election.

Some candidates in the large, central state of Madhya Pradesh, which went to polls yesterday (Nov. 28), have reported significantly lower incomes than their spouses, The Economic Times newspaper has reported based on data from a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a political transparency organisation in India.

Such candidates include those from both the major political outfits in the fray: the Bharatiya Janata Party which rules the state right now, besides the central government, and the opposition Congress.

In affidavits filed with the election commission of India, all candidates are expected to disclose information such as the value of their assets and liabilities, whether they had any criminal cases pending against them, and the annual income of themselves as well as their spouses and other dependents.

So Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, reported an income of Rs19.7 lakh ($28,000) last year, while his wife’s income stood at Rs37.9 lakh, according to his affidavit, the Economic Times said. A particularly dramatic case is that of Bhupendra Singh Thakur, a BJP candidate and the state’s current home and transport minister. He reportedly made Rs97.63 lakh last year while his wife earned over four times that (Rs4.5 crore).

The reasons for such disparities may be varied.

One is the need to hide the fact that a politician may be enriching himself illegally using his position. It is “quite common” to place assets in the spouse’s name “so that it does not appear that the politician is ‘profiting’ personally from holding office,” Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Quartz. In some cases, he added, relatives “may take advantage of their family member being in office to use this political connection to garner contracts, tenders, licences, and so on.”

Such misuse of power, Vaishnav said, is a “classic case of conflict of interest, but there is no conflict statute on the books which would curb this sort of insider trading.”

While the affidavits list sources of income—businesses, rent, agriculture etc—they were far less specific for the spouses than for the politicians themselves.

Besides, while 165 of the nearly 3,000 candidates contesting the Madhya Pradesh polls failed to enumerate their own sources of income, over 1,000 didn’t do it for their spouses, the ADR study found.

This wealthy spouses phenomenon will be something to watch out for during India’s general elections next year.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.