Betting on India’s government

The Indian government faces a crucial vote of confidence Tuesday over the Indo-US nuclear treaty amid allegations that huge amounts of money are changing hands to buy fringe voters in the lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.

Indian bookies, usually centered on cricket matches, are emerging as an important factor that could determine whether the government will survive the day. Domestic newspapers are making the vote in the 543-member house look too close to call.

There are indications that some independent members of parliament and smaller regional parties have been approached by big betting syndicates to support or vote against the government, depending on the favored odds of big gamblers.

The so-called “left front” faction led by the Communist Party (Marxist) and the much smaller Communist Party of India withdrew their support for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led coalition in protest against the nuclear pact, under which India would open its civilian reactors to international inspections in exchange for nuclear fuel and technology from the United States. The communists fear that ratification would drive India into a closer relationship with the United States, which has long banned nuclear contacts with India. India has refused to sign international nonproliferation accords.

The government regards the pact as crucial because it would allow India access to previously-denied technology at a time when the country is desperate to supplement its flagging power grid with nuclear energy.

Politicking has been intense by both the ruling coalition and the opposition. Several lawmakers jailed while awaiting trial on various charges have been released on bail to vote, the sick have been taken from their beds and minor regional parties are being wooed with extravagant promises, according to the Associated Press, which reported Monday that it is unclear if the government can muster the majority it needs.

If the government loses, the nuclear pact is probably dead, and with it perhaps the government, which would be faced with the unpalatable prospect of an early election at the hands of an increasingly restive population concerned over the rising price of fuel and soaring inflation, which increased more than 11 percent in June.

With so much riding on the outcome, the bookies are finding plenty of takers. Satta takes place on the sly. However, it remains one of the most organized gaming forums in India, with millions, some say billions, of dollars changing hands.

In the past bookies are known to have approached cricketers and bribed them to tank matches to suit the odds of major gamblers or betting syndicates. While big money for horse trading of MPs is normal, this is the first time that there is serious talk that bookies could determine the political future of the country.

``As per my information some politicians have been approached with lucrative offers. This is a fact,’’ a bookie in the New Delhi circuit confirmed. ``The problem has happened as till a week back it seemed almost certain that the government would survive the trust vote. However, in the last couple of days the situation has become very uncertain with a few regional players suddenly deciding to switch sides. This has upset calculations, due to which some active (satta) players could lose big money. Thus some MPs have been offered good money.’’

Some reports have suggested that up to Rs500 million have been offered to a few MPs to vote in favor of the government.

Police say that illegal sports betting amounts to well over US$5 billion a year in India. Some police officials estimate that the annual volume could be as high as $40 billion.

Usually, satta is at its busiest during cricket matches, when bets are placed on every aspect of the game: which team will win, whether a batsman will score a century, who will win the toss, whether a wicket will fall on the first ball, etc. The mercurial odds are followed as closely as the stock markets. Betting volumes during a crucial one-day international cricket match between traditional rivals India and Pakistan, sometimes exceeds US$500 million.

It is thus no surprise that the bookies have taken to luring politicians, who all too often have been open to bribery. When there is a lull in cricket, betting occurs on local election results or for high-profile international polls, like a US presidential election. Even the arrival date of the seasonal monsoon or the next major terrorist attack, in India or elsewhere, is fair game for betting.