Wary of pollsters, Indians draw election tips from illegal bookies

Wary of pollsters, Indians draw election tips from illegal bookies
Indian supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate for India's forthcoming general election and Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat Narendra Modi and Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev cheer during the 'Yoga Mahotsav' event run by Ramdev and attended by Modi in New Delhi on March 23, 2014.

NEW DELHI - Despite India's prohibitions on gambling, anyone keen to bet on who will be the next occupant of the prime minister's residence at 7, Race Course Road can call a closely guarded phone number, or find the right doorway in a city backstreet.

The world's largest democracy goes to the ballot box next month. Election results are typically hard to call, and formal opinion polls have a patchy record in gauging voter trends.

Though the country's illegal bookies use little more than intuition to set the odds, some election candidates check what the illicit betting market, known as the satta market, says about their chances when they are out on the campaign trail.

"I feel that it can be relied upon more than opinion polls," Lalji Tandon, an opposition lawmaker in the northern city of Lucknow, told Reuters. "The fluctuations in the satta market paint a better picture of the mood of voters."

Tandon belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi, the man seen most likely to win the premiership. Few people doubt that BJP will emerge as the single largest party in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, parliament's lower house.

But there are no certainties in an elections that boasts a diverse electorate of 815 million voters, with an array of regional parties muddying the contest between two main national parties.

UNDER THE COUNTER

"I prefer my opinion polls, not the ones that are in the newspaper and on television. You can't rely on them," said a smartly-dressed young gold trader who doubles as a bookie, speaking in his narrow and dimly-lit shop in Delhi's old quarter, where errand boys promptly serve tea and lemon water to every customer who enters.

The bookie, who declined to be named, sets his odds by canvassing public opinion himself. "I have a social network. I am asking everyone."

For all that networking, India's forbidden bookmakers know how to avoid close scrutiny, even after a report by accounting firm KPMG and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimated the illegal betting scene was worth 3 trillion rupees ($49 billion) in 2012.

Outside of horseracing - there is a track next to the prime minister's residence - most forms of gambling are illegal in India, although two of its 28 states have casino licenses. So bookies are careful with whom they do business, only taking bets from people vouched for by a trusted contact.

They often operate out of jewellery shops, which provide a useful front for a business involving transactions of large amounts of cash, with single bets running anywhere between 5,000 and 5 million Indian rupees ($80-$81,000).

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