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    Mar 25, 2014

    Indian bookies betting on Modi


    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," Mr Lalji Tandon, an opposition lawmaker in the northern city of Lucknow, said. "The fluctuations in the satta market paint a better picture of the mood of voters."

    Mr Tandon belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Mr 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 election that boasts a diverse electorate of 815 million voters, with an array of regional parties muddying the contest between two main national parties.

    "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."

    Punters are currently offered odds for Mr Modi of around 6-5 against, which would pay out 120 rupees (S$2.50) for every 100 rupees if the Hindu nationalist wins.

    The favourite appears to have the wind in his sails going into the ballot, which starts on April 7 and finishes in May. His odds have narrowed from around 8-5 against three months ago.

    The ruling Congress party is badly handicapped. A series of corruption scandals and economic growth hitting a decade-low have left voters disenchanted.

    And the signs are that Mr Rahul Gandhi, the political heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who has been appointed to lead the Congress campaign, lacks charisma in the match-up against Mr Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner.

    His odds are given at 2-1 against, having widened from 9-5 three months ago.

    The smart money says the only question at stake is whether the BJP will capture enough seats to convince potential coalition partners to join a government led by Mr Modi, whose Hindu nationalist ideology might make some wary of joining his side.