Before the polling in the recently held Rajasthan elections, betting in the western city of Phalodi had emerged as a point of reference in speculations concerning the share of assembly seats to be won by various parties, be it in national and state dailies, journalists’ accounts on X (formerly Twitter), or in street-corner debates. A three-century-old building that stands near the ramparts of the six-century-old Phalodi Fort and the shops surrounding, is where these references originate. The locals call it the Satta Bazaar (betting market). Satta is Phalodi's ‘open secret’, its calling card, an integral part of its everyday life, livelihood to some, and the chief subject of its legends. Bhurdas, who runs Brown Paan Palace near the Satta Bazaar, recounts one such legend: "One can bet on just about anything in Phalodi. If a bull happens to pass down the street, bets can be placed on whether it will turn right or left.”
Exaggerations such as these, routinely fed to outsiders, are among the factors fuelling the city’s dubious fame. That said, many kinds of bets are regularly and systematically placed here. Pramod*, associated with the Satta Bazaar, reels off their names: Rains, Cricket, Matka, Jhatpat, Gambling, Lottery, and Elections.
There are no written sources documenting when betting first started in this old town. However, Anand Kumar*, chairman of the unofficial committee of the Satta Bazaar, says that this has been his family business since the time of his father’s great-grandfather. An earnest speculator, he talks about Phalodi’s long-standing connection to the silver market of Mumbai. Many migrated from Phalodi to Mumbai to work as brokers in the silver market. The Satta Bazaar was founded replicating the same formula. This development is said to have occurred between 1860 and 1870.
The curiosity that generates questions such as “Who will win the elections?” has played a major role in bringing recognition to the Phalodi Satta Bazaar. Ambalal, a keen observer of the Satta Bazaar for long, says there was hardly any betting on elections here initially. As an organised activity, betting on the elections started only in the 70s. More people began to learn about the Phalodi Satta Bazaar when it was covered in newspapers in the 80s. Four types of bets dominate election betting in Phalodi: Who will the major parties give their tickets to? Which party will win how many seats? Who will win the Assembly or Parliament elections, and who will become the Chief Minister or Prime Minister?
People associated with the Bazaar like to claim that their analyses of the seats have always been on the money. For this reason, the Phalodi Satta Bazaar has come to be used almost like a pre-poll survey. This may be why the betting ‘entrepreneurs’ here carry a certain pride. How is the analysis for these bets carried out? Broker Anand Kumar gives a rehearsed answer, “We have our network all over the country. Come election time, we speak with them, they give us data. The scenario is read with the tool of caste equations and then we analyse and present our estimates." But when probed further, no broker is able to explain his methodology. It clearly appears that like most other electoral predictions, the claims of the Satta Bazaar, too, are based on superficial guessing.
The betting on the assembly tickets around Phalodi had been concluded after the parties released the list of candidates for Rajasthan. The last date to settle the payments was November 15. The Congress party pulled a major upset in its ticket allotment for the Phalodi constituency this time. Ditching its previous candidate Mahesh Vyas, it gave the ticket to Prakash Chhangani, who was thought to be the weakest contender. A businessman who bet on Vyas lost Rs 13,76,000 but he remains hopeful of recovering his losses from future bets. The Phalodi Satta Bazaar has predicted a BJP victory in Rajasthan with 122 seats. The market, which predicts 115 seats for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and 48 seats for it in Chhattisgarh, has launched its own website that is now open to betting deals.
Phalodi is located in the arid Thar, a region with uncertain prospects of rain. No wonder the first bets here were placed on the rains. The speculators would venture predictions about the weather and place their bets. In front of the main building of the Satta Bazaar, there is an old red stone structure, which has a drain jutting out of its roof. The drain, called the Parnaal, has been covered, so that no water enters it from above, and the drain and the roof are monitored by two CCTV cameras on the building opposite so that transparency is maintained. Betting deals take place around the ‘important matter’ of rainwater flowing out of this drain. The day or month is to be mentioned while making the deal, the broker quotes a rate, and the deal is finalised. Currently, the market is open for Parnaal deals for up to July 2024.
The brokers explain the process: "The first thing that you need to do in order to make a deal is to specify a month. You decide that you want to bet on Parnaal in the month of March. Since the odds of rain in March are not great, the rates will be higher. For instance, the rate for March is currently two rupees. If you bet Rs 100 on there being a Parnaal in March and a Parnaal does take place on any day of the month, you collect Rs 200 from me the next day. If it does not rain and there is no Parnaal, you pay up Rs 100. But suppose you want to make a deal for the month of July. The odds of it raining in July are much higher. So for that, the current rate is 20 paise (20 per cent returns)."
In a nutshell, the odds determine the rates. Low rates imply high possibilities, and consequently, low returns. If the odds are low, the rates are higher, and you stand to make more money upon winning. That is the core formula for all kinds of betting done here. Currently, the city has about 10-12 brokers betting on the rains. This number varies at different times.
Betting on cricket started when live radio broadcasts of matches began. Several bookies in Phalodi involved in Rain and Matkabaazi—common organised betting on numbers between 1 to 9—entered cricket betting in the 80s. The number of people betting on cricket and running cricket books in the city grew manifold after live telecasts on TV started. As in Matkabaazi, there is a chain of bookkeepers in cricket-betting. According to a renowned cricket trader of the city, more than three hundred books were being run in the city during the Cricket World Cup. The probability of winning or losing changes from ball to ball and the betting prices are modified accordingly. Accounts are settled after the match.
The Indian team performed consistently well this time before crashing out at the final hurdle. However, with the coming of online apps, websites, and UPI payments, the quantum of bets flowing into Phalodi from other cities in India has diminished significantly and the decline continues. Rajasthan natives from all over the country that used to place bets here over phone, now have more accessible and reliable options like online betting apps. As a result, this business has reduced to less than twenty per cent of its original size. A twenty-year-old trader adds with a guffaw, "This problem cannot even become an issue in the elections."
Phalodi is a tier-three city with a population of about 6,00,000, which was recently separated from Jodhpur district and given the status of district headquarters. It is estimated that more than 1,200 of its residents are directly involved in the betting business. The quantum of betting that takes place here annually is worth over 20 crore. The Satta Bazaar has now spread from the two buildings near the fort to the entire city. Despite all this, the business has faced no major action. Anand Kumar* reacts to this with a saying popular in Phalodi, “Phalodi mein gadi bha ri, ghalti gaayi ri," (In Phalodi, if a Brahmin’s [locally called Bha] vehicle hits a cow, it is the cow that is at fault, not the Brahmin).
Most of those involved in Phalodi’s betting business is from the socio-politically dominant Brahmin community. Perhaps this is part of why betting continues unabated here, enjoying social legitimacy despite amounting to organised crime. The people betting on the elections through the Phalodi Satta Bazaar are, in a way, not too different from the voters staking their problems, pains, aspirations, and hopes on the same polls. However, while the upshot of the bets placed in the Satta Bazaar is evident in the immediate aftermath of the elections, the results of the general population’s electoral bets remain entangled in a process that is much longer and more complex.
(Translated by Kaushika Draavid)
(*Names have been changed to protect the identities of certain individuals.)