A criminal campaign

Published May 11, 2014

Some aspects of the world’s largest democratic exercise — the Indian parliamentary elections — are as awesome as the others are distasteful.

While it is amazing to see 816 million people vote to elect their leaders, over a month in nine distinct phases, it is equally shameful that over twelve hundred of the seven thousand five hundred odd candidates analysed in these elections have criminal charges against them. Out of which, 797 candidates have serious criminal charges related to rape, murder, robbery, etc. against them, according to the think-tank Association for Democratic Reforms.

Interestingly, the fact that only 11pc of the candidates have declared criminal cases against them this time around seem to be an improvement over the past years. Almost one third of members of the current parliament still have criminal cases pending and 24pc of those elected in 2004 had pending criminal cases.

This relative decline in the figures has been attributed to the vociferous anti-corruption movements that the country witnessed in the past two years. However, those who have been following Indian politics closely say that criminalisation in politics will not go away in a hurry. Milan Vaishnav, a specialist in Indian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says politicians with criminal records have a greater chance of being elected than those that don’t.

In a paper titled ‘Crime But No Punishment In Indian Elections’, Vaishnav explains, “Of course, the real question is what makes these candidates winnable. At least part of the answer comes down to cold, hard cash — an area in which those who break the law often have a leg up. Election costs in India have grown considerably over the years thanks to a host of factors, including a growing population, a marked increase in the competiveness of elections, and elevated voter expectations of pre-election handouts. Beyond the draw of a higher likelihood of success, parties value ‘muscle’ (criminality, in Indian parlance) because it often brings with it the added benefit of money.”

After all, even the party that jumped into the fray on an anti-corruption plank, the Aam Aadmi Party has fielded 9pc of its 359 candidates with pending serious criminal charges against them.

Initially, political parties used organised criminals to capture voting booths during elections and to distribute money and liquor to voters. Gradually, the criminals decided to ask for a ticket to contest on and politicians willingly handed them out as these criminals assured some victories on the basis of their money and muscle power.

An unchallenged don of the region, Ashok Veer Vikram Singh commonly known as Bhaiyya Raja, was arrested for murder in the 1990s,he decided to contest his first elections from prison. His slogan was a brazen, Mohar lage gi haathi pe, varna goli chhaati pe (stamp the elephant or be killed by a bullet in your chest), the elephant being his election symbol. After being an elected representative for two terms in the state assembly, Singh was finally convicted for murder in 2013.

It is not as if civil society members and electoral reform officers have not tried to fight criminality in politics.

In 1999, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Delhi High Court asking for the disclosure of the criminal, financial and educational background of the candidates contesting elections. That struggle took four years to bear some fruit. The Supreme Court in 2003 made it mandatory for all candidates contesting elections to disclose criminal, financial and educational background prior to the polls by filing an affidavit with the Election Commission.

And finally, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Members of Parliament or members of the states’ Legislative Assemblies or Councils would be removed immediately if convicted of a crime the Constitution lists as a ground for disqualification.

Sadly, that landmark judgement has had little effect. For instance, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav, his wife, Dimple, and his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, continue to rule the state even as the cases against them for owning assets disproportionate to their known income are pending in the Courts. Kameshwar Baitha a Member of Parliament from Jharkhand faces 46 criminal charges ranging from murder to attempted murder. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader R.B Rajesh and Shiv Sena leader Chandrakant Bhaurao face 16 criminal charges each.

It is these senior political leaders who have spoken out against a legislation that would keep politicians with criminal records away from active politics. They cite reasons of “political charges”. And claim that sitting politicians can misuse such legislation.

Mr Viashnav says that the factors of demand and supply are at play in the electoral space as well. Politicians with criminal records satisfy the demand of the voters, who seek candidates that are ‘effective’ and well-funded, he adds.

“India needs a credible election finance regime with real teeth to rein in under-the-table funding. And the state’s ability to impartially deliver benefits, physical safety, and timely justice has to improve. Unless an investment in institutional change is made, parties — as well as many voters — will continue to view a candidate's criminal reputation as a potential asset rather than a liability,” he says.

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