By hook or by crook: Why do so many Indian politicians have criminal charges?

From  the 7th of April to 12th of May , the world will bear witness to the biggest exercise in democracy, as over an estimated 800 million eligible voters in India heads to the polls to select their representatives to the 543 member, lower house of parliament : the Lok Sabha. Never a dull event, this election cycle is no exception: an incumbent Congress Party comes into the election with India suffering the lowest growth in decades under their watch and many questioning their choice in leadership in the princeling, Rahul Gandhi; the main opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party looks to capitalize on a weak Congress, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat state , admired by the Indian business community for his strong record on growth in the state ; meanwhile the new anti-corruption party ,the (common man) Aam Aadmi Party is posing a rare challenge to the establishment .

Indian democracy is hardly flawless . Corruption,dynastic rule,populist politics and above all a fragmented political system  has produced stalemate in so many of it’s important political decisions . Yet one of the biggest blotches on the Indian democratic system is the alarming number of individuals with criminal records in the Indian parliament and its political system in general. In the 15th Lok Sabha, currently in session,  30% of the sitting MPs has criminal cases pending against them[2]. The rap sheet ranges from misdemeanors to felony charges; including, murder, rape and assault. However this is not only limited to the federal level ; as Milan Vaishnav  [2] explains ,representatives with criminal records are expected to be around comparable levels at the state, local and municipal bodies . While the Indian law has safeguards to prevent individuals faced with criminal convictions from contesting elections, the notoriously slow legal system has allowed many to slip out of the system to hold political positions with charges pending for years if not decades  .

Lok Sabha : 30% of sitting MPs face criminal charged [Source :BBC]

Lok Sabha : 30% of sitting MPs face criminal charges [Picture :BBC]

A 2012 study by Bhaskar Dutta and Poonam Gupta[1] looks at this topic , and they raises two questions related to the rise in politicians with criminal records : the first , how does voters response to candidates with criminal records ? and second , why do parties nominate individuals with criminal record? To answer the first question they tested for whether the voters treated the candidates with criminal charges any differently from the other candidates. In their empirical analysis of voting for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections they showed that voters did indeed penalize candidates with criminal records, all else being equal. However this negative effect on vote share is dampened, if not reversed by two other factors: the presence of other candidate with criminal records , and the wealth of the candidate . A candidate’s wealth was found to be especially important , since it means  funding for campaigns to reach their constituents and increase their vote share. Vaishnav [2] thinks their is an additional factor to this . As he argues in certain regions with weak rule of law and divisions along ethnic, religious and cast lines , a criminal history could be perceived as a signal that these individuals could serve the interest of their constituents by all means , including force.

As for the second question , Dutta and Gupta [1] speculates that the parties nominate  individuals with criminal charges because these individuals are more eager to earn the nomination to begin with ; the primary motivation for seeking office being the influence and clout that they could gain ,through which they could influence the criminal proceedings against themselves.  Another factor that Dutta and Gupta [1] identifies as significant in criminals securing party nominations is again  their wealth . As Vaishnav [2] explains as India’s population has grown , political competition has increased and voters expectations for gifts and handouts have inflated , financing an election has become a costlier. Their ability to bankroll India’s cash-strapped political parties , can largely explain how unscrupulous individuals  are able to secure party nominations.

Will they vote differently this time ? [Picture : Asia Society]

Will they vote differently this time ? [Picture : Asia Society]

As for the upcoming elections  , one could wonder how much difference five years could have made in altering the voting patterns , let along the political system. As Dutta and Gupta [1] notes, experience elsewhere in the world has shown that the voters who have more information does penalize candidates with poor records. The further proliferation of cable TV and telecommunication in India has allowed information to become more widely available  , something that could have an effect on voters decisions. However, the issues is much more complex, India would need to build it’s institutions : strengthen campaign financing laws, improve transparency and solve the multitude of issues in it’s judicial system to speed up the rule of law , if it is to root out the problem.

Reference 

[1] Dutta, Bhaskar, & Gupta, Poonam. (2012). How Do Indian Voters Respond to Candidates with Criminal Charges: Evidence from the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections. MPRA Paper. http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/38417/

[2] Vaishnav, Milan. (2014, 24 January). Crime but No Punishment in Indian Elections.   Retrieved 21 March, from http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/01/24/crime-but-no-punishment-in-indian-elections/gz9k

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