- Posted February 13, 2014 by
It’s Criminals- Whom Indians Vote For
Elections in India are known as a one-of-a-kind festival of democracy , replete with colourful pageantry, flamboyant personalities and very large numbers. The size of the country's electorate when India heads to the polls for Parliamentary elections later this spring is expected to reach nearly 800 million. According to census data, an estimated 150 million people are eligible to vote for the first time. Elections certainly bring out the best in India's raucous democracy, but they also expose some of its blemishes. Consider this extraordinary figure: 30% of members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them. And that is an increase from the previous Parliament elected in 2004, when "only" 24% of MPs were similarly situated. In the fight to curb these figures , there have been some positive developments. The Supreme Court of India recently decided to disqualify sitting politicians who are convicted of criminal acts. And for the first time, an anti-corruption party vaulted to victory in Delhi's state assembly. These are certainly bright spots, but efforts thus far have barely scratched the surface. It will take significantly more sweeping measures that tackle the institutional roots of the trends and get to the heart of the crime-politics nexus. In India's electoral marketplace, as in any market, there are underlying supply and demand factors that facilitate exchange. And in this case, politicians with criminal records are supplying what voters and parties demand: candidates that are effective and well-funded .
TROUBLE IN THE HOUSE
In 2003, in response to landmark public interest litigation, the Supreme Court ruled that any person standing for elected office at the state or national levels must submit, at the time of their nomination, a judicial affidavit detailing their financial assets and liabilities, education qualifications and pending criminal cases. While the disclosures have their shortcomings, the data — taken as a whole — gives a reasonable snapshot of the biographical profiles of India's most influential lawmakers. And the picture isn't pretty. The 15th Lok Sabha is home to 162 MPs with pending criminal cases. These cases involve a diverse array of charges, ranging from mischief to murder . If one were to focus only on serious charges — such as murder, kidnapping and physical assault — approximately 14% or 76 MPs face pending cases. The situation at the state and local level is similar. Roughly one in three members of state assemblies (31%) is involved in at least one criminal case. Again about half, roughly 15%, face serious charges. There has been no systematic analysis of panchayats and urban local bodies, but there is evidence that local tiers of governance are hardly free of criminality. Based on data collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms, 17% and 21% of municipal corporators in Mumbai and Delhi, respectively, declared involvement in criminal cases.
TICKET TO SUCCESS
The answer to why political parties nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds is obvious: because they win (see graph on the right). Choosing a candidate at random contesting either the 2004 or 2009 Parliamentary elections, he or she had — on average — a 7% chance of winning. Compare this with a candidate who faces a criminal charge: he or she had a 22% chance of winning. Granted, this simple comparison does not take into account other factors such as education, party or type of electoral constituency. Nevertheless , the contrast is marked. 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 growing population, marked increase in the competiveness of elections and elevated voter expectations of handouts. Money does not buy elections; what a well-financed campaign buys is viability. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between a Parliamentary candidate's personal assets and the likelihood of election . Drawing on data from 2004 and 2009, the poorest 20% of candidates, in terms of personal financial assets, had a 1% chance of winning Parliamentary elections. The richest quintile, in contrast, had a greater than 25% shot. Parties also value "muscle" because it often brings with it the added benefit of money. As election costs have soared, parties have struggled to find legitimate sources of funding. As a result, they place a premium on candidates who will not drain limited party coffers. The quest for private funds is further propelled by an ineffectual election finance regime, marked by numerous loopholes and a lack of transparency. When it comes to campaign cash, candidates accused of breaking the law have a distinct advantage: they both have access to liquid forms of finance and are willing to deploy it. In the last two Parliamentary elections, roughly 6% of candidates in the lowest quintile of candidate wealth (or poorest 1/5th) faced criminal cases compared to nearly 20% of candidates in the top quintile.
'HONOUR' OF CRIME
Money is an important part of the story but, on its own, is an insufficient explanation — if only because parties have access to wealthy candidates who are not linked to criminal activity, from cricket heroes to film stars and industrialists. It is also not immediately clear why voters would prefer a wealthy, "tainted" candidate to "clean" alternative. As the deputy president of the state unit of one major party once confided, candidates with criminal records thrive because they have "currency." In contexts where the rule of law is weak and social divisions are highly salient, politicians often use their criminal reputation as a badge of honour — a signal of their credibility to protect the interests of their community and its allies, from physical safety to access to government benefits and social insurance . The "protection" on offer is grounded in the "politics of dignity" and can be readily justified in defensive terms. The appeal of candidates who are willing to do what it takes — by hook or crook — to protect the interests of their community provides some intuition for why the odds of a Parliamentary candidate winning an election actually increase with the severity of the charges.
NEED FOR CHANGE
Recent judicial action is a positive step, but interrupting this rhythm requires deeper institutional change. The unexpected victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a positive sign of popular frustration with malfeasance , but is unlikely to be a game-changer . If the high levels of criminality in politics could be attributed to a lack of information about candidates' biographies, a public awareness campaign might make a dent in criminality rates. Alas, the situation is far more nuanced. 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.