This week marked the beginning of India’s mammoth general elections. Between April 7 and May 12, 814 million people – the largest electorate in the world – will have the chance to choose the country’s 16th government. And early estimates of the voter turnout show that this is an election in which Indians are energized and engaged. But one regrettable fact mars this feat of democracy: the selection of political candidates facing criminal charges.
Criminality is a well-established problem in India’s politics, and all of the major political parties are implicated. 41 percent of MPs belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s Hindu nationalist opposition party, face criminal charges, compared with 24 percent for the incumbent Congress party. In total, one-third of all of the MPs in India’s current parliament, elected in 2009, are accused of crimes ranging from electoral misconduct and rape to murder. Despite the seriousness of these charges few, if any, will ever face a judge or jury.
Data compiled on the candidates for this year’s election show that little has changed. In India, electoral candidates are required by law to disclose all pending criminal charges. A recently published study of these declarations by the Association of Democratic Reforms, a watchdog agency, found that a fifth of the candidates contesting seats had criminal charges filed against them. The study only covers half of India’s states, and when the study is completed the proportion of alleged lawbreakers found to be standing for parliament will almost certainly increase.
India’s political class has done little to purge itself of these alleged wrongdoers. Why? Because criminal candidates win votes. Corrupt officials are often thought of as Robin Hood figures and are voted for by people hoping to benefit from their political misconduct. Parties also often secure strategic advantages by nominating criminal candidates. As Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, highlighted in a penetrating study of the issue, rogue candidates bring with them illicit funds and loyal supporters. Indeed, an analysis of the two previous general elections reveals that alleged wrongdoers perform better at the polls. Candidates with a “clean image” had a 7 percent chance of success, whereas those accused of minor crimes and those accused of major crimes had success rates of 19 percent and 25 percent respectively.
Campaign groups have successfully increased public awareness of the issue of criminality in politics, but a lack of information is not the sole problem. Accusations of criminal wrongdoing are highly politicized. The legal system is often abused to make spurious allegations, resulting in many valid accusations against offending MPs being dismissed by voters as false.
Ultimately the presence of wrongdoers in India’s politics reflects the preferences of India’s voters. As Simon Chauchard, a professor at Dartmouth, explains, voters often prioritize things other than transparency and legality: in many cases the antiquated bonds of class, caste, and clan outweigh questions about the criminal records of candidates. In light of the fact that probity in public office is often a disadvantage, parties are clearly making alternative calculations: candidates are no longer being selected for their promise of change but for their ability to win seats.
Last October a former cabinet minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, was charged and sentenced to five years imprisonment for fraudulently claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies for non-existent livestock. Yadav’s arrest and conviction was unprecedented, but the trial failed to trigger subsequent proceedings against India’s many long-accused officials. Instead, politicians continue to use their office to avoid prosecution, having perfected the art of being re-elected. As Shahabuddin Quraishi, India’s former Chief Election Commissioner, recently revealed, candidates are known to transport bribe money in everything from milk tankers to funeral caskets to buy votes during election season.
Three years ago Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party President, said, “”We need to build a consensus on how to prevent individuals with a criminal record from contesting elections.” But, as the newly released data on criminal candidates shows, this consensus is no closer to being reached.