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ELECTION TIME INDUCES virtually all political parties to concentrate on winning the next poll. Issues of principle, ideology, and political morality tend to take a back seat. Political parties try to give themselves a psychological edge over their rivals by recruiting netas and celebrities of varying description, thereby creating an aura of being the winning side. The Bharatiya Janata Party is by no means the first to do this, although this time it has taken a decisive lead in the recruitment drive. The recourse to entertainment as politics might be a trivialisation of public life, but it is well recognised as part of the game. Where the ruling party miscalculated was in inducting the colourful D.P. Yadav; he has earned a special reputation as muscleman and faced several criminal charges. Mr. Yadav has also traversed a good part of the Uttar Pradesh political spectrum — the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and his own Loktantrik BSP — and every time he has turned out to be a hot potato. So unpalatable was the BJP's decision to induct Mr. Yadav that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh found it necessary to caution the party publicly against too much expediency. As soon as a controversy arose, the Prime Minister distanced himself from the party's decision. The BJP did the prudent thing by revoking Mr. Yadav's admission and deciding to work on luring other kinds of netas.

What is worrisome is the kind of mindset that prompts political parties to think of musclemen as assets in an electoral battle. Sushma Swaraj, a Union Minister, tried out the following argument by analogy: if a small, polluted rivulet were to merge in a vast ocean that was the party, the purity of the ocean would not be diluted. This game defence of the indefensible goes against the core of the promise of `suu-raaj', good governance. The term `criminalisation of politics' has a wide currency in Indian political discourse. It is supposed to denote a tendency rampant in the polity that allows discredited individuals and leaders — typically veterans who have faced a plethora of criminal charges — to associate themselves with political parties, win electoral mandates, and gain political acceptability. While bringing muscle power and a measure of dubious organisational skill to the party, they try and exploit their political status as members of State Legislative Assemblies or Parliament to win effective immunity from the rule of law.

What is the answer? One problem with the `criminalisation of politics' contention is that many characters with an unsavoury public reputation can point out that they have no `criminal background' in the sense they may have faced, or may be facing, criminal charges, but have not been convicted in any court of law. In other words, they must be presumed innocent of any crime. A second problem is that when it comes to criminal cases, the lines are blurred. Mainstream politicians, including some senior Ministers, Chief Ministers and even ex-Prime Ministers, have faced corruption and other criminal charges and a few have even been convicted by courts at some point in the marathon legal process. What is the yardstick that can be applied to them? It is clear that technical or legalistic answers will not suffice. The answer must lie in good, clean democratic political practice, watchdog news media, and a vigilant public opinion that insists on raising the bar for all political parties. Electoral expediency might suggest to this or that party that a dubious character can be brought on board for some local advantage. But the act compromises the image of the party and sends confusing signals to those in the civil and police bureaucracy who are duty-bound to protect citizens from unsavoury muscle power.

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