Why do criminals want to join politics? Why do political parties want criminals to join them? Why do people want criminals as their representatives? These questions underpin political scientist Milan Vaishnav’s new book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics , which has recently been published in India. It is a well-researched and data-rich book on crime and politics in India. For those not interested in the biographical details of Indian lawmakers who live on the wrong side of the law, there are data sets and graphs, and those who are not interested in or are intimidated by the grey data points can devour the exploits of Arun Gawli in Mumbai or Anant Singh in Bihar or M.K. Alagiri in Tamil Nadu.
Supply and demand
As he set about researching the subject, the absence of focussed work on the topic surprised Vaishnav, but there were more surprises in store: “[It] surprised me that people were voting for these politicians not despite their criminal record, but because of it.” Sitting in his office at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in downtown Washington D.C., he explains the crime-politics nexus in India as an “electoral marketplace” — where there is supply and demand. Moreover, it has reached a level of ‘market equilibrium’, where the participants have arrived at an unstated understanding, a rulebook if you will, for rule-breaking transgressions. The book then argues that overall improvement in governance, where the state functions not merely punitively but also performs an empowering role for the citizenry, is the difficult but only way to overcome the situation.
What does the title mean? “That crime pays off electorally; candidates who have serious criminal charges against them do better than those who don’t,” says Vaishnav. The other aspect is the importance of money. “One reason why such individuals are cherished by political parties is that they come with a lot of cash. Candidates who can self-finance their campaigns are embraced in a big way,” he says.
The book is built around the affidavits that the candidates disclose at the time of filing their nomination, as mandated by a 2003 Supreme Court decision. The formidable database includes details on 46,739 candidates who contested 35 State Assembly elections and 21,697 candidates who contested national elections in 2004, 2009 and 2014. The affidavits have brought in more transparency, but have not necessarily been an impediment to the crime-politics nexus. In 2004, 24% of candidates had criminal charges against them; in 2014, 34% did. “Second,” Vaishnav says, “I focus on charges of a serious nature which are normally not associated with a politician’s vocation, such as kidnapping or murder. Not libel, unlawful assembly, etc. which might crop up as part of political activity.”
The book portrays in vivid detail — based also on interviews with accused lawmakers, their supporters and leaders of the parties they belong to — the inadequacies of Indian democracy. Vaishnav writes with a sense of history that takes into account the reasons for the weakening of state institutions and the general degradation of organisational politics. He situates the trend in the context of the rise of ethnic parties in the last three decades, in an empathetic fashion, but does not fail to dig into the situation that existed earlier, all the way back to the first elections in 1952. “Looking at press reports and narrative reports that the Election Commission used to put out from 1952,” he notes, “there is evidence of thugs being used for booth capturing and voter intimidation. The link is not new. What is new, from the 1970s, is that rather than being hired by politicians, they want to be politicians themselves.”
When Crime Pays questions the assumption that better-informed voters will take better electoral decisions. At least in the case of crime-linked politicians, that may not be the case, the study concludes. In fact, many of the politicians linked to crime make it a point to advertise their infamy. Says Vaishnav: “They believe that their criminal records convey to the voters that they are willing to do whatever it takes to represent them by hook or by crook. That is in some case the best proof that these are not merely made-up charges.” He adds: “The constituents support them because they believe that state is not an impartial provider of security, justice or public goods.”
These politicians then intervene on behalf of their constituents on a piecemeal basis, never addressing the structural issues that gave them the space to begin with. Vaishnav believes that Indira Gandhi’s 1969 decision to ban corporate donations to political parties was an inflection point in the evolution of the crime-politics nexus. “That made campaigning dependent on black money, and then you look for people who can raise black money.” Consequently, he argues that the antidote to this existing problem begins with addressing the fundamental question of campaign funding.
Criminalisation of politics
He is disappointed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not curbed the influx of criminals into politics, but takes note of some recent remarks as promising. “Strong talk against criminalisation of politics was a hallmark of his speeches during the 2014 campaign. But very few concrete steps have been taken by the government. The BJP has the highest proportion of MPs with criminal record... serious criminal record,” he says. “What is encouraging more recently is that he has taken up this issue again, calling for a cleaning up of election financing, etc. I don’t think he has missed the moment. To keep the support for demonetisation which seems to be waning, this could be a politically savvy step for him to take.”
While improvement in governance is the long-term and sustainable solution to criminalisation of politics, short-term measures are essential too, notes Vaishnav. “There can be fast-track courts for speedy trial of cases involving lawmakers and those convicted should instantly lose their legislative membership.”