An unholy nexus

A comprehensive look at the electoral marketplace and why voters readily forgive politicians and forget crimes they perpetrate

February 25, 2017 06:54 pm | Updated 06:54 pm IST

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics
Milan Vaishnav
Harper Collins
₹ 799

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics Milan Vaishnav Harper Collins ₹ 799

Despite various allegations of sexual assault and boastful proclamation about not losing voters even if he killed someone in broad daylight, Donald Trump became the U.S. President. Notwithstanding charges of amassing disproportionate assets, J. Jayalalithaa enjoyed a massive fan following and was re-elected Chief Minister of a progressive state like Tamil Nadu. One-third of the Members of Parliament (MPs) elected in 2014 have criminal cases pending against them, and for one-fifth of elected MPs these cases are serious. This translates to more than 100 (of the 543) of India’s lawmakers being charged with some form of serious crime. What is more, this number quickly goes up if one includes elected state legislators and local administrators with criminal records. What does this tell us of our leaders who make laws for their people? More importantly, what does this say about the choices that voters make? What about the implications this has for a democracy?

To understand why voters readily forgive politicians and look away from the crimes they perpetrate, Milan Vaishnav’s new book When Crime Pays is an enlightening read. Vaishnav studies the nexus of politics, money and muscle using India as his case study. He sets himself up for a mammoth task of finding out how widespread crime and impropriety can co-exist alongside free and fair democratic elections. Using a database of candidates’ self-disclosures, which the Election Commission maintains since 2003, Vaishnav crunches data from nearly 60,000 candidates spread across 35 state elections and two national elections. He supplements his desk research with fieldwork in India spanning over seven years where he conducts hundreds of interviews with various stakeholders in the system.

Law and order collapse

To understand the motivation of criminal candidates in standing for elections and of voters in electing them, Vaishnav uses the framework of an electoral marketplace. Writing about the supply side of the criminal politicians’ market, the author contends that it was the weakening of the Congress party and a growing assertiveness in the previously marginalised groups that initially led to strong linkages between criminals and politicians.

However, the primary drivers that maintain the supply are the collapse of the election finance regime and a continuing breakdown of the law and order situation in India.

Money matters

It is not as if this discourse about criminals being associated with politicians is new. Indeed, there are accounts of money being intertwined with politics and occasional electoral violence even in ancient Rome.

However, the author adds to the existing narratives by unravelling the black box of why criminals themselves turn into politicians. To do this, he uses the concept of ‘vertical integration’, whereby criminals substitute market exchange with politicians by internal organisation (becoming politicians themselves). Vaishnav explains, “By directly contesting elections, criminals could reduce the uncertainty associated with negotiating (and renegotiating) contracts.” Criminals thus join politics for self-preservation, protection, and the potential financial benefits they stand to gain by holding office.

The supply of criminal politicians cannot, however, be explained without understanding the demand side of the equation. The demand for criminal politicians by political parties can be understood on the basis of the soaring costs of election campaigns, which parties are unable to afford. Therefore, parties increasingly look for candidates who not only self-finance their campaigns, but also add to the party coffers and line the pockets of party elites. On the other hand, voters consciously elect such candidates for their ability to “get things done”. In the face of a weak rule of law and salient social divisions, the criminality of candidates gains credibility among voters, who rely on criminal politicians to protect their interests and to act like the crutch that helps them “navigate a system that gives them so little access in the first place”.

Clearly, amalgamation of criminality and politics has serious implications for society. So what should be done to break this equilibrium that the market for criminal politicians has reached? For sustainable solutions, it is imperative that both the demand and supply of criminal politicians be thwarted. As Vaishnav points out, of utmost importance is clearing the morass around election campaign finances and improving transparency and inclusion in political parties. Further, the state capacity in delivering public services should be improved and institutions dealing with rule of law must be strengthened. Of course, none of these solutions, as the author points out, is a silver bullet by itself.

Crime-politics marriage

The insights from Vaishnav’s work, in terms of what sustains the crime-politics marriage and what should be done to facilitate a divorce, are fairly intuitive. What is fascinating is the extraordinary deftness with which Vaishnav interweaves different disciplines of political science, sociology, economics and history to create a nuanced narrative. He takes the readers behind the scenes and regales them with a plethora of anecdotes about the foul and fiendish men (while conspicuously leaving out the women) who win in Indian politics.

Vaishnav writes in a prose accessible to lay readers without losing academic depth. It is his thorough analysis and great storytelling that make When Crime Pays an engaging read.

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics ; Milan Vaishnav, HarperCollins, ₹ 799.

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