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The pertinent issue of trust and the Indian politician

ALLAHABAD, INDIA - DECEMBER 21: Women from various districts arrive to attend a rally held by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 21, 2021 in Allahabad, India. Modi visited the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s strongholds in Uttar Pradesh, as India's economy emerges from Covid-19 and against the backdrop of sectarian tensions within the country increasing. Modi held the rallies as part of his "Vision of Prime Minister to empower the women" campaign in which the campaign transfers money to the accounts of self-help groups, benefiting around 1.6 million women members of the groups, local media said. (Photo by Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images)

ALLAHABAD, INDIA - DECEMBER 21: Women from various districts arrive to attend a rally held by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 21, 2021 in Allahabad, India. Modi visited the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s strongholds in Uttar Pradesh, as India's economy emerges from Covid-19 and against the backdrop of sectarian tensions within the country increasing. Modi held the rallies as part of his "Vision of Prime Minister to empower the women" campaign in which the campaign transfers money to the accounts of self-help groups, benefiting around 1.6 million women members of the groups, local media said. (Photo by Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images)

“In politics nothing is contemptible,” warned Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist, essayist, a Conservative politician and twice Prime Minister of England. He was of course largely right, as many politicians have criminal backgrounds and resort to lies. But there are also some who identify with the electorates, sensitive to their needs, and display a vision which transcends party politics.

Two questions are pertinent: does trust in politicians matter? Who trusts them or does not? These questions are highly pertinent in the present context as deep questions are being raised about the demise of democracy.

A relevant survey

In order to answer these questions, we rely on the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) released in 2015. Our analysis is based on two rounds of the nationally representative IHDS in 2005 and 2012. Besides being unique as an all-India panel survey, it is the only survey that asks questions on subjective well-being (SWB) and trust in public institutions such as State governments, the judiciary, the police and politicians. SWB or life satisfaction is defined as the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his/her own life-as-a-whole favourably. SWB is measured as perceived change in economic well-being of a household — specifically whether it is economically better-off, just the same and worse-off between 2004-5 and 2011-12. Trust is measured in ordinal levels of confidence: a great deal of confidence, only some confidence and hardly any confidence in both years.

 

Our analysis shows that SWB in 2012 and trust in politicians in 2005 are negatively related, controlling for the effects of trust in other public institutions and socio-economic characteristics of households in 2005. By contrast, trust in most other institutions is positively related to SWB. The reasons include: ideological disconnect, failure to deliver on promises, corrupt practices, collusion with the rich and the powerful, and links with criminals.

Under UPA rule

The second related question addressed in detail is who trusts the politicians or does not and why. One interesting finding is that those who trusted politicians in 2005 lost trust in 2012. While the economic performance of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was good, corruption became endemic. Those who fared well in terms of relative affluence (per capita expenditure of a household relative to the maximum in the primary sampling unit) exhibited high trust in politicians.

In other words, those benefiting more than others presumably believed that they owed it to politicians in power and hence expressed greater trust in them. Relative to the rural households, those in urban areas and slums reported lower trust. One reason is easier access to information in the latter relating to government policy failures, collusion of politicians with the rich and the powerful, and criminals.

Moreover, higher levels of education are negatively related to trust in politicians. Those with matriculation and higher levels of education are deeply sceptical, relative to the illiterates, as they are likely to be better aware of political skulduggery and shenanigans and not so easily swayed by rhetoric. Relative to the Hindus, neither the Muslims nor the Christians expressed lower trust in politicians, presumably because alienation of minorities was not so pronounced during UPA rule. The caste hierarchy throws up a fascinating contrast. Both the Brahmins who are at the top of this hierarchy and Dalits who are at the lower rung express high trust in politicians, relative to the Other Backward Classes, but perhaps for very different reasons. While as long as the superiority of Brahmins is not challenged and Dalits are protected through affirmative action, they are more likely to repose high trust in politicians. Affiliation to social networks — two or more — is positively associated with greater trust in politicians, as manifestation of collective identity, relative to those not affiliated to any.

 

Congruence of the needs of the electorates with politicians who serve their interests better matters. This is validated by how successful social safety net programmes are. For example, while widows’ pension and the Annapurna Scheme (10 kg of food grain to eligible aged persons who have remained uncovered under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme)are negatively related to trust in politicians, disability pension is positively related.

The NDA years

This analysis serves as the backdrop to dramatic shifts in governance following the National Democratic Alliance’s overwhelming victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Overcentralisation deprived State governments of their autonomy while a relentless pursuit of Hindutva through blatantly discriminatory policies (e.g., the Citizenship (Amendment) Act) and often brutal application by communal activists against the minorities — especially Muslims (e.g., ghastly violence against cattle traders) and Dalits alienated them. How these shifts affected criminalisation of politics is difficult to assess, but recent evidence raises serious concerns.

 

Criminality among politicians has risen sharply. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 24% of the winners in the 2004 Lok Sabha election had a criminal background; it rose to 30% in the 2009 general election, 34% in the 2014 elections, and 43% in the 2019 elections. Worse, 29% of those elected in 2019 had reported serious crimes including rape, murder, and culpable homicide. Between the two national parties, out of 303 winners from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 election, 116 (39%) had a criminal record as against 29 (56%) out of 52 winners from the Indian National Congress (INC). What is indeed alarming is that the probabilities of Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies winning elections is about three times higher, relative to those without a criminal background.

Candidate selection

Several studies converge on the finding that parties on the cusp of winning or losing a seat are more likely to nominate a candidate with a criminal background given his/her greater probability of winning. Such candidates are typically more resourceful, protect better local interests relating to land, physical security, and dignity where the rule of law is fragile, share a caste affiliation when political competition is “ethnified”, and constituencies are more fragmented with a lower threshold of winning. It is also argued that dominant parties are less likely to field criminal candidates as the marginal benefit of winning a seat matters less than the marginal cost of reputational loss. While most of these findings are plausible, it is intriguing why the two dominant parties (the BJP and the INC) show such high shares of criminal MPs and MLAs.

 

To conclude, high levels of criminality could wreck India’s democracy and imperil well-being.

Veena S. Kulkarni is Associate Professor of Sociology, Arkansas State University, U.S.; Vani S. Kulkarni is associated with the Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, U.S.; Raghav Gaiha is Research Affiliate, Population Aging Research Centre, University of Pennsylvania, U.S.


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