Why does a ‘clean politician’ sound like an oxymoron in modern day Indian polity? Why is crime and politics so interwoven that Indian law makers are too often law breakers as well? Probably this is one of the most difficult questions that India, known to be the largest democracy in the world, faces today.

Corruption and crime have been clinging on to the very spirit of Indian democracy since a bit too long now, with nationwide surveys highlighting the extent of decay. According to a report released last year by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-profit organization that works on electoral and political reform, a total of 1580 MP’s (Members of Parliament) and MLA’s (Members of Legislative Assemblies), or approximately 33% of legislators in India have criminal cases pending against them. Out of this, 21% of the legislators face serious charges such as attempted murder, assaulting public officials, rapes, large scale money laundering and theft. In 2004, the corresponding figures stood at 24% and 12% respectively. The reason why these figures are rising is pretty simple: candidates implicated in wrongdoing do quite well at the polls. Their success leaves a negative impact on the individuals with clean records and makes them think twice before stepping into the political arena. This disparity perpetuates itself and politicians with questionable records are attracted to office while the so called clean candidates exit.

Let’s have a glimpse into some Indian politicians whose alleged criminal records may force you to question your vote and support. Some of you might not know but most of you have definitely heard about the 2G spectrum in India. In 2019, when Andimuthu Raja was in charge of the Telecom and IT industry, he was accused and later convicted of the sale of telecom bandwidth to select organisations at prices that understated the estimated market value. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in 2010 estimated the loss to the state exchequer as a result of the 2G allocation to be up to Rs 1.76 lakh crore. Yes read that figure again. In 2012, another report tabled by CAG charged that favouritism in the allocation of coal blocks had led to a loss to the exchequer of Rs 1.86 lakh crore. And not to forget during that period the Coal Ministry was directly under the Prime Minister who had long held an image of being personally incorruptible. Though he didn’t personally benefit from this, that it had occurred under his watch was a big blow to his reputation. Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, the incumbent chief minister of Andhra Pradesh was arrested by CBI in 2012 on embezzlement and corruption charges. He had allegedly accepted Rs 1172 crore from various investors in return for state favours. The incumbent BJP MP from Bhopal, who trounced Congress stalwart Digvijay Singh by a huge margin of over 3.5 lakh votes in 2019, is a prime accused in the 2006 Malegaon bombings. The most recent is BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who has been accused of rape, murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy and criminal intimidation in the Unnao rape case and has been booked under the POCSO Act. We see that criminal backgrounds of politicians vary from corruption to murder to terrorism to rape and what not.

Why do parties give tickets to those with criminal records? A critical determining factor is money. From where do you think the inspiration of the character ‘Jaykant Shikrey’ in the movie Singham came? From reality. Parties need candidates with deep pockets who can finance their own campaigns as well as help the party in other ways. Securing elected offices gives the candidates a degree of protection while opening up new money making opportunities. So they have both the means as well as incentives to contest elections.

Now the question that arises is why do voters choose them even when aware of these associations? Yes voters are usually well aware of their reputations. In places where the rule of law is weak or the government is not able to carry out basic functions, candidates use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to ‘get things done’ for their supporters. And since they actually possess the money and muscle power to get those things done, they are favoured. Moreover sometimes, they associate themselves with those people, organisations and political parties that enjoy a fairly good reputation in the eyes of the public. This helps people to disregard their records and believe in the facade they create around themselves.

What policy changes can minimise criminality in politics? If it was only about unaware and uninformed voters, mass media campaigns would have filled the gap. But unfortunately it’s not about that. The primary constraint is lack of governance. Till the time the state is not able to provide security, dispense justice and deliver core public services, these strong men will continue to dominate because they will pose themselves as a replacement of the state by providing all these. Reducing the demand for criminal politicians would take time, so Indians should work on reducing their supply. This can be done by establishing machinery to clean up election funding, reforming the functioning of political parties and the most important of all: ensuring that elected officials charged with serious crimes get speedy trials.

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