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Last Updated : May 16, 2019 06:58 PM IST | Source:

Decoding 2019: Criminals can contest elections, but cannot vote — dissecting crime in politics

Kakistocracy is a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. Research indicates that we may be living in one.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

Rakesh Sharma | Rima M

Moneycontrol Contributors

The BJP came to power on the plank of vikas. In 2014, the Indian electorate, in a stunning repudiation of the incumbent Congress party during whose reign the country saw an unprecedented rise in corruption scandals, elected a man whose "Gujarat model" had come to be the gold standard for "good governance" in the eyes of millions of Indians.

As writer Milan Vaishnav noted, what was also significant about the 2014 elections was that "one in five newly elected MPs disclosed at least one pending case involving criminal charges - charges that, if a conviction were obtained, would merit real jail time." 2014 also produced a parliament in which a third of its members were facing ongoing criminal prosecution.

Research indicates that many voters vote for politicians because, rather than in spite, of criminal reputations. Simply put, a significant number of voters believe that criminal politicians "get things done."

How did we get here? How did the term "clean politician" become such an oxymoron in our times? How is that every third member in India's Parliament and state assemblies (1,580 to be specific) has a criminal case pending against them? What fuels the rise and sustained reign of the "criminal politician"? These are among the questions we address on this edition of Decoding 2019, with me Rakesh Sharma, right here on Moneycontrol.

Indian citizens who have lived through the Emergency from 1975 to 1977, communal flashpoints in 1984, 1992, 2002 and counting, not to mention numerous instances of mass vandalism of public property during violent bandhs will also speak of political forces under whose watch these events unfolded. The recent instance of a family being attacked within the four walls of their home in Gurugram and the spate of lynchings targeting specific castes and communities undeniably have a political undertone. And as is the case with such crimes in India, it is hard to pin the blame on one individual or to ask for accountability.

But the nexus between crime and politics is not just about communal messaging, it has many colours, many layers and contexts. Tainted candidates fighting for political power is nothing new in India and this rot expands across party lines but if we were to just cite one example, a March 29 piece on Firstpost recalled how, to escape a major embarrassment, the Congress decided not to field former Uttar Pradesh minister Amarmani Tripathi's daughter Tanushree in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections after announcing her candidature.

We quote, "Amarmani Tripathi is serving a life sentence in a murder case, along with his wife who was a co-accused. On 28 March, Congress released the names of 31 candidates for Lok Sabha elections. Among the six candidates named from Uttar Pradesh, Tanushree's name figured in the list. Congress decided to field her from the Maharajganj Lok Sabha, a seat from where her father earlier contested. However, according to sources, following a protest Tanushree's name was dropped at the direct intervention of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. While the decision to replace her with another candidate saved Congress from some embarrassment, the fact that her candidature was finalised and announced hints at the fact that political parties, most often than not, sidestep and overlook a lot of things to pick a candidate with 'winnability'."

A writer's viewpoint

Before we explore this so called "winnability" factor,  let us also look at another aspect of the symbiotic relationship between crime and politics. How do our political parties impact the way we think and process information? Is there a trace of criminality  in the way thought processes and democratic structures are undermined in the quest for political power? Writer Nayantara Sahgal seems to think so. On April 2, 2019, she spoke at the Bhai Vaidya Memorial Lecture and said that we are now living in an India that has no connection with its modern political past. She connected recent crimes against minorities to fragmenting ideas of equal rights and equal citizenship, the divide between 'us' and 'them' and what she calls "a political agenda of vengeance and violence in a secular democracy" in which the state was supposed to have no role in religion.

We quote her partly, "The Constituent Assembly chose democracy, starting with universal suffrage at the outset, to ensure equal citizenship with equal rights for all Indians in our plural society. This civilised legacy is now being taken apart."

She cited cases of sedition based on invented conspiracy theories, lynchings, and attacks on rationalists, but here is the most important statement she made which we quote again partially, "Above all, in a democracy, criminals are arrested and convicted for their crimes. The reverse is happening here. Criminals roam free, protected, and the message from those in power is clear: either agree with us or suffer the consequences."

The lecture in more detail can be read on The Wire but her point has been clearly made that an ideological shift to favour some and undermine others in a democracy usually has a political intent. And criminality can be used as a political tool by parties. The prime accused of the Dadri lynching was for instance seen sitting in the first row of a recent political rally helmed by the Chief Minister of UP, but criminality, unfortunately, isn't a party-specific disease. It is an illness that pervades the entire political system in the country.

Widespread malaise

Samuel Johnson once said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." George Bernard Shaw, altered that to make room politics. But a growing body of journalism seems to indicate that politics may well be the last resort of the criminal.

A piece on Firstpost went on to note, "In May 2003, the murder of 24-year-old Madhumita Shukla, a budding poetess from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, caused a political storm. The prime accused in the case was Amarmani Tripathi, who was the then minister in Uttar Pradesh government led by Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. While BSP defended him, the Samajwadi Party, the main Opposition party in Uttar Pradesh called for his resignation. Several attempts were made to suppress the case initially, however, following a huge media uproar the case was transferred to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) who arrested Tripathi after his DNA sample matched that of the foetus of Madhumita's Shukla unborn child. Shukla was [seven months] pregnant at the time of her murder. As the case progressed, Mayawati resigned after differences with coalition partner Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and in August 2003 Samajwadi Party formed the government with Mulayam Singh Yadav as chief minister. And this is where Tripathi, who joined Samajwadi Party after Mayawati’s resignation, played an important role. Mulayam, who was looking for allies to form an alternative government, found Tripathi, who readily helped as he needed political patronage to insulate him from the probable arrest in the murder case."

We are told by Firstpost, how in October 2007, when a special court in Dehradun sentenced Tripathi, his wife Madhumani and two others, to life imprisonment in the murder case, it seemed that this was the end of the man who thrived on muscle power and money. SP, however, later fielded Tripathi from the Maharajganj seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. His son Aman Mani Tripathi got a Samajwadi Party ticket in 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections but lost. In 2016, before Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, former SP leader Shivpal announced his candidature from Nautanwa seat, a family stronghold. But with CBI charging Aman Mani for allegedly murdering his wife, he could not get the confidence of Akhilesh Yadav, who by then had taken over the reins of SP from his father. However, Aman Mani contested as an Independent and won. Aman Mani also made efforts to join the BJP in April 2017 after sharing the stage with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Congress UP spokesperson Ashok Singh criticised Adityanath for the same. Now, two years later, the Congress decided to field Amarmani's daughter. Earlier, she was offered ticket by Shivpal from his newly-formed party. So, Amarmani, the father, and Aman Mani, the son, have been both accused of two separate murders, in case you could not quite keep track of this allegedly prolific murderous family.

We quote, "The political trajectory of Amarmani Tripathi is not an isolated story. It is also not a simple telltale of criminalisation of politics, which is an open secret. Rather, it is a disturbing trend wherein political parties, cutting across ideologies, region, and leadership prize ‘winnability’ in elections as the most important criteria for selecting candidates. While ‘winnability’ is an obvious criteria, it becomes problematic for democracy when it overshadows all other criteria. In Amarmani Tripathi’s case, all major political parties in the state chose to field, shelter, protect and promote a man and then his progeny, in spite of several allegations of crime and corruption. The fact that he was a minister in three different regimes speaks of his ‘importance’ and the reason for this is simple and straightforward. They might draw a blank on the yardsticks of ethics, but successfully draw huge crowds and voters in elections."

Because crime pays

Shishir Tripathi, whose incisive post on Firstpost we have quoted, cites acclaimed political analyst Milan Vaishnav’s book ‘When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics’, and calls it a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon in Indian politics that the likes of Amarmani Tripathi tend to represent. The book breaks down this debate about criminality in politics to three questions. The first question: Why do criminals enter politics? The second question: Why do political parties field such candidates? The third question:  Why do people vote for them? I can personally vouch for this book, and all of Milan Vaishnav's work, for being among the most engaging and illuminating work on the political economy I have ever read.

Vaishnav's thesis of why people vote for criminals goes well beyond the ‘ignorant lot’ hypothesis, and as Shishir points out, "sees it as an attempt by the voters to secure an extra-legal avenue to protect their interests in the wake of weakening public institutions." As Vaishnav notes in his book, "What the Indian state has been unable to provide, strongmen have promised to deliver in spades." It is the notion that they get things done. Of course, the reason for criminals wanting to enter politics in the first place is but obvious. The infamy you might have as a career criminal could suddenly be turned into (literally) white collar respectability by entering politics. It is but the next step in the symbiotic relationship between career politicians and career criminals. As if ritual, the criminal is inducted into the politician club, and just like that, an armour to protect himself/herself from the heat of the law. It sounds like the birth of a superhero, except depressing in every single way.

The piece cites Vaishnav to explain that across the past three general elections, “clean” candidates had a win rate of six percent. The win rate for candidates facing a charge of any type, by contrast, was just above 17 percent, and those facing serious charges had an 18 percent chance of winning. While there is some variation in the prevalence of candidates with criminal cases across parties, this is not an issue facing any one political party or type of party: It is clear that criminality in politics is widespread. Given this fact it becomes clear that ‘winnability’ will always be the first concern of political parties, and they can hardly ignore those who fetch “valuable votes”. However, least they can do is to shed the pretense of being different."

When it comes to winning Indian Criminal Politician's Got Talent, the Tripathis have great competition.

In Uttar Pradesh, there is dreaded mafia don-turned politician Mukhtar Ansari - who fancies himself as a bit of a Robin Hood for Muslims in eastern UP - who has several criminal cases registered against him and has been Member of the UP Legislative Assembly five times. He was the prime accused in the murder of another MLA from Uttar Pradesh named Krishnanand Rai. Ansari won his first election on BSP ticket.

Atique Ahmed, who was first accused in a murder case at the age of 17, has  more than 40 criminal cases registered against him including the murder of BSP MLA Raju Pal and he has contested elections from Samajwadi Party (SP) and Apna Dal. Hari Shankar Tiwari, says Shishir, was perhaps the first public figure in Indian political history to be elected to the legislature from prison. He has been a cabinet minister at the state Assembly in several governments, including the Kalyan Singh (Bharatiya Janata Party) government and Mulayam Singh Yadav (Samajwadi Party) government.

In Bihar, Pappu Yadav was convicted for the murder of Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Ajit Sarkar that took place in 1998 by the sessions court and spent over five years in jail as a life term convict before being acquitted by the Patna High court. He won Lok Sabha elections in 1991, 1996, 1999, and in 2004 from several constituencies in Bihar as an Independent, Lok Janata Party and RJD candidate.

Mohammad Shahabuddin, informs the piece,  was elected four times as a Member of Parliament from Siwan, Bihar, on Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ticket despite being accused in several serious criminal cases and has been convicted in many. In March 2007, a Siwan court sentenced him to two years' imprisonment in an assault case, informs Shishir. In May 2007, he was convicted in an abduction case. He was also accused in the murder of JNU student union leader Chandrashekar Prasad, which occurred in 1997.

The list, shamefully, is far from exhaustive.

Same old story

The use of political clout to legitimise criminality is not new. During the dark days of the Emergency, unconstitutional decisions were taken by the ruling party and there are many instances in India's political history when leaders accused of serious crimes have gotten away scot-free.

According to a report released by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a nonprofit that works on electoral and political reform, a total of 1,580 Members of Parliament (MPs) and Member of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs), or approximately 33 percent of the legislators in India’s Parliament and state assemblies, have criminal cases pending against them.

In Uttar Pradesh, home to the Tripathis, 248 of the 539 assembly members had a pending criminal case against them - almost 50% of the legislators of the largest state in India have criminal cases against them. I asked this before, and I ask again - just how did we get here?! Tamil Nadu's assembly has a majority  - 55%; Bihar - 47%; West Bengal - 46%. Andhra Pradesh - first on the alphabetical list, first also in the criminal politician list. 132 of its 140 members had a pending criminal case against them. 94.2%! Distinction. Depressing.

Over 20 percent - that is 1 in 5 - of the new MPs face serious charges such as attempted murder, assaulting public officials, and theft. Almost all parties in India, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Congress, field tainted candidates.

This is the party-wise breakdown of our "leaders": Of 282 BJP MPs in 2014, 98 had criminal charges against them. Eight out of total 44 candidates of Congress faced criminal charges while six of 37 AIADMK MPs had criminal cases against them and 15 of 18 Shiv Sena MPs had criminal charges against them.

Neetal Lal, writing for The Diplomat, said, "The crime-politician nexus has invited opprobrium from no less than the country’s highest court. In September 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the Parliament to “cure the malignancy” of criminalization of politics by making a law to ensure that persons facing serious criminal cases do not enter the political arena. It also advised that the “polluted stream of politics” be cleansed. Holding that the criminalization of politics is an “extremely disastrous and lamentable situation,” the five-judge constitution bench headed by erstwhile Chief Justice Dipak Misra said this “unsettlingly increasing trend” has the propensity to “send shivers down the spine of a constitutional democracy.” The court added that the criminalization of politics was “not incurable” but the issue was required to be dealt with soon before it becomes “fatal” to democracy. Our Indian democracy has seen a steady increase in the level of criminalization creeping into Indian polity. This tends to disrupt constitutional ethos, strikes at the root of democratic form of government, and makes citizens suffer, the judges added."

She cites High Court lawyer and activist Sapna Narang who opines that a major reason why corruption is so entrenched in the system is because there is no stringent law that requires political parties to revoke the membership of tainted candidates.

Says Sapna Narang, "Unless the Parliament amends Article 102 of the Constitution and provisions of the People’s Act to disqualify unworthy candidates, nothing will change. However, chances of the government doing so are slim because tainted candidates have clout and come with a ‘winnability’ factor. In fact so relaxed are the rules that currently, even candidates jailed for less than two years can contest elections!”

Soutik Biswas, writing for the BBC says that criminals get elected not only because many voters are ill-informed, but also for sociopolitical reasons. Biswas thinks voters support criminal candidates in constituencies where social divisions driven by caste and/or religion are sharp and the government is failing to carry out its functions — delivering services, dispensing justice, or providing security — in an impartial manner.

Neeta also mentions how in 2014, ADR , (Association for Democratic Reforms) along with National Election Watch, a campaign comprising 1,200 nongovernmental organizations working on electoral reforms, analyzed the self-sworn affidavits of 542 of 543 winners in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and found that a candidate with a criminal background was almost twice as likely to win than a candidate with no criminal background. The winning chances of a tainted candidate were 13 percent, while those of a clean candidate were 5 percent.

A Congress party worker told her and we quote, “People feel legislators with criminal backgrounds are powerful, and will therefore get work done from bureaucracy-infested government offices. In rural areas especially, people don’t care about criminal cases. If they feel the candidate will make their lives simpler, they just vote for him.”

She says, "so rampant is corruption among politicians in the hinterland, bedevilled by entrenched social and gender inequities, that sullied candidates often wear their disrepute as a badge of honour. Boastful claims among candidates about who is the “biggest criminal” are common."

Her interaction with analysts has yielded the conclusion that  another reason why criminality thrives in the political arena, is because of prolonged trials in court and lower conviction rates. She cites IndiaSpend, a data-driven journalism website, which says that only six percent of criminal cases against India’s MPs and MLAs ended in conviction, according to data submitted by the central government to the Supreme Court.

We quote, "Of 3,884 such cases – conviction for which results in a six-year ban from contesting elections – guilty judgements were pronounced in 38 incidences and 560 were acquitted. In 18 of 29 states and two of seven union territories, there were no convictions for criminal cases against MPs and MLAs; the cases include murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, hate speech, and criminal intimidation."

If you remember, in 2017, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh ordered the withdrawal of a 1995 case related to defying prohibitory orders against Yogi Adityanath himself and 14 others, including a Union minister and a BJP MLA.

In February 2019, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh  recommended withdrawal of 38 cases against more than 100 accused in the deadly riots in Muzaffarnagar district that claimed at least 60 lives and displaced over 50,000 people. According to reports, UP's special secretary of law JJ Singh had directed Muzaffarnagar district magistrate Rajeev Sharma in January to withdraw the cases.

It boils down to cold cash

As Milan Vaishnav mentions in his book 'When Crime Pays,'  “a key factor motivating parties to select candidates with serious criminal records comes down to cold, hard cash."

Vaishnav explains that the spiraling cost of elections and an opaque election financing system characterized by parties and candidates under-reporting collections and expenses inevitably leads to parties preferring cash-lush candidates  who do not represent a drain on the finite party coffers but instead contribute ‘rents’ to the party. Many of these candidates are on the wrong side of law.

Vaishnav says, "The recent Financial Bill now makes it almost impossible to decode the anonymity of the donor and the receiver in case of funds given to a political party. That just tells you where the priorities are of the current government, even though the election rhetoric was significantly different.”

There clearly has been no serious attempt, or the desire, to cleanse the system as a flawed one suits all. In March 2014, the Delhi High Court indicted the ruling BJP and the Indian National Congress for receiving foreign funds in violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). It directed the government and the Election Commission to re-examine these violations.

We quote from the piece again, "However, the government amended the FCRA with retrospective effect and passed a money bill without any discussion in Parliament. This has set a dangerous precedent. The move has institutionalized unlimited anonymous funding to political parties that can’t be questioned or accessed under the Right to Information Act of 2005. As experts point out, to tackle the root of the problem, India needs a cohesive approach to make its election financing system transparent, urge parties to become more democratic, and ensure that people have access to better services and an equitable justice delivery system."

Money and muscle

 Milan Vaishnav, whose work has informed much of what this piece presents, is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In an interview with Seema Sirohi of The Wire, the most startling thing he said in the interview was that tainted politicians are a byproduct of democratic practice.

He said, "In many respects, this does not conform to our standard notions of what democracy ought to look like. But we have to acknowledge the reality that there is a “demand” for politicians with criminal reputations emanating from the electorate. Voters are often voting for such figures because, rather than in spite of, their criminal bona fides. They are not all being duped by savvy politicians; there is a strategic logic behind their actions. India was unique among developing countries coming out of the yolk of colonialism in adopting a democratic system. Institutions were not in place and the compulsions of democracy made shortcuts inevitable. The erosion of institutions was almost simultaneous with their building."

Saying that the rise of criminality in India was not unavoidable but understandable, he added that the way in which democratic, economic and social change has outpaced governance has created a vacuum of authority that is being filled in by strongmen who promise to “get things done” for their constituents. Until this institutional gap shrinks, such strongmen will have some measure of popular appeal. But, the Indian experience should not be thought of in monolithic terms.

We quote him, "The two principal ingredients, in my view, that give rise to such criminal politics – weak rule of law and charged social divisions – are not uniformly distributed across the country. As I write in the book, one should not think of the marketplace for criminal politicians as a wholesale market but as a series of hundreds or thousands of local markets across the country. The functioning of any given market is going to vary according to local contextual factors."

And as he points, the taint of criminality is expansive and corrosive across party lines.

We quote, "The nexus of crime and politics touches parties of all stripes in virtually all corners of the country. The Left parties have not been immune. Just take one look at the level of political violence in Kerala or in West Bengal. The goondagiri one sees now in West Bengal that many now associate with the Trinamool Congress was before linked to the Left Front. National parties have not distinguished themselves on this front, nor have regional parties. The Aam Aadmi Party began as an experiment created in opposition to this kind of politics, but it too has often made compromises in favour of “winnability.”

Deepening of identity politics, is also a reason he says, behind the merging of the criminal and the politician and he says that in the next elections, he expects the next phase of evolution that will be away from gangsterism as we understand it and toward deeper crony capitalism. He said, "So many goondas in politics who got their start running criminal rackets are becoming businesspeople today. I expect that is the next avatar. As I have jokingly remarked before, we are seeing the transition from Godfather I to Godfather III play out in front of our eyes."

So how can a broken system be fixed?

Vaishnav says, when it comes to money in politics, he is pessimistic about bringing down the cost of elections in the short-term but he believes that the  focus has to be on transparency in political funding. We have to insist on better disclosure, he says, both on the giving and the receiving ends. Let voters decide how to use that information when they enter the polling booth. They may not at first, but that is ok – it is out there and someone will eventually pick it up.

His second point is and we quote, "Investing in better enforcement. Right now, the Election Commission has difficulty taking action against candidates who provide false or misleading information on their candidate affidavits or election expenditure statements, even when compelling evidence exists. The government’s view, and this applies to the current government as well as the previous one, is that the commission should not concern itself with this. It should only take action if there is missing or incomplete information. In his Budget speech, finance minister Arun Jaitley announced that parties would have to comply with income tax (IT) rules when it comes to submitting their accounts. But there has to be someone on the other end carefully scrutinising these submissions. Election watchdogs complain that this is not given a high priority right now. This has to change."

His third recommendation is about governance. Red tape has to come down. He explains how excessive proceduralism provides incentives for businesses to seek favours and politicians to hold on to the discretionary powers they have to grant them. We quote, "The end result of this is a system that is rife with corruption. At the same time, he concludes, India requires new investments in the human resources of the state – in civil servants, judges, police officers, tax collectors and so on. In many domains, the state is unable to carry out its most basic duties in an effective manner."

So a better administered country will be a less corrupt country and will also have less spaces for criminality to thrive. It is a scenario that at the moment seems far-fetched and maybe the real change begins with us. And the votes that we will cast this year for or against the normalisation of criminality in politics. Know who is contesting from your constituency, and check if there is a criminal record against them. The least we can do is make an informed choice.

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First Published on Apr 10, 2019 08:05 am
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