As elections get under way in Uttar Pradesh, there is apparently reason to cheer already. The Association for Democratic Reforms has reported a drop in the number of candidates with criminal records or cases filed against them. As against 2012, when 32% of candidates had criminal cases against them, this time around the figure is 20%—168 out of 836 aspirants to political office.
Of these, 143 have serious criminal cases: murder and attempt to murder, rape and kidnapping. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is apparently leading a national crusade against corruption, tops the tally.
Not far behind is the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose leader is supposedly running on her prior record of ensuring law and order but who has no problem inducting a notorious figure like Mukhtar Ansari into the party. The Samajwadi Party and Congress have an equally illustrious record on this count.
The spectacle of such figures strutting about in the world’s largest democracy is a matter for periodic despair and hand-wringing. Yet there have been few attempts at explaining this flagrant nexus between politics and crime in India. Milan Vaishnav’s new book, When Crime Pays: Money And Muscle In Indian Politics, fills this void with admirable rigour, clarity and elegance. Drawing on an extraordinary database of affidavits of almost all candidates that contested elections between 2003 and 2009 as well as field research, Vaishnav argues that there is something akin to a marketplace for criminals in Indian politics.
On the supply side, there is a growing willingness of political parties to field candidates with criminal records. The costs of elections have burgeoned in recent years. Parties are on the lookout not only for self-financing candidates but those who can also fill the parties’ coffers to help other candidates. But why do criminals want to contest elections in the first place?
Vaishnav suggests that this should be seen as a form of vertical integration. Previously, criminals and thugs did the bidding of parties in order to secure political protection. Over the years, especially as elections got more competitive from 1967 onwards, they have worked out that it was better for them to contest directly and ensure the requisite political cover.
Then again, why do people elect criminals to office? In analysing this demand side, Vaishnav demolishes claims about the ignorance of voters. On the contrary, he argues, people vote for candidates with criminal reputations precisely because of this reputation.
A combination of factors is at work. For one thing, the weakness of the Indian state in upholding the rule of law and in delivering public services compels constituents to turn to local tough-men for ameliorating their problems. For another, where divisions of caste, ethnicity or religion are strong, criminal politicians acquire greater salience owing to the dynamics of voter identification.
It is important to ask when criminalization of politics takes off and why. Vaishnav points to the 1967 election as the point of inflection. This seems plausible, though his reasoning is less persuasive. Drawing on the work of Samuel Huntington, he argues that by the late 1960s there was a combination of institutional decay, primarily within the Congress party, and a spurt in popular participation and consequent demands on the state. It was in this context that criminals came to acquire salience in politics.
There are at least three problems with this explanation. First, the framework of institutional decay and socio-economic change is too broad and vague to be usefully operationalized. An earlier generation of political scientists invoked it to explain everything from the declining fortunes of the Congress in the late 1960s to the imposition of the Emergency.
Second, all these arguments turn on an idealized picture of the Congress party in the period between 1950 and 1965. The notion that the Congress was a well-oiled, internally democratic, decentralized and responsive political machine is a mirage—created by the white heat of Indira Gandhi’s abrasive politics. And it is an image that cannot survive closer historical treatment.
Finally, there is a problem in identifying the role of criminals in the early period only by looking at instances of electoral or other form of overt violence. The best exercise of any power, including muscle-power, may actually occur when it is latent and not overtly observable.
Such embedded muscle-power was arguably central to the Congress’ preponderance in Indian politics for the first 15 years—especially through traditional forms of caste dominance in rural India. The political economy of power in such local networks is critical to understanding what went on before the mid-1960s.
Vaishnav’s analysis of the background to the rise of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, shows that he is not unmindful of this dynamic. But it needs more attention.
The book is spot on, however, in identifying Indira Gandhi’s 1969 ban on corporate donations to parties as a critical turning point. This enabled her at once to block funding to opposition parties and to tighten her own grip on the Congress. By the time Rajiv Gandhi amended the Companies Act again in 1985 to legalize corporate funding, the damage had already been done. Giving and receiving in “black” had become far more convenient to all concerned.
Tackling this problem is fundamental to addressing the crime-politics nexus as well as corruption, more broadly speaking. And Vaishnav’s book is the best map we have in navigating this tricky terrain.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.