Home / Politics / Policy /  Sasikala saga shows crime-politics nexus has no regional bias: Milan Vaishnav

Bengaluru: Historian Ramachandra Guha touched upon the central theme of Milan Vaishnav’s new book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics during its launch in Bengaluru on Tuesday. “A major defect in our democracy which has free and fair elections is that dirty and dangerous men win," Guha said.

The book by Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a rigorous study of this nexus.

It searches for answers regarding why parties embrace candidates with criminal charges. His conclusion is that the criminalities are giving such candidates a financial and a managerial edge to assert power.

In other words, parties like self-financed candidates. In places where the government fails to perform its basic responsibilities, ‘criminal’ canididates have emerged popular because they get things done, whatever it takes.

In an interview with Mint, Vaishnav spoke on how this trend could be effectively seen in the battle of succession in Tamil Nadu or in the ongoing elections in five states. Edited excerpts from the interview:

V.K. Sasikala Natarajan has been convicted for amassing illegal wealth. But she has got 100 plus MLAs checked into a resort on the outskirts of Chennai, who are pledging support to the candidate of her choice to become the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu. You argue in your book that crime pays in Indian politics. Do you feel a bit vindicated to see your argument come true in the ongoing AIADMK drama?

It’s not just about Sasikala. If you look at the ongoing assembly elections, whether it’s Goa or Uttar Pradesh or Punjab, there is a continuing rise in the numbers of crorepatis or politicians who have serious cases against them—from all parties, irrespective of their rhetoric.

The case of Tamil Nadu points to one of the central elements of the basic problem behind this, which is lack of internal party democracy. More often that not, you have a one-person rule, if that goes away the party goes too. And so people act in a way to preserve their own political survival. One other interesting thing about what’s happening (in Tamil Nadu) is that it shows this issue it’s not just a Hindi-belt phenomenon. One of the main messages in the book is this idea of crime and money in politics. This is not only a reflection of what’s happening in poor backward states. It’s also occurring in many other states which are considered economically vibrant.

But in the ongoing assembly elections, every party is trying to project the development agenda or good governance as their main promise. Your book to an extent debunks that narrative. It is the crime-money nexus which appears to be strengthening with each election. How do you reconcile with these two narratives?

We have evolved from a situation where elections were fought on caste lines and parochial sentiments to a sustained focus on governance issues. But, we haven’t left the caste behind entirely. Think about the transformation from Lalu Prasad to Nitish Kumar. Nitish’s contribution, which I think is copied by Akhilesh Yadav and many others, is to say we want social justice for the purpose of development. So they are trying to merge these two things together. They are saying that we not only want to be recognized, but also want to enjoy some material benefits. It neither hinges on development, nor on caste. We are now living in this world where both of them are happening at the same time.

Who would you blame for the current situation? Voters, politicians or parties? Or institutions like the Election Commission?

I certainly don’t blame the voters. Given the context in which they are forced to live, they are making very rational choices to look after their interests and that’s all you can ask from the voters. Every voter would tell you they would like to vote for a good person, but given the state of affairs in their constituency, they need a person to fill in the gap and these people showed they can do it.

I don’t blame the Election Commission because by and large they are doing whatever they can do to place a check on clean and fair polls. I think it’s high time to give some new authorities the power. So when people openly flout the law they can take some actions. Political parties bear some responsibility. They have not dedicated themselves to the hard work of party building, therefore it is no surprise that they have to announce candidates in accordance to the high command’s wish. But political parties are run by politicians.

I think it comes down to primarily the politicians because they are the ones who over time have been responsible for allowing institutions and governance to erode. The bureaucrats too are not entirely blameless, they have often colluded with the politicians. The solution is to keep up the pressure on politicians by using courts, public interest litigation, civil society and so on to demand some drastic changes.

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