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Why Indians vote for dons and criminals

Last updated on: February 23, 2017 13:14 IST

'The voter thinks that the State is not going to impartially deliver services, provide justice, basic law and order, social insurance -- so as a voter it's very rational that I may choose a criminal who will help me navigate the State.'
'A weak State allows a criminal politician to be the person who provides that guarantee to mediate whatever problem the citizen has with the State.'

Gangs of Wasseypur, a film on crime and politics 

IMAGE: Anurag Kashyap's film Gangs of Wasseypur memorialises criminals with lengthy records as politicians. Photograph published only for representational purposes.

One in five members of the Lok Sabha have at least one pending criminal case against them.

A candidate with serious criminal charges has an 18% chance of winning an election, compared with 6% for a candidate who doesn't.

Milan Vaishnav, Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC-based global think- tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explores the nexus between crime, democracy and the marketplace for criminals in his first book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.

Vaishnav, who has taught at Columbia, Georgetown and George Washington universities, says that political parties embrace criminals because they have deep pockets and win elections "while voters vote for them because criminals help them navigate a weak State that has failed to deliver basic services."

On the last leg of a hectic book tour, he spoke to Rediff.com's Archana Masih in Mumbai.

In your book you quote a candidate who says, 'How does one remain honest and succeed in politics in this country?'
Is Indian politics really no place for honest men and women?

The incentives are such that it leaves very little room.

This politician was not corrupt. He was well educated, ran a private business, came from a good family and wanted to contribute to public service.

In the process of having his first taste of politics, he realises that in this system even if you come in clean, you become corrupted over time.

In his case, the money he had to spend for his election was like an investment.

He had to think of the next 5 years and what if he wanted to contest the Lok Sabha election.

As a result, a lot of talented young people in India do not think of politics as an honourable career.

The vast amount of money (required by candidates to fund their campaign) is narrowing the talent pool of those who will put themselves forward and take that risk.

Government policies always do not reflect adequately the desires of the aam aadmi because of the people who are making the decisions.

You mention that there are 82% crorepatis in Parliament -- so there is a huge divergence between the neta and the aam aadmi.

It's the same analogy if you look at the US. It is virtually impossible to contest and win elections unless you are a millionaire or travel in a circuit where your friends and backers are millionaires.

Then when you shape legislation and pass bills, you are not necessarily acting in a corrupt manner, but it is just what your world view is.

That is also what is happening in India and many countries. That need to cross a certain threshold of wealth creates a very restrictive group of people.

In India's case when you have a Parliament which is so rich representing a country which is predominantly poor -- how is it going to impact Indian democracy?

The first impact will be self dealing. People will use their perch to create laws that will help their businesses.

Second, the social distance that gets created would mean that the policies you create will not truly be in touch with what the common people need.

In his 2014 campaign speeches Narendra Modi spoke of removing corrupt and criminal politicians -- but you point out that 35% of BJP MPs face ongoing criminal charges.

All political parties and their leaders are faced with the same dilemma. They don't yet have an organisatonal structure.

They are operating in an environment with so many gaps that they realise that the only option is to take these short cuts.

Look at the number of BJP MPs under the scanner, the people they fielded in UP, Punjab, everybody has made these compromises.

The hope is that there is gradual recognition that we have to start somewhere and pressure is being built that status quo politics is unfit for India in the 21st century.

Is Modi making that start?

He is making a very initial start. It's good he has raised these issues -- now let's have a real debate.

His proposals are way too incremental and possibly will take us backwards if you look at the electoral bond issue.

Almost three years into his tenure, what is your assessment of the prime minister?

He gets good marks on foreign policy. Especially, the relations he has navigated with the US, which was exceptionally tricky given his history.

What they did in Paris on climate change was a real shift.

We can pick some of the language about changing India's regional approach as maybe more rhetoric than reality.

What about Pakistan?

I think they decided much early on that they will not put too much political capital on trying to resolve the dispute with Pakistan because it would bog them down in a mess that they did not want.

They did not feel that Pakistan was ready to come to grips with.

But they have taken steps to show it's not their fault.

Modi invited Nawaz Sharif to the inauguration, he paid a surprise visit to Lahore, invited their inspectors to Pathankot.

India put its cards on table.

On the economy, it has been positive in macro terms.

It has been serious and sober when it comes to inflation, but has been far too tentative on dealing with the structural issues -- PSUs, tax issues, regulatory issues, foreign investment.

We are back to 'creative incrementalism' when he had the mandate to do much more.

On social issues, I've been troubled because the PM has maintained some distance from communal aspects of the party and the RSS, but he has allowed divisiveness to flourish.

He has made that compromise. At critical junctures like the Dadri lynching, Rohith Vemula, he has been silent.

As a leader on a national scale there are moments when you have to use that position.

On a balance, the general feeling looking at India from the outside is that the directionality is generally positive, but the pace is too slow, hesitant.

What do see as the future of the Congress?

I won't be surprised to see a situation where there are regional franchises which use the Congress name.

Since 2014 there have been two fundamental problems with the Congress -- Ideas and Leadership.

Both of these still remain questions. There is no articulated forward looking vision for the country.

It is much about being anti-Modi rather than putting forth their own ideas.

This gets you something, but can't take you very far.

Rahul is still half in and half out.

The Congress needs to reform because it is healthy to have another national party that creates some opposition and competition.

In the Delhi election, the BJP vote share didn't go down, but the Congress' did and that difference went to AAP.

Gujarat is ripe for anti-incumbency, especially after Hardik Patel, but there are no signs of the Congress stepping up to take that opportunity.

When Modi announced demonetisation, it was about addressing black money. Will the note ban curb money power in electoral politics?

The simple answer is no.

Unless you take follow up measures that attack the creation of black money.

This is essentially a one time cleansing, but we have seen that most people have found ways by hook or crook to turn it back into the system and have converted black money into white.

To address black money you have to:

  • Clean up how politics is funded;
  • Deal with issues of taxation;
  • Create a real formal sector;
  • Reduce the impediments of doing business.

These are the structural pieces that have to be taken on.

Politicians have found ways to weather this storm.

I don't think in any real sense the spending in this election is going to be significantly lower.

It is because of this reason that Modi and the government were under pressure to introduce political finance reforms in the Budget because they were getting so much push back.

Reducing the cash amount that political parties receive without receipts from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 -- will it make it any difference? Because you can still accept Rs 2,000 without accounting for it?

They have taken a set of actions that has allowed them to take a moral high ground, but these steps are going to cost minimal levels of disruptions for the political class.

This is a good news-bad news story.

Good news is that for the first time we have had a prime minister and government who is using their position to talk about this issue.

Very few governments have wanted to touch this issue of election funding.

If you look at the downside, the content of what they are proposing is very small and in some ways could even be harmful.

Look at the issue of electoral bonds.

For example -- I am a corporate, I want to give 5 crore to the BJP, I buy bonds of 5 crore, I don't have to disclose that publically and deposit it in the BJP's account.

The BJP knows I have given it but they also don’t have to disclose it.

So you just legitimise this opacity.

There is zero incentive to disclose it because legitimately the State has given you approval to do it under the table!

The government's response would be that it has happened through the banking system, so there has to be a paper trail -- but you are legitimising a system that everybody knows leads to a great amount of corruption.

It's a defeatist attitude, it is not a big bold reformist step.

Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace
Left: Milan Vaishnav, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington DC and author, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. Photograph: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

Unless there is a structural reform in the way political parties are funded there will be no end to money and muscle in politics, isn't it?

Absolutely! You have to attack the supply side of the issue.

Parties are gravitating towards individuals with criminal reputations because they have money, but you have also to look at the demand, which is why the voter is voting for a person with a tainted record.

The voter thinks that the State is not going to impartially deliver services, provide justice, basic law and order, social insurance -- so as a voter it's very rational that I may choose a criminal who will help me navigate the State.

That's because of a governance deficit. That is the root cause.

A weak State allows a criminal politician to be the person who provides that guarantee to mediate whatever problem the citizen has with the State.

These politicians sell their appeal as people who know how to work the system.

People vote for them because they find their promises more credible.

In an earlier interview you said that criminals have become businessmen. How is crime in politics going to mutate or transform in India?

In states that have grown relatively fast in the past decades like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, the old style of muscular politics is transforming into white collared corruption.

These candidates have business interests in contracting infrastructure, agriculture etc. They come to office -- have access to tenders/contracts, bids -- and have family members run their companies.

This is a form of white collared form of corruption.

This is the problem many advanced democracies are dealing with where you have lobbyists, corporate donations -- that's one potential equilibrium India will move into.

How can the ambit of the Election Commission be increased to prevent money and muscle power?

There are certain aspects where the EC simply doesn't have the power to act.

Greater transparency requires an amendment to the Representation of the People Act for which Parliament has to act.

The EC has tried to frame guidelines, but those have no force of the law.

In some sense the EC has had tremendous effect in cleansing elections, especially when it comes to violence and booth capturing, but now it needs to have some new legislative powers.

In many cases it has reached the limits of what it can do.

On the other hand, the other set of issues entail that you have to push the envelope and that's a question of leadership.

The EC has finally moved to say that there are some 1,400 political parties and as many as 900 have not contested an election in 5 or 10 years, so we should move towards closing them down.

This is a known problem and they could have moved on this before.

Sometimes the EC has been very risk averse. It hasn't taken steps that will ruffle many feathers.

(Former Chief Election Commissioners) T N Seshan and S Y Qureshi used that pulpit to get things done.

The EC has some powers, but there are some grey areas.

Could there possibly be a scenario where candidates with serious crimes do not get tickets. Your data reveals the number has increased from 12% in 2004 to 21% in 2014.

The reason why the problem of crime in politics is so hard to tackle is that as a system where you have laws and democracy, there is an assumption of innocent till proven guilty.

If you were to debar a candidate against whom serious charges were framed then you may be guilty of violating that law because the justice system takes very long and politicians are benefiting from that ambiguity.

It also means that it is still in the realm of an allegation. It doesn't mean they are conclusively guilty.

You write more than shrinking India's bureaucracy, what is needed is a better alignment of regulatory procedures and human capital.

It's not only about getting more people, but having accountability mechanisms.

The powers that politicians have over the bureaucracy and implementation of public programmes has to be reduced -- and the muscle of the State has to be built up at the same time.

We need to invest in the core competencies of the State.

It is shameful that there are 3 crore (30 million) pending cases and one third of judgeships don't exist; the police vacancy rates is 25%; the number of public health workers, teachers is low -- when you create these pockets of vacuum, someone will fill it up.

Many people say there should be an All India Judicial Services. It is not as if there are not enough public spirited individuals.

We talk of lateral entry into the bureaucracy and say it will be a boon for think-tanks and private sector.

The biggest boon will be for those officers who are outside of the IAS -- in the All India Services who might have something to offer.

There are problems of uneven talent, but certainly there would be many officers who would be competitive if given a chance.

Archana Masih / Rediff.com