In When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, Milan Vaishnav explores the factors that influence voter demand for candidates with criminal reputations, showing that voters prefer them not despite their dubious record but because of it.
Criminal candidates with ill-gotten wealth make themselves available to political parties as “self-financing” candidates. Credit: Reuters
“There are two ways of making politics one’s vocation: either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ politics,” said German sociologist Max Weber in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation‘. Surely, many politicians have come to live off politics but what are the ‘incentives’ that encourage individuals soaked in criminality to take the plunge into it in the first place? At a time when we are witnessing increasing criminalisation of politics in our democracy, this question needs to be confronted head on and that’s precisely what Milan Vaishnav sets out to do in his book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.
The author has adopted a political economy approach to the study of the “symbiotic relationship” between crime and politics in India. The book is divided into three parts: Part I lays down the subject of enquiry and gives a broad overview of the larger changes that have happened in our society and economy since independence; part II explores the demand side and the supply side factors influencing the marketplace for criminals in politics and part III examines the nature of that marketplace and discusses concrete steps that need to be taken to minimise its importance.
While we know that the share of MPs and MLAs with criminal backgrounds has been growing steadily, the puzzle that stares us in our face is why such candidates get rewarded and not rejected by the voters. The author says that “the market metaphor serves as a useful frame to understand why the appeal of politicians linked to criminality endures”. Political parties act as a platform, purveying criminal candidates to the voters. This marketplace is best seen as a ‘platform market’, where strong ‘network effects’ are at play and the two sides – demand and supply – mutually reinforce each other.
One notices that the presence of criminal elements in politics is not altogether new. As the historian Srinath Raghavan has pointed out, muscle-power as embodied in entrenched caste-relations in rural India was instrumental in mobilising votes for the Congress party in the first two decades after independence. But the phenomenon we are looking at is the transformation of criminal individuals from being the hired guns of party politicians to becoming full-time politicians themselves. Why did they have to take the giant leap?
“Three trends – political fragmentation, deepening competition and continued Congress decline – converged in the late 1980s to break open the political system in an unprecedented manner”. How did this incentivise criminals to make their foray into electoral politics? The explanation offered is an interesting one: “Thanks to the uncertainty stemming from greater electoral competition, they were no longer able to rest easy knowing that the party that employed them would remain in power”. The author intelligently deploys the concept of ‘vertical integration’ to elucidate this development.
When Crime Pays – Money and Muscle in Indian Politics
Harper Collins, 2017
What do political parties gain by recruiting criminally connected individuals, especially when it can be self-defeating as the party’s image can take a beating for fielding criminals in elections? This is where the role of ‘competition’ comes into play. With the proliferation of political parties and expanding size of the electorate, electoral democracy has become a costly affair, which needs a steady flow of money to keep its wheels moving. Criminal candidates with ill-gotten wealth make themselves available to political parties as “self-financing” candidates and promise financial rents to the party coffers, thereby liberating parties of the binding constraint.
The supply side incentives are clear, but doesn’t the demand side (voters), which demands democratic accountability, express its dissatisfaction at this trend by rejecting such crooks? The author argues that “where the rule of law is weakly enforced and social divisions are rampant, a candidate’s criminal reputation could be perceived as an asset”. He identifies four channels through which such candidates establish their credibility – redistribution, coercion, social insurance and dispute resolution. All four, including coercion, are the sole prerogatives of the state and by guaranteeing these through their criminal reputation, they signal ‘credibility’.
The crucial question that begs our attention is whether they cater to a cross section of the electorate. The answer is no and it is so because, such individuals exploit social divisions to thrive and promise to protect sectional interests by engaging in “defensive criminality”, where they use strong-arm tactics to uphold the dignity of their caste brethren. The tension between caste-kinship and citizenship will be the driving force of a social churning that would put Indian democracy’s stressed institutions to further test in the political sphere. These criminal politicians are partial answers to the governance vacuum and know it is in their interest not to think up sustainable solutions that would render them irrelevant: “If the rule of law vacuum were solved by investing in state capacity to provide basic public goods, criminal candidates would lose their lustre”. In other words, even a minimal state envisaged by Adam Smith can fix our problems if it gets its institutional structure right.
By explaining how these factors influence voter demand for candidates with criminal reputation, the author debunks the “ignorant voter” hypothesis and shows that voters prefer such candidates not despite their dubious record but because of it. This thesis neatly fits into the classic economic paradigm of rational individuals making decisions in their self-interest by efficiently processing all the available information. But the author alerts us to the caveat that this thesis is context-specific and cannot be universally applied.
It would be pertinent to look at the trends in the dynastic consolidation of political power and perpetuation of criminality in politics. Recall that during the political Emergency, the complete takeover of state power by the Nehru-Gandhi family resulted in the criminalisation of the entire state apparatus and it was only a matter of time before the regional and smaller players emulated the first family’s model of centralising power. From the Akalis in Punjab to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, most parties are run as family firms.
Milan Vaishnav. Credit: Youtube screenshot
Nonetheless, it is important not to forget that leaders of such parties enjoy popular support in spite of their corrupt and criminal backgrounds. The paradigmatic example is Jagan Reddy of YSR Congress, who was seen by the masses as achha chor (Robin Hood types), as the veteran journalist P. Sainath put it, in the run up to the 2014 general elections. Lack of internal party democracy has increased the discretionary powers of the party patriarch/matriarch. The author has dealt with this aspect in detail to show how it encourages the continued supply of criminal candidates.
In using the marketplace analogy, the author states that a truly “free” market works through arm’s length transactions and informational symmetry. He argues that “politics often departs significantly from these core tenets” and “politics is about the structure of power”. These arguments are equally applicable to the so-called free market as well. In fact, information asymmetry is a major source of economic power and the invisible hand of the market doesn’t hesitate to use its invisible fist. As for the free market conception, it would be illuminating to read Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism to know that the myth of the free market is predicated on weak grounds.
The author uses the growth of multiparty competition as one of the explanatory factors to show what forced criminals to enter politics. If one assesses this argument within the analytical frame the author has used, then contrary to the standard economic proposition that competition will lead to social well-being and optimal outcomes for all, competition in the electoral marketplace has resulted in sub-optimal outcomes. An important observation made in the book is that criminals are recruited by political parties across the board to contest elections and their ideological vacuum allows them the suppleness to recruit such candidates. If the recently concluded assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and its aftermath is any indicator, then one can argue that it is perfectly compatible to have both programmatic content and criminal legislators who can push the boundaries of that content.
That said, this is an intellectually stimulating work of scholarship. The interesting anecdotes and apocryphal stories about the criminal candidates add rich flavour to the narrative. The author has crunched truckloads of data by mining the Election Commission’s database of candidate affidavits and findings from independent election surveys. The numerous graphs in the book effectively supplement the well-constructed narrative. For those who despair about the state of politics, the book is a sobering reminder that ‘politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards’ and ‘it takes both passion and perspective’.
Raghunath Nageswaran holds an M.A. in Economics from Madras Christian College.
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Categories: Books, Politics
Tagged as: Congress, criminal candidates, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Jagan Reddy, Max Weber, Milan Vaishnav, P. Sainath, Raghunath Nageswaran, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh
Criminalisation of Politics
“As per election Commission estimates 1,500 candidates in the 1996 Parliamentary election had criminal records and 40 of them got elected to the 11th Lok Sabha. In the State Legislatures, the picture is even more distressing. Out of the 4,072 sitting MLA’s in all the states, more than 700 have criminal record”.
Criminals enter Politics to become Politicians and then patronize other criminals. The dire consequences of this unholy alliance between criminals and Politicians is that at every level from bottom, Panch at Panchayat level to Chief Minister or Ministers at Sate and Central State, Criminals are being elected and appointed to the positions of power.
Politics has now become a shortcut way of earning. Once elected a person can accumulate money sufficient for his few generations. Neither Gandhi Ji nor the other freedom fighters who sacrificed their all luxuries and comfort for the cause of nation would have ever dreamt that a day would come when India’s governance would pass into the hands of criminals and corrupt anti-social elements.
The reason many criminals enter politics is to gain influence and ensure that cases against them are dropped or not proceeded with. They are able to make it big in the political arena because of their financial clout. Political parties tap criminals for funds and in return provide them with political patronage and protection. As the Times of India pointed out: “Indeed, today, far from shrinking at the thought of harboring criminal elements, parties seek them out judging the muscle and money combination they represent to be enormous value. Rough estimates suggest that in any state election 20 percent of candidates are drawn from criminal backgrounds. For the parties, it means overflowing coffers and unlimited funds to fight elections and for the criminals it means protection from the law and respect in the eyes of society.”
Another reason why political parties are not averse to fielding mafia dons is that winability, not merit or experience, determines who gets to contest elations. And mafia dons and other powerful gangsters have shown that they can convert their muscle power into vote’s often at gun point. Voters in many parts in the country are forced to vote for the local strongman. The reign of terror that these criminals have spread in their area of operations ensures that they win the seat for the party.
In the 2000 elections to the Bihar State Assembly, every single one of the underworld dons and scamsters who contested the polls either from jail or in hiding was elected, with big margins. Among those who won with huge margins were men accused of offences ranging from extortion and kidnapping to murder. Some of them were even brought from the jail by police van for the swearing-in ceremony at the assembly building.
An indomitable Mr. T.N. Sheshan tried his best to cleanse the system, but he failed. Mr. Sheshan’s successor, Mr. Gill faced the same problem. The Ex. Chief Election Commissioner Mr. Lingdoh also found himself in such a pitiable position, that he has no concrete remedy to cleanse the system, but to appeal the voters: Not to vote for the criminals. Mr. T.s. Krihnamurty, the Chief Election Commissioner, also faces the same dilemma. Most fo the dreaded dacoits of Chambal or Murena valley were driven to crime as a result of their own victimization or because of some social, economic or personal causes. But for the modern criminals turned politician, crime has become a way of life and most of them thrive with the blessing of the senior Politicians, Ministers and even the Chief Ministers and Union Ministers. Pity of the parties that have given tickets to such candidates. During last election, many candidates in Bihar collected illegal guns and explosives to be used by them to ensure victory, what a shame on the part of our law makers cannot make a law to van at least a person for contesting elections who is punished by the law and sentenced for imprisonment. Thousand of unauthorized arms manufacturing units worked overtime to meet the increasing demand of fire arms. Tickets were given to the candidates with criminal records even by National Parties. U.P. is not behind Bihar in fielding candidates with criminal background. The recent case of Amar Mani Tripathi, Minister in the Mayawati Government, being charged for the murder of Madhumita, a Poet, is flagrant example of nexus between Criminals and Poitics.
A virtual impression seems have gained ground that you could commit crime and get away with it, if you have Political patronage at the proper level. The Police dare not to proceed against you or if having initiated an action shall drag away their feet to defeat the ends of justice. With politics and crime intertwined, bureaucracy and the Police have also become part of nexus. This unholy affinity is having a malignant effect over the public life and poses a threat to the democratic structure of the country.
Politics has become such a lucrative and beneficial business, that whoever can invest or bid both money power and muscle power, can earn through for a few generations and enjoy unfettered power and respect among the society.
No one wants to vote for a criminal. And yet for years criminals have been using our electoral system to enter politics with citizens hopelessly looking on. Until recently our laws sanction Election officials asking candidates for detailed information about their criminal and financial background, let alone making this information available to the public before the polls began.
But as India went to her largest election exercise over this year, the balance has perhaps begun to shift in favour of voters. India’s 2004 elections are the first and the largest national election exercise that is being fought under the new election disclosure rules instituted in 2003. Candidates for Parliament and State Assemblies are now required to submit sworn affidavits along with their nomination papers given information about their criminal, financial and educational backgrounds.
Nationwide, citizens wanting to know more about their candidates have a better opportunity before casing their ballot. To the cynics, this drop in the ocean and may not lead to much. This may be the beginning of a new era in India democracy; an era of opportunity for citizens’ initiatives to mobilize around publicly available information.
During the current elections cycle, the election Commission opened the gates for the media and citizens to collect copies of candidate affidavits from Returning Officers and the District Election Officers. Ten states are having some form of election watch campaign, indicating a broad-based nationwide civil society initiative to give teeth to the EC rules. Some State Election Commissions have already made candidate disclosures public on their websites and election watches have been distributing analysis to the media and citizens.
In a nation crying for reforms in our electoral system, process of power and judiciary, this verdict and people’s right to know must be the starting point of democratic reform. This is also a moment for us to reflect. Once again the resilience of our democratic system, the inherent strength of institutions and the constitutional checks and balances stand as testimony to the maturity and vibrancy of our governance system. We congratulate the advocates who marshaled the arguments ably on behalf of citizens and helped the court form its conclusions. Millions of Indians, several organizations and media all have fought this battle for democracy and liberty in keeping with glorious traditions of citizen assertion and people’s sovereignty. We salute those sentinels of freedom.
But there are certain pitfalls we should avoid. This should not be seen as a struggle between the people and the political parties. Politics is a noble endeavour. There cannot be democracy without robust politics and strong parties. Parties have a difficult job in our diverse society and very often the politicians are as much victims of a vicious cycle as they are villains. Revulsion of politics is dangerous. Very often they are captive in the hands of politics which dominate the electoral scene in a first-past-the-post system. Our parties are striving hard to sustain our democracy against great odds. They need our full support in this endeavour.
We are confident, however, that our parties and legislators will exhibit the requisite courage, wisdom and foresight to accept this verdict of the Supreme Court and use it as a launching pad for engineering far-reaching and vital electoral and governance reforms.
Neither should this be viewed as a turf battle between Parliament and Judiciary. No democrat can question the supremacy of elected legislature in law making. Equally the judiciary has the ultimate responsibility to interpret the constitution and uphold fundamental rights. True, there are concerns about judicial usurpation of executive and legislative authority and those concerns are legitimate. But the campaign for electoral reforms is the wrong case to contest judicial role.
This judgment opens up many vistas and the battle for reclaiming our republic for the people has just begun. We, on behalf of National Campaign for Electoral Reforms, appeal to the political parties, media, and enlightened citizens to fully respect this verdict of the Supreme Court and work for genuine democratic reforms to help us fulfill our potential as a nation and minimize avoidable suffering.
The Patna High Court’s latest ruling on countermanding of elections in constituencies where candidates with criminal records were contesting is a positive move to check the criminalization of politics in India. The Patna High Court has directed the Election Commission to consider countermanding of elections in constituencies where candidates facing criminal trials were contesting. The court has also asked the Commission to take a decision to this effect before the announcement of the results. Though on the appeal filed by the Election Commission the Supreme Court has stayed the ruling of Patna High Court and said that once the Election Process has begun crush rulings are not feasible. The Apex court also said that the matter will be looked into at a later stage. The Patna High Court ruling is a positive step to prevent the entry of criminals into electoral politics. Some pointed out that the court’s ruling van be misused to prevent an individual from contesting elections by withholding him on criminal charges through manipulation.
The enormous problem of the nexus between criminals and politicians cannot be ignored any longer. The submission of affidavit may have some deterrent effect, but seems as it will also result in a futile exercise as in India, votes are being cast on the basis of caste, creed and religion. The poor illiterate people of this country still vote to their caste man or to the man of fellow religionship, or to the fellow who belongs to their region. Moral values and ethics have long been vanished from the political arena of our country, but we cannot have such an indifferent attitude. We shall have to find a solution to eradicate the menace for which we are ourselves also responsible to a great extent.
In a democratic country, all the powers lies in the hands of the voters that is the general public, an awakening among the general mass can only show the right place to such criminal politicians.