|In India’s democracy, crime really can pay.
In the past month, voters in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people, have been lining up in huge numbers to cast votes in state elections.
But of the 2,000 candidates from the main parties contesting here, more than a third are facing criminal charges, including murder, rape, kidnapping and extortion, according to figures compiled by the advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms.
And many of them will win.
“They are popular with voters,” lamented Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi. “I call it the Robin Hood syndrome. They take care to use their corrupt money, money that they get through illegal means, to give to the poor.”
Despite a nationwide campaign against corruption last year, the percentage of candidates facing criminal charges has risen from 28 percent to 35 percent since state elections were last held in 2007. At least 30 candidates are incarcerated.
It is a similar picture nationally: 162 of the 545 members of India’s lower house of Parliament are facing criminal charges, compared with 128 in the previous Parliament.
Democracy is the glue that has held India together — and kept it largely peaceful — since independence from Britain in 1947. The power of free speech and free elections has helped this huge, diverse country emerge as a global power in the 21st century. But democracy here is still a “work in progress,” said Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reforms.
Although many Americans complain about the role of big business in funding political campaigns in the United States, the roots of the corruption and criminalization of Indian politics, ironically, lie in the outlawing of corporate contributions by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1967, in an attempt to cripple a right-wing opposition movement by depriving it of funds.
“The ban on company donations closed the only honest, open and transparent avenue of raising funds to fight elections,” commentator Prem Shankar Jha wrote in the magazine Tehelka. “The harm it has done is beyond measure.”
At the constituency level, the only alternative was to establish a network of patronage and favor-swapping from individual donors that soon became entrenched.
At the national level, Jha argued, the ruling Congress party was soon demanding massive kickbacks from business deals, mostly defense and infrastructure contracts, to fund its central command. It is the road that led inexorably to the corruption scandals of the past few years.
A typical Indian constituency might have 1,000 villages, and the cost of campaigning is enormous.
Unrealistically low campaign-finance limits also forced candidates to raise “unaccounted” funds, said M.R. Madhavan at PRS Legislative Research.
“Who has access to unaccounted funds? Criminal elements,” he said. “This forces you into bed with criminal elements.”
Criminals and wealthy politicians regularly dole out cash in return for votes. Quraishi said his agents seized more than $12 million in cash during elections last year in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, including one haul of $1 million in cash hidden in sacks on the roof of a bus.