‘Politicians are crooks.’ This may be a cynical middle-class complaint, but it is also an empirical fact that more MPs with criminal records are being elected to Parliament than ever before. Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, analyses this trend in his new book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. He tells TOI why crime and democracy are so tightly linked in India:

Why has the proportion of those with serious criminal records risen in Indian politics?

At the parliamentary level, 34% of MPs elected in 2014 face ongoing criminal cases and 21% stand accused of serious crimes. In 2004, the corresponding shares stood at 24 and 12%, respectively. One reason these shares are rising is simple: candidates implicated in wrongdoing do quite well at the polls. Their success has a chilling effect on individuals with clean records who might think twice about joining the electoral fray. As a result, the bad equilibrium perpetuates itself; politicians with questionable records are attracted to office while so-called “clean” candidates exit.

 

Why do parties give tickets to those with criminal records?

A critical determining factor is money. Elections have grown increasingly expensive while party organisations have grown weaker. Parties are desperate for candidates with deep pockets who can not only finance their own campaigns, but can also pay parties for the privilege of running, or subsidise other candidates. Candidates with criminal records are disproportionately wealthy, so they have both the means to contest elections, as well as the incentives. While securing elected office does not grant them formal immunity, it does give them a certain degree of protection while opening up a new set of money-making opportunities.

Why do voters choose them, even when aware of these associations? You write that candidates use their criminal reputations to signal credibility. How does that work?

One of the most important takeaways from the book is that voters who support criminal candidates are usually well aware of their reputations. They are making rational, informed decisions when they enter the polling booth. In places where the rule of law is weak, which means that government is not able to carry out its most basic functions, and social relations between local communities are fraught, candidates can use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to “get things done” for their supporters. If politics is viewed as a zero-sum game — that is, if another community wins, ours loses (or vice versa) — voters look for a representative who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect their group’s social status.

What policy changes can minimise criminality in politics?

Before thinking about policy responses, we have to come to grips with why politicians linked to criminality do so well in the first place. If this was about uninformed voters, mass media campaigns could educate the electorate. Unfortunately, a lack of information is not the binding constraint — it’s a lack of governance. Until the local state can impartially guarantee security, dispense justice, and deliver core public services, strongmen will continue to fill the vacuum. Reducing the demand for criminal politicians will take generations, but in the short-term, Indians shouldn’t sit on their hands and wait. To the contrary, they should work on measures that can help reduce their supply. This means cleaning up how elections are funded, reforming the functioning of political parties, and ensuring that elected officials charged with serious wrongdoing get speedy trials.

How can political finance be cleaned up? How might demonetisation have disrupted this nexus between money, muscle and politics?

Demonetisation on its own will have a limited impact. It is a one-shot cleansing of the system which, as we have seen, can be gamed by those who want to turn black money white. What the government needs to do in the wake of demonetisation is to push for real election finance reform. In fact, Prime Minister Modi could propose four changes to existing laws on the books.

First, all political contributions should take place digitally. Second, all contributions must be subject to disclosure. Right now, only contributions above an arbitrary Rs 20,000 threshold must be openly declared. Third, party accounts have to be scrutinised by an independent, third-party auditor. If parties refuse to comply, they should be stripped of their tax benefits. Fourth, the Election Commission needs stronger authorities to punish those who flout existing rules and regulations. Right now, politicians and parties who file false or misleading disclosures typically get off with a slap on the wrist. The virtue of this package of reforms is that it would be hugely politically popular for the Prime Minister. Of course, all parties would take a hit. But the BJP — by virtue of its organisation and financial advantages — would likely be better off than its rivals.

This article was originally published in the Times of India.