Freedom with defects

The darker side of Indian democracy

By Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 18.02.17
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After the third general elections held in 1962, the scholar-statesman, C. Rajagopalachari, wrote a fascinating, if now forgotten, essay on the imperfections of our young democracy. "The Indian electorate", remarked Rajaji, "suffers from well-known defects from which Western democracies are relatively free. The Indian voters are in great measure poor and vulnerable to bribery: even a day's expense for food serves to buy a large number of the poor voters."

Rajaji had witnessed and campaigned in elections held in British India, and now in independent India as well. "What is to be deplored most in the recent elections", he wrote in 1962, was "the terrible rise in election expenditure and the manner in which money flowed for the purchase of the votes of the poor and illiterate. Money running so alarmingly ahead of education, leads one to ask what hope or way out is there for democracy. The hunger for good government thus foiled inevitably leads to some form of violent escape which spells disaster for democracy."

Rajaji was one of the first to comment on the role of money power in elections. This led, in turn, to the deployment of muscle power, a phenomenon that is the focus of Milan Vaishnav's new book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, a closely researched study of the increasing criminalization of Indian politics in recent decades. Vaishnav presents vivid case studies of individual goonda-politicians, matching these with the massive data-set on criminal charges against candidates assembled by that remarkable watchdog, the Association for Democratic Reforms. He then interprets this qualitative and quantitative evidence through the lens of political and economic theory.

Vaishnav begins his narrative in the late 1960s, when the decline of the Congress and the rise of multi-party competition, while good for democracy in general, also opened the door to large-scale defection as parties scrambled to forge anti-Congress alliances and governments. Candidates now changed parties for a price. Then, the decision by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1969 to ban corporate funding "was to set parties off on a competitive search for underground funding". In 1985, corporate funding was once more legalized, but by now, writes Vaishnav, "the damage had already been done," with widespread use of black money in elections. Companies now, in fact, preferred to donate in black, fearing retribution in case a party they had not funded came to power.

In the first few elections, the threat of physical force had played a role behind-the-scenes, with musclemen intimidating voters to fall in line behind particular parties or politicians. But from the 1980s, these goondas sought to become netas themselves. Now, "the pursuit of protection was a crucial objective for aspiring politicians" with criminal records. Parties, for their part, often chose criminals because they brought with them their own stock of cash to fight and win elections. Thus "in a context of costly elections, weakly institutionalized parties, and an ineffectual election finance regime", parties increasingly began to "prioritize self-financing candidates who do not represent a drain on finite party coffers but can contribute 'rents' to the party".

Why do voters so often choose criminals to represent them in legislatures and in Parliament? One reason is the government's failure to provide essential services such as health, education, and safety. Thus "what the Indian state has been unable to provide, strongmen have promised to deliver in spades." There has been, argues Vaishnav, "a partial privatization of the functions of the coercive functions of the state". His book also points to a partial privatization of the welfare functions of the State, with winning candidates transferring to voters who supported them freebies of different kinds. These transfers are often done on lines of caste and community: thus "when politicians can manipulate their discretionary authority over goods and services the state provides, they often choose to do so along ethnically motivated lines."

When Crime Pays also documents the buying and selling of tickets, paid news, and other distortions of democracy so common in India today. Vaishnav quotes a Congress MP as saying that 'crores and criminals are the essential ingredients' (of an Indian political party). He himself writes that "most politicians in India... do not perceive fixing basic services as a readymade path to electoral success." This is not entirely true - at least in rhetorical terms, quite a few politicians in recent years have based their election campaign on the delivery of social services. Thus, they have promised that, if they come to power, they will bring to their constituents bijli, sadak aur paani - regular electricity, reliable roads, and clean water, or else roti, kapda, aur makaan - food, clothing, and housing. More broadly, they have claimed to stand for the welfare and dignity of the last person or of every person, as in those slogans used in the last decade to fight and win general elections: '[ Hamara] Haath Aam Aadmi ke Saath' and ' Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas'.

What is true, however, is that this rhetoric masks a very different reality, where professedly development-oriented politicians retain close links with other politicians with alleged criminal records, as has been the case with Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Narendra Modi at an all-India level.

In the book's last chapter, Vaishnav quotes from Modi's speeches during the 2014 election. In one speech, Modi said "we must do away with the criminalisation of politics, and delivering more lectures won't help." In a second, he said that after he became prime minister, "no [criminal] accused will dare to fight polls. Who says that this cleansing cannot happen? I have come to cleanse politics." In a third, he even specified a time limit for this cleansing, saying "I am positive [that] after five years of our rule, the system will be absolutely clean and all criminals will be behind bars."

Even as Modi was making these claims and promises, overseeing the nitty-gritty of his election campaign was his close associate Amit Shah, himself charged in multiple criminal cases, and at one stage even externed from his home state by the Supreme Court 'for fear that he would exert undue influence over the state's law enforcement apparatus'. Many of those contesting for Parliament on the BJP ticket had equally shady records; indeed, when the results came in, a full 35 per cent of the BJP's MPs had criminal cases pending against them.

It is now close to three years since the Bharatiya Janata Party won power in New Delhi. Notwithstanding the prime minister's claims, in the states and at the Centre, the dependence of the ruling party on criminals continues. As this column goes to press, the ADR has just completed its analysis of the affidavits of the candidates contesting the first three phases of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. In the first phase, 25 per cent of the candidates contesting on a Congress ticket had criminal cases against themselves. For the Samajwadi Party, the figure was 29 per cent, for the Bahujan Samaj Party 38 per cent, and for the BJP as high as 40 per cent. On the other hand, for the third phase, the Congress has the greatest percentage of alleged criminals (36 per cent), while for the second phase of the UP polls the 'topper' is the Samajwadi Party, with 41 per cent of its candidates facing criminal charges.

These are disturbingly high figures. The ADR's analyses show that every major party in Uttar Pradesh, as well as in almost every other state of the Union, displays an unhealthy dependence on criminals for contesting and winning elections. Indian democracy thus rests on an uncomfortable paradox; that while the conduct of state and general elections remains reasonably free and fair, too many of the winning candidates are dirty and dangerous.

ramachandraguha@yahoo.in