Money and muscle power seem to co-exist with identity politics.

This month, a great deal has been written on “criminals” in the electoral domain, as voters have been going to the polls in five States across India. It is perhaps a sign of the times that one of the most often-quoted statistics on modern Indian politics is that more than a quarter of the sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) face criminal indictment (at the State level, that number hovers around 20 per cent). Yet, despite all the attention paid to the often sordid biographical details of India's political class, there has been a surprising want of analysis regarding why we have this phenomenon. Why do parties give tickets to candidates with criminal records? Why do voters vote for them? And what are the implications for India's democracy?

Empirical evaluation of this subject has been greatly aided by the fact that since 2003, candidates for state and national office in India are required to publicly disclose their pending criminal cases and financial assets and liabilities. Working with this data, we can start to establish some basic patterns regarding the selection of criminal politicians. However, to protect against frivolous or politically motivated charges, I focus only on criminal cases involving “serious” charges; infractions that aren't plausibly related to electioneering (i.e., libel) or a politician's day-to-day vocation (i.e., unlawful assembly).

ROLE OF MONEY

India's political parties have an array of potential candidates to choose from, so one wonders why they choose candidates with criminal records. Money is clearly one major consideration. It is no secret that elections in India have grown increasingly expensive. Because parties need resources to fund activities such as campaigning, voter mobilisation and vote buying, they place a premium on selecting self-financing candidates who won't be a drain on finite party coffers. Candidates linked to criminal activity are attractive in this regard. If one looks at the assets of the more than 45,000 candidates who contested state elections between 2003 and 2009, the median “clean” candidate has a personal wealth of roughly Rs 400,000, compared to assets of Rs 1.1 million for the median indicted candidate. Parties place a premium on criminality (i.e., muscle), in part, because it often brings with it the added benefit of money.

To be fair, money is only part of the answer. The role of financial resources sheds light on why parties embrace candidates with criminal records, but it doesn't tell us much regarding where parties are most likely to field such candidates and why voters vote for them. To understand these questions, one needs to consider the role of identity in Indian politics. As a top official from a national party remarked, “Parties support criminals because they have ‘currency' with the masses.” This “currency” is both literal as well as figurative in terms of the candidates' ability to mobilise popular, caste-based support.

SOCIAL DIVISIONS

In areas where social divisions are particularly prevalent, candidates can use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to protect the interests of their co-ethnics and their allies. There are three distinct ways this can be accomplished. First, a candidate's criminality serves as a clear indication of his willingness and ability to bend the rules to suit his group's own interests. For instance, criminal candidates are willing to use extra-legal means to safeguard a community's economic interests — intervening in land disputes — or influence the distribution of public benefits. Second, a candidate's criminality can provide a bulwark against opposition from political rivals. In a context of dynamic competition for local dominance, a candidate's willingness to “flex his muscles” allows him to both enhance his credibility to deliver benefits and keep rivals at bay, through the use of coercion and threats. Third, criminality signals credibility in the sense that voters often believe criminal candidates — because they are personally wealthy and willing to take action by any means necessary — will be better able to act as a social safety net.

If criminal candidates do, in fact, provide benefits to voters in places where social divisions are most pronounced, this should be reflected in the choice of where parties field such candidates. Although this is a difficult proposition to assess, consider the differences between open seats and those reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). In reserved constituencies, the candidate pool is restricted to aspirants who belong to the reserved group, but the entire electorate is eligible to vote. The diminished relevance of identity-based divisions, and the pre-ordained caste identity of the winner, weakens incentives for parties to mobilise strictly on caste lines. As a result, they will refrain from fielding criminal candidates whose popularity rests on their comparative advantage in stoking such sentiments. On average, in reserved constituencies, the probability of indicted candidates standing for election to the state assemblies decreases by 13 per cent.

Similar logic underlies why we have less criminality among India's indirectly-elected legislators in the Rajya Sabha, compared with their counterparts in the directly-elected Lok Sabha. Because Rajya Sabha members aren't elected through popular voting, the legislators who elect them are less concerned with their ethnic authenticity. If identity politics serves as a motivation for parties to choose criminal candidates, this incentive is weaker for indirect elections.

BAD POLITICIANS

What are the implications of the prevalence of criminal politicians for India's democracy? The prevailing consensus among academics is that the presence of “bad politicians” in a context of free and fair elections is indicative of a breakdown in democratic accountability. Yet, the Indian case shows that criminal politicians and accountability can be compatible and needn't be contradictory. Popular embrace of criminal candidates at the ballot box doesn't necessarily mean India's voters are being duped by wily politicians and party bosses; in fact, it is quite possible that many citizens are making a self-interested calculation. Voters aren't ignorant or uninformed; they are simply looking for candidates who can best fill a perceived representational vacuum.

Viewing India's criminal politicians as an issue dealing with aspiration rather than want of information has ramifications for public policy. Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that it is identity politics that reinforces the appeal of criminals in politics (with money as an additional driving factor). The influence of identity politics in this regard hence shouldn't come as a surprise, as evidenced by the experiences of even advanced democracies such as the United States.

(This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.)

(The author is a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Global Development, a Washington, DC think tank.)

(This article was published on February 14, 2012)
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