Engaging India: Crime and politics

By Jo Johnson, South Asia bureau chief, Financial Times (FT.COM) Published: May 3 2007 02:50 | Last updated: May 3 2007 02:50 Part of the explanation, according to Himanshu Jha of Social Watch India, an NGO, is that criminals now see political office as a business opportunity. He is convinced that some political parties are now even demanding large upfront payments from their candidates, knowing that those elected can later more than recoup their ’investment’ by hawking favours, siphoning off funds for development or selling in the market foodstuffs destined for a midday meal scheme for school-age children.


The criminalisation of northern Indian politics has reached proportions that would be comic if the consequences were not so serious. Police this week admitted that at least six candidates in the seven-phase elections being held in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the world's largest and most vibrant democracy, had been campaigning from jail, broadcasting speeches live to rallies from illegal cell phones linked up to microphones. The road to the prime minister's office on Raisina Hill, it is often said, runs through Lucknow. If UP were a country, it would be the sixth largest in the world. Control of the state is one of the most keenly contested prizes in Indian politics. Eight of India's 14 prime ministers have come from UP and many of the country's most powerful politicians, among them the heirs to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, choose to set down constituency roots on its Gangetic plains. Yet as the UP elections enter the final phase of elaborately staggered voting, it is clear that whichever political party comes out on top when counting ends on May 11, the state's 172m inhabitants will almost certainly be the losers from this flawed exercise in democracy.

This year's elections are likely to result in a further steep decline in the quality of governance in a state that is already a byword for backwardness, lawlessness and corruption. In an attempt to stop criminals entering politics, the Election Commission has required candidates to disclose any pending criminal charges against them. During the last assembly elections, held in 2002, there were 506 such candidates. In some cases, the charges were relatively minor, of a technical nature or lodged by political opponents, but far from all. Tainted candidates, moreover, were disproportionately successful, winning 206 out of 403 seats, an absolute majority of 51.1 per cent.

The next parliament may be worse. The number of candidates facing criminal trial has soared 74 per cent to 881, according to UP Election Watch, a nongovernmental organisation. Every big party is complicit.The Bahujan Samaj Party, a lower caste party likely to emerge as the single largest, has the highest proportion, at 34 per cent. The Congress party, despite promises to end "jungle raj", is hardly clean: 22 per cent of its ticket awaits trial. One Congress hard nut faces 19 charges, from murder and kidnapping to incitement to riot.

The crisis of governance in UP has broader national significance. Whether India meets its UN millennium developmental goals will depend on faster progress in this poorly run state. Anaemia levels for children under three, for example, have actually risen to 85 percent from 74 percent in 1998, according to a recent health ministry survey, illustrating the extent to which UP has remained largely impervious to changes sweeping the more prosperous south and west of the country. Part of the explanation, according to Himanshu Jha of Social Watch India, an NGO, is that criminals now see political office as a business opportunity. He is convinced that some political parties are now even demanding large upfront payments from their candidates, knowing that those elected can later more than recoup their "investment" by hawking favours, siphoning off funds for development or selling in the market foodstuffs destined for a midday meal scheme for school-age children. Indian law bans people from public office only if they have been convicted of an offence by the country's hopelessly overloaded courts.

As this can take years, mobsters and murderers can brazenly strut the corridors of national and state parliaments, and even sit in the cabinet. Last year, Jharkhand MP Shibhu Soren was forced to resign as coal minister after he was found guilty of helping others to kidnap and murder his private secretary nearly two decades earlier.Although a quarter of MPs in Delhi have criminal backgrounds, according to the Public Affairs Centre in Bangalore, the vast majority of them come from the four contiguous northern states of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The risk is that the systematic criminalisation of politics spreads further afield, dragging down standards of governance throughout the country.

There is growing anecdotal evidence of an ever-widening nexus linking politics to organised crime. Such suspicions strengthened last month when a Bharatiya Janata party MP from the western state of Gujarat was arrested for his alleged role in a human trafficking ring run out of Delhi's international airport. Suspicious airline officials had Babubhai Katara detained after a woman and a 15-year-old boy he was shepherding onto a flight to Toronto turned out not to be the wife and son listed in his diplomatic passport, as he had claimed. Police said they had seized 35 passports in connection with his arrest. One of the paradoxes of modern India is that its highly competitive democracy is increasingly unable to provide voters with a means of effectively holding governments accountable for the delivery of core public services. Indians are rightly proud that their country is one of the world's few continuously democratic developing nations. The criminalisation of politics undermines the value and perhaps also the stability of that extraordinary achievement.

 

 

 

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