It is ironic to see that “Government’s work is God’s work” is written on the Vidhan Soudha, the seat of the State Government of Karnataka but the 24% of newly elected MLAs of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly face serious criminal charges. Even India’s temple of democracy ie. parliament is filled with lawmakers who have criminal backgrounds and more disturbing thing is that the percent of legislators facing criminal charges have increased in the subsequent General Elections. For instance, 34% of MPs elected in 2014 faced criminal cases as compared to 24% of MPs elected in 2004.
On the face of increasing criminalization of politics, Milan Vaishnav, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, book “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics” is an eye-opener in terms of understanding the puzzling co-existence of criminality in politics along with the democratic accountability. The author has tried to address the questions of their co-existence since the beginning when they acted as “anti-social elements” to mobilize the voters for their masters(politicians) to becoming the lawmakers themselves.The author has beautifully applied the concept of a market in terms of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ to understand the “electoral marketplace” where voters play a ‘role of buyers’ and political parties play a ‘role of sellers’. And the most interesting thing is that all these players are guided by their self-interest. Voters want the governance vacuum to be filled, political parties want self-financed candidates and criminal candidates want self-preservation and self-protection.
The origin of this whole criminality in Indian politics which has deep historical linkages in the post-independence era when these anti-social elements acted as a facilitator to the politicians. However, these elements entered into the political fray due to the breakdown of the Congress party’s patronage networks, vacuum created in the governance process due to the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, increasing social demands in terms of ‘identity politics’, the huge ‘crisis of governability’ when Indian state fails to deliver basic services to the citizens. However, the author has provided an important insight into the book,
“Electoral support for the politicians with criminal records is not necessiarily symptomatic of a breakdown in democratic accountability. Instead, malfeasant politicians and popular accountability can in fact be compatible to each other”.“When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics”-Milan Vaishnav
In fact, this whole idea refuted the concept of “ignorant voter scenario hypothesis”. In fact, the voters are not ignorant or uninformed, they are simply looking for candidates who can best fill a perceived vacuum of representation and protect the status of the community. The author through his various field surveys, as well as interviews of the candidates, provided interesting details of the criminalization of politics in India and what are the causes as well as how it is sustained in the strong society like India.
The supply of criminal politicians and money power is intertwined to each other as money plays an important role in the election expenditure. This also has historical underpinnings when the corporate donation was banned by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to appear harsh on ‘crony capitalism’ which in turn created the pathway for black money and hard cash to enter into the election financial regime. Not only this, India’s grand corruption in terms of ‘regulatory rents’, ‘extractive rents’ and ‘political rents’ created a linkage and interaction among them created more ground for criminal politicians to emerge. The author has quoted the example of ‘Reddy Brothers‘ in Karnataka, Madhu Koda of Jharkhand, YSR & Jagan Reddy from Andhra Pradesh showing that how they have extracted rents from natural resources taking advantage of severe gaps in India’s governance system. This whole corruption and hard cash create a lot of money power which helps in winning the elections. In fact, as per the analysis provided by the author, candidate’s wealth and electoral success are highly linked, richer is the candidate, more chances of winning. It answers the questions of why political parties select the candidates from the criminal backgrounds.
There is also calculated reasoning on the political parties to select ‘self-financing candidates’ who do not drain the party coffers but can provide rents to the party in the wake of costly elections, increasing competition etc. Criminal Politicians are like “Robinhood- one who robs the rich and gives to the poor” who act as a credible representative in a multi-ethnic society like India. The idea of Robinhood has been a recurring theme of Bollywood movies sometimes inspired by the real characters of Indian politics. That is why the author has named one of his chapters- doing good by doing bad to address the demand side of criminality. In fact, this shows that these bad politicians use various tools like ‘redistribution’, ‘coercion’, ‘social insurance’ and ‘dispute resolution’ to signal their credibility to protect the interest of their community. This whole politics of dignity rhetoric creates an extensive ground for “defensive criminality” to flourish.
The failure of the state to maintain rule of law, deeper social cleavages and ethnic differences create demand for criminal politicians to protect the interests of their community. The author has also provided an interesting insight in terms of the role of ethnicity in creating push of criminality as it was found that less number of criminal candidates contest from reserved constituencies as compared to general constituencies. The less criminality in reserved constituencies is due to the need of appealing to all section of voters for winning the election.
Ultimately, the conclusion of the author in the book is that the real factor of the emergence of criminality in politics is ‘institutional erosion’ of the Indian state. In fact, the capacity of the Indian state was questioned many times by various authors. Gunnar Myrdal in his book “Asian Drama” called India as a “soft state” because of its failure to implement basic economic and social policies efficiently and effectively. There is also a paradox of “weak strong state” as called by Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph where the Indian State is able to send Mars Mission in its maiden attempt but it is not able to fulfill the basic necessities of its citizens.
In fact, most of the book related to Indian politics reach this conclusion that we have achieved so much but our ‘institutions’ need radical reform to strengthen the capacity of the state. That is why the author also says, “Downsizing the state” or “enlarging the state” are imperfect catchphrases; what is needed, in a nutshell, is for the Indian state to be “right-sized”. It means that we need a radical restructuring of the institutions like the police, courts, political parties, the election system in terms of funding etc to make it more strongly to perform the role of a strong state who is not mocked when it can do more difficult things but not able to provide basic necessities of the people.
The author in just 311 pages has provided a comprehensive study of the nexus between crime and politics which also has implications for other countries of the world. As the author also wrote about the other countries like Brazil, Mexico and many African countries where similar scenario exists. This book was quoted by the recent Supreme Court Judgement on the criminalization of politics where the Supreme Court has ordered the Parliament to legislate to bar the criminals entering the mainstream politics. It is also the winner of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya NIF Book Prize for Best Non-Fiction Book of 2017.
However, as per my understanding, the book has fallen short in providing concrete solutions to deal with the problem of criminalization of politics. It has provided broad solutions which are already there in the public domain regarding the strengthening the institutions, reforming the whole governance process which is, in fact, an ongoing process. The criminalization of politics is a deep malaise also agreed by author reflects the overall attitude of society in terms of voting behavior guided by narrow interests of self-preservation, development and quick success. We obviously need the restructuring of the institutions along with that there is a need to inculcate good values, ethics, and morality in the society since childhood to make India a better nation because of it’s the people who constitute nation and state.