At first glance, the results of the latest assembly elections seemed to be a victory for clean politics as the proportion of winning candidates with criminal record declined from 2012. But as an 18 March report by the non-governmental organization, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), pointed out, the proportion of those with serious criminal charges against them (such as murder and rioting) has gone up. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, roughly one in four MLAs, and one in three ministers faces serious criminal charges.

The growing presence of politicians with serious criminal charges is not limited merely to state assemblies. The proportion of such politicians in the Lok Sabha has been rising over time. The question of what has driven this trend is among the most intriguing puzzles of India’s political economy, and one that the political scientist Milan Vaishnav seeks to answer in his new book, When Crime Pays, based on years of extensive research on this issue.

A long history

Vaishnav traces the roots of criminality in Indian politics to the legacy of the zamindari system, under which a landlord would often wield instruments of violence and coercion in the way police and law enforcement might in a modern state. While the system itself was abolished, the legitimacy of the strongman who could settle disputes and dispense patronage has remained entrenched in Indian society. In the early elections after India’s independence, such men came to be used selectively by the Congress party to coerce voters wherever it felt insecure. As it faced increasing competition from rivals, the use of hired goons increased. Around the 1970s during Indira Gandhi’s rule, this configuration was reset. Criminals were no longer content to play second fiddle to politicians, and started entering the electoral fray themselves.

This shift was caused by the end of the Congress party’s hegemony and rising multi-party competition across Indian states, Vaishnav argues. He suggests that criminals entered an implicit contract with the grand old party in the early years: service during elections in return for immunity later. As political competition intensified, and uncertainty over which party would form the next government in a state (and thereby control the police) grew, criminals faced rising uncertainty over whether the party would be able to honour the contract. Thus, the early urge to join politics may have come simply as a means of insuring themselves and their ‘operations’ from the law.

The Indira Gandhi era also marked a corrosion of party and state institutions across the country, both of which reinforced the criminalization of politics, writes Vaishnav. The decay of party organizations made both the Congress party as well as its rivals dependent on assorted slumlords and gang-lords to reach out to an influential section of voters. And to protect these elements, the police force was thoroughly politicized across Indian states, with even the appointment (or transfer) of junior police officers decided by political bosses. Low police salaries meant that they increasingly came to depend on kickbacks from criminals leading to a deep nexus between the three elements—criminals, politicians, and the police—which thrives to this day.

The role of black money

What accelerated these changes was the growing cost of fighting elections, partly due to rising inter-party competition, and partly due to a ban on corporate donations instituted by Indira Gandhi in 1969. According to a 2012 research paper by the scholars E. Sridharan and M.V. Rajeev Gowda (now a parliamentarian), the ban led to an increased dependence on illicit funding as it was not accompanied by any provision for state funding of political parties. Based on interviews with party officials and donors, the duo reckon that the average candidate spends way beyond the official limit, and finds clever ways to disguise such spending.

A 2011 research paper by the economist Devesh Kapur and Vaishnav point to circumstantial evidence showing that builders have been channelling funds to politicians during elections. By tracking monthly cement consumption (a proxy for construction activity), they show that construction activity undergoes a political business cycle, contracting during election campaigns. Another economist, Sandip Sukthankar, found a similar link between sugar mills and politicians during election years.

The rising dependence of political parties on illicit financing have strengthened the hands of criminal-politicians, argues Vaishnav. Criminals are seen as self-financing candidates, who allow political parties to deploy their funds on less resourceful candidates, writes Vaishnav. Thus a party is able to earn a ‘positive rent’ from a criminal candidate. One could also argue that putting criminal candidates in the fray helps raise the entry barrier in the regions they operate in, as they may be able to use their network of goons to thwart the political activities of challengers.

It is clear why criminals themselves want to join politics or why parties may tolerate, or even encourage them. But to understand why voters repose their faith in them, we need to look beyond the role of money in elections.

Social cleavages and the demand for Dabangg leaders

Many political theorists ascribe the choice of criminal or ‘bad’ politicians to information asymmetry, which helps them win the votes of gullible electors. In his rebuttal of this ‘ignorant voter hypothesis’, Vaishnav argues that the criminal charges such politicians face are not an electoral liability but an advantage. Using survey and ethnographic data, Vaishnav argues that people who vote for criminal politicians are fully aware of their criminal record, and this may in fact be a key reason why they cast their vote in their favour: because they believe that in times of need, the strong-arm tactics of the candidate can be relied upon to get things done. In a country faced with crumbling and often unresponsive state institutions, such men can often act as effective enforcers of property rights and as quick dispute resolution authorities. More importantly, they can get the state machinery to move through coercion when all else fails.

For members of their own caste or ethnic group, such politicians are also a source of protection and an effective weapon against rival groups which may be challenging their dominance in that constituency or region. Supporters of such politicians, often from their own caste or ethnic group, justify their extra-legal activities as acts of ‘defensive criminality’ which needed to be performed in order to thwart challenges from rival ethnic groups. Vaishnav points to several examples from his field-work to show that their own co-ethnics view them not as criminals in breach of the law but cast their criminality in defensive terms. Such politicians are viewed as legitimate strongmen or Dabangg (which loosely translates to someone who is fearsome and fearless) politicians who can protect the dignity and influence of their ethnic group by means fair or foul. Even admirers of the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who faces several criminal charges, cast him as a Dabangg leader.

Many of these politicians also project a ‘Robin Hood’ image, getting the state to work for the less privileged among other ethnic groups, thereby gaining their support. Also, in a multi-tiered contest, many voters who are not co-ethnics of the Dabangg politician may simply vote for him to avoid a lesser evil. Echoing the political scientist Atul Kohli, Vaishnav argues that the legacy of the old caste hierarchy has ensured that a lower caste voter may prefer voting for an upper caste strongman to voting for an upstart belonging to the intermediate castes.

“Where voters can be mobilized on identity grounds, there can be a payoff to fielding a candidate, who may be a criminal, but also a local ‘folk hero’ to his community,” writes Vaishnav. Another top official from a national party summed up the logic pithily: “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 mobilize popular, caste-based support.

The demand for Dabangg politicians is thus a direct outcome of the social cleavages in the country and failing state institutions, which allow them to gain legitimacy. Previous research by economists have shown that in fragmented societies with diverse ethnic groups, provision of public goods may be lower because it is difficult for people to agree on the provision of public goods that benefit everyone, borrowing from the pioneering work of the American economist Mancur Olson. Whether the Olson effect works of course depends on the actions of political elites, who can either accentuate or bridge such divides. But as Vaishnav points out, it is in the interest of Dabangg politicians to keep the pot of ethnic tensions boiling to maintain their own relevance in the political system.

Although Vaishnav offers a dark prognosis, he does not agree with scholars who view the rise of criminal politicians as an aberration of democracy or a failure of democratic accountability. Much like the post-colonial scholar Partha Chatterjee, who views extra-legal or quasi-legal arrangements as an integral part of developing democracies, Vaishnav too considers the rise of criminal politicians as a partial affirmation of democratic accountability. Vaishnav also cites research on other developing countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Jamaica to illustrate the point that criminality in politics is not an uniquely Indian phenomenon. Jaimaicans in fact use a term, ‘badness-honour’, which has striking similarities to the Indian concept of Dabangg.

“The fact that voters often perceive candidates associated with breaking the law to be more credible than their counterparts suggests that the emergence of tainted politicians in democracies is not necessarily symptomatic of a breakdown in political and electoral accountability,” writes Vaishnav.

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