Business Standard
New Delhi

' reaction to the recent  rulings is muted and a sense of unease among them visible. The apex court had ruled that legislators convicted in  cases carrying two-year jail term would be disqualified. It had also ruled that those in lawful police custody and serving jail terms would be barred from voting and contesting elections.

The discomfort among parties, both national and state, is not without a reason. The only tried and tested instrument they have used thus far to win elections has been fielding candidates with a criminal background. Two recent studies clearly bring this out.

The recent National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) working paper 'How Indian Voters Respond to Candidates with Criminal Charges: Evidence from the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections', by NIPFP professor Poonam Gupta and University of Warwick professor Bhaskar Dutta, argues candidates with criminal antecedents win party nomination and subsequently elections due to their propensity to spend more during a campaign. The study clearly shows "criminal candidates are significantly wealthier than those without criminal charges".

Another recent study 'Incumbents and Criminals in the Indian National Legislature', by Toke Aidt of Cambridge University, Miriam A Golden of University of California at Los Angeles, and Devesh Tiwari of the University of California at San Diego, argues that "in both 2004 and 2009, Indian candidates to the lower house whose affidavits report criminal charges have a much larger likelihood of winning than other candidates". Incidentally, these were the only Lok Sabha elections where candidates had to mandatorily file affidavits detailing their financial assets and their criminal antecedents.

Before looking at arguments given in these papers, let's look at some facts. According to a Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) report, 162, or 30 per cent of the 543 MPs who made it the Lok Sabha in 2009, had criminal cases pending against them. This was a sharp increase from 24 per cent such cases in the 2004 elections. There has been an increase in serious criminal cases pending against elected representatives as well.

While 2004 had seen election of 58 MPs with serious criminal cases, the figure rose to 76 in 2009. The ADR report further establishes that most political parties have been generous in selecting candidates with criminal background as their representatives in elections. "Money and muscle power are in full display during elections," says Anil Bairwal, ADR's national coordinator.

Advantage criminals in electoral game
Why do parties prefer candidates with criminal background? The answer is simple: They are more likely to win elections. "In 2004, more than a quarter of those facing criminal charges won their seats, compared with a success rate of only eight per cent for other candidates. The 2009 elections were much more competitive - the total number of candidates rose 50 per cent over the 2004 total - but even so, allegedly criminal candidates won 14 per cent of the time compared with a success rate of six per cent for those who did not report criminality on their affdavits. In both elections, candidates reporting criminal charges were two to three times more likely to win than others. This obvious electoral advantage makes candidates reporting criminal charges unusually attractive to political parties. Although in most circumstances we expect criminality to constitute an electoral hindrance, in contemporary India the reverse appears to be the case," according to the study by Toke Aidt, Miriam A Golden and Devesh Tiwari.

In an emailed response to Business Standard, Tiwari says: "In general, elections in India are highly localised affairs, and citizens try to vote for the candidate that impacts their well-being, or the well-being of their local area, the most. Furthermore, in certain areas (poor villages, slums, areas with caste violence, etc) criminals may simply have a perceived advantage in delivering these localised benefits."

Data clearly establish that candidates with criminal record are more likely to win elections as opposed to those with clean image. This is the reason why political parties find it logical to field them en masse. The NIPFP study says: "Roughly one in seven candidates fielded by state parties has at least two criminal charges. The corresponding number for national parties is one in ten candidates." Studies suggest that tainted candidates are more likely to contest in constituencies with higher percentage of poor and illiterate voters. We know the preponderance of tainted candidates in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.

Apart from winnability, the tainted candidates also bring to the table considerable money to be spent during election campaign. Tiwari says: "Money power is also very important in elections. A fellow scholar on Indian elections, Milan Vaishnav, has found that candidates with criminal records are wealthier than non-criminal candidates, and that both criminality and wealth positively predict electoral success. In other words, the more money a candidate has, or if that candidate has a criminal record, the more likely it is that the candidate will win an election.

Money wins votes
We have the data to support that wealth does play a decisive role in securing a favourable verdict. According to ADR analysis of the 2009 Lok Sabha results, in as many as 184 (34 per cent) constituencies, the candidates with highest declared assets won the elections. And, in another 24 per cent constituencies, candidates with second0highest declared assets secured victory. "In almost 58 per cent constituencies, candidates with first or second position by assets emerged as MPs," the ADR report says. The NIPFP study, therefore, concludes: "Our main empirical results suggest that voters do punish candidates with criminal charges against them. However, these tainted candidates are able to overcome this electoral disadvantage because they have greater wealth, and wealth plays a significant role in increasing vote shares. The most plausible channel through which wealth affects vote shares is, of course, through campaign expenditures, which are likely to be positively related to wealth."

Now, the question is what will happen to the political parties' successful formula of nominating tainted candidates to win elections following the Supreme Court order? Political parties will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the order does not become operational. Already, there is a move to build a consensus on bringing suitable constitutional amendment to ensure that status quo continues.

However, in case that does not happen, parties will have a hard time fielding candidates likely to be imprisoned. "Political parties will hesitate to give tickets to tainted candidates as there will be a fear of losing seats," says Bairwal. He adds that unless there is greater transparency in political funding and campaign finance and fast-tracking of court cases, the crime-politics nexus is hard to break. Tiwari, however, is less optimistic. He says: "Given the high demand that parties have for electoral assets, the privileged position of criminal gangs in the local political economy, and the lack of faith that many voters have in the ability of parties to affect change, criminals will remain an important part of the political landscape."

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