Friday, 4 May 2018

BOOK REVIEW by Ajay Singha of “When Crime Pays – Money & Muscle in Indian Politics” Author Milan Vaishnav.


India is perpetually on election mode and the country continues to witness a disturbing alliance between crime and politics. How did this phenomena creep into the Indian electoral process? What transpired over the years in Indian politics, that crime and politics became willing bed partners? Why would criminals contest elections leaving their murky business aside?  Why do political parties accept such tainted individuals and most baffling of all – why would honest people vote for such individuals when they are fully aware of their criminal antecedents? These are questions addressed by the author, Milan Viashnav, in this painstakingly well researched book.

Milan is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Foundation in Washington DC and has been a Fellow at the Centre for Global Development Studies. He has taught at Columbia, George Washington and Georgetown Universities. This book is an extension of his Research Thesis and includes almost nothing which is not supported by empirical evidence, statistical analysis and credible references, the hallmark of an erudite scholar-academic. 

As the next round of elections is around the corner, the informed public in India will do well to read this book and improve their insight into this expanding unholy nexus across political formations between politics and crime. According to data compiled by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), 24% of Members of Parliament elected in 20014 faced criminal charges, this figure grew to 30 % in 2009 and climbed to 34 % in 2014.

The book highlights a major factor supporting this rising phenomena, namely that criminals self finance their political campaign. Political parties are invariably short of finances and such offers topped with additional contributions helps plug the fiscal gap albeit at the cost of overlooking their criminal antecedents.

Over time the criminal politician’s capability to resolve local issues and get things done projects them in a modern Robin Hood image. Pappu Yadav, Mohammad Shahbuddin, Arun Gawli, Madhu Koda, Raja Bhaiya, Phoolan Devi are names synonymous with this rising phenomena. A quintile analysis of the poorest to richest candidates in past election reveals that the richest have substantially higher chances of election victory but only if combined with a tag of high criminality. Viewed from the context of Indian political history a jail term may not have extreme negative connotations but it would be excessive to suggest that the common voter cannot differentiate between the reasons for incarceration for Jawaharlal Nehru and Pappu Yadav.

Indian democracy, as it turns out, comprises of individuals steeped in the world of crime.....not white-collar crimes like corruption and bribery, but serious offenses like murder, kidnapping, arson etc.  Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, Pakistan and Philippines suffer similar challenges and moot the questions - Is this the price citizens must pay for democracy? and how did the US and other democratic nations cope with this phenomena?

This book is not about illiterate and ignorant voters being misled into voting for criminal candidates or the information gap between fact and reality. The book presents evidence supporting a strong correlation between constituencies of criminal candidates and localities with caste identity issues. A notable exception being West Bengal where party-identification overrides caste and religious identity. 

The author retains the academic gravitas associated with research and incorporates desk work with field study examples and interviews. The book discusses the rot which set into the grand old party from its early inception, as the power base shifted from visionaries and statesmen to opportunistic rent seekers. Complex aspects of political science, sociology, economics and history have been used with multiple references, notes and appendix. The lay reader may find this a bit intimidating but it is quite essential for supporting view points, defending stated positions and stand the scrutiny of critics. 

What remains unexplored is the effect criminality in politics will have on people’s attitudes, their trust and belief in the rule of law, their basic perceptions of politics may get adversely influenced and will impact their decisions for joining politics. In a country with a close to zero transparency in political contributions the road ahead looks quite murky and only political reforms can determine the direction for democracy and public institutions. India can provide one billion people with unique biometric identification numbers but struggles to enforce the rule of law and basic facilities for the common man, this duality, according to Lloyd and Sussan Rudolh is the paradox of the “Weak-Strong State”.

In conclusion the author quotes Francis Fukuyama’s three essentials for a healthy democracy - effective State apparatus - adherence to the Rule of Law and - democratic Accountability. The informed citizenry is advised to read such a well researched book and draw their own lessons for further debate on the subject under review. It is also high time that a nation with the motto “Satyameva Jayate: Truth alone triumphs” acts decisively to prevent the entry of criminals into the country’s political main stream.