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When we first crack open hot new bestseller When Crime Pays, we expect to find explanations for men such as Lok Sabha MP Pappu Yadav, convicted murderer and cabin-crew harrasser whos also one of north Bihars electoral sweethearts. But political scientist Milan Vaishnav, whos analysed the criminal records and democratic successes of over 70,000 electoral candidates in this meticulous, important book, also tells a much bigger story. Across city and village, north and south, rich and poor India, parties seem to love putting up criminal candidates -- and we love voting them into power.

"One million people are entering the labour force each month," Vaishnav says when we email him to ask how people from India's big cities are implicated in this. "Roughly the same number are moving from rural to urban settlements. Today, one has to conclude that the ability of the Indian state to manage these two transformations is underwhelming, to put it mildly. We are seeing popular agitations in region after region driven by underlying grievances around the lack of economic opportunity." Given this situation, we gravitate to finding "protectors," Vaishnav says. "You are not motivated by growing the pie; you want to take someone else’s slice."

So why are you living in or next to a constituency represented by a political leader with serious criminal charges on their rap sheet? Below, we present some of Vaishnav's explanations (edited from an email interview):

We Depend Too Much On Gangsters: Our cities, Vaishnav says, are becoming overwhelmed by the influx of new residents, which places new stresses on the ability of local governments to carry out everyday governance. In this breach, strongmen who can fill in the gap have found the space to operate.” Theres history to this, as yesterdays election results in Mumbai indicate: Think about a party like the Shiv Sena, which thrives in and around Mumbai. The Sena shot to prominence as a reaction to demographic change in Mumbai, brought on by migration, and its promise to get stuff done.”  

You are not motivated by growing the pie; you want to take someone else’s slice.

Vaishnav says that the victory of clean government” campaigners like the Aam Aadmi Party initially surprised him: I thought the party had the potential to radically reframe Indian politics,” he says. But its been a rocky ride for AAP since their famous victory as well. Im willing to give them more time, but it does seem that they have been forced to make compromises with some of their guiding principles.

We Think Our Faves Would Never: See 2014, the good governance” election in which the Bharatiya Janata Party actually put up the biggest number of criminal candidates in the country. The BJP got a pass in 14 because most of the attention was on Modi rather than on the candidates who were contesting on a BJP ticket,” Vaishnav says. The same is true today of Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.

Rhetoric aside, nearly every party has made their peace with money and muscle. But we also have to recognise why they have struck this compromise; they would not enter this bargain if they did not profit from doing so on election day. While the middle classes might abhor the use of strongmen, there are other constituencies who see them as a lifeline.

We Love Social DivisionsThere is a general belief that parochial attachments such as caste or identity will decline in importance in cities, but quite the opposite could happen in the near term,” Vaishnav says. The popular belief that changing the demographics of candidacy — having more women, or young persons, or white-collar professionals stand for elections — can only take us so far. 

You have two pressures on politics which, taken together, are fueling criminality,” Vaishnav explains. The first is the costs of elections, and the second is the governance deficit. The latter is further exacerbated by the manipulation of social divisions, such as caste or religion. Criminal politicians harp on these divisions to slice and dice the electorate to their favour. Unless and until you deal with these, there will always be a market for strongmen.” In light of this, changing demographics will only help on the margins.

Weve Made Elections Too ExpensiveAfter the government cancelled nearly all of our money, everyone hoped notebandi would be followed by a clean-up Indias political funding — which would in turn bring down the demand for political leaders rolling in it. Alas. Demonetisation on its own is not going to bring down the costs of elections, as we are seeing in five states going through elections right now,” Vaishnav points out. Nearly all the ground reporting suggests that money is flowing just as it was before November 8.

While the middle classes might abhor the use of strongmen, there are other constituencies who see them as a lifeline.

I am actually fairly pessimistic that you can bring down the costs of elections in the near term,” he continues. The best we can hope for is to bring in some modicum of transparency so that the public at least has some visibility into where the money is coming from. This means not only auditing party accounts, but also insisting on complete transparency of political donations.

We Don't Live In The North-East: When we ask where an Indian is least likely to vote for a criminal candidate, Vaishnav says the numbers are clear: The North-East! Judging by the official statistics, there is very little criminality in the many of its smaller states,” he says: a puzzle that hasnt been fully figured out. But before you pack your bags, a heads-up: At least part of it has to do with the fact that insurgency or armed movements occupy the space that criminal politics might,” he says. The low levels of criminality could also be linked to the normalization of violent political entrepreneurs-with whom the state has cut deals. Be that as it may, theres something interesting going on in the North-East and, as usual, we are way behind in understanding whats happening.

Political Animals: Milan's 'Further Reading' List

Jeffrey WitsoeDemocracy against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013, buy here)

Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, eds., Public Institutions in India: Performance and Design (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005, buy here)

Atul KohliDemocracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990, buy here)

Sankarshan ThakurSubaltern Saheb: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav (New Delhi: Picador, 2006, see more here)

Lucia MicheluttiThe Vernacularisation of Democracy: Politics, Caste, and Religion in India (New Delhi: Routledge, 2008, buy here)

Getting there: For a careful, extremely readable study of the criminal marketplace in Indian democracy, get When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics here, or read more about it here

Image credit: Harper Collins India.


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