Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila fared poorly in a recent state election while in many jurisdictions, criminals are voted into office.  Photo: Reuters
Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila fared poorly in a recent state election while in many jurisdictions, criminals are voted into office. Photo: Reuters

Just-concluded elections for five state assemblies in India have underscored Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s undiminished popularity among voters, especially in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where his Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory. Of the 403 seats in the UP assembly, the BJP won 312, leaving its rivals trailing far behind.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous and politically crucial state: It accounts for 80 seats in the country’s 543-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.

Among the most important challenges before the new government in Uttar Pradesh is fighting crime. According to latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015, the state topped the country in the number of violent crimes (13% of the national total) and crimes against women (11.4%). It accounted for 8.73% of all rapes in the country.

If the composition of the new state government is any indication of how it views crime, however, it does seem that cracking down on criminals is not going to be a priority.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization that works in the area of electoral and political reforms, of Uttar Pradesh’s 403 members of the legislative assembly, 143 (approximately 36%) are facing criminal charges, 107 of them (26%) for very serious crimes, including rape, murder, attempted  murder, and extortion.

Serious charges

Leading the pack of gangsters and goons are Mukhtar Ansari, who has 16 criminal cases against him, including five charges of murder, and Raja Bhaiya, who is facing multiple criminal cases including charges of kidnapping, attempted murder, and banditry. Raja Bhaiya, in fact, is rumored to have fed his enemies to crocodiles that he rears in a lake at his heavily fortified residential premises.

But Uttar Pradesh isn’t alone; every state in India has goons and gangsters in its legislative assembly. The Lok Sabha is no different; 34% of India’s members of parliament face criminal charges. And their proportion is rising. It was 30% in 2009 and 24% in 2004.

All political parties put up criminals as candidates. In the Uttar Pradesh election, for instance, candidates facing criminal charges constituted 40% of all of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s candidates, with the Samajwadi Party (37%), BJP (36%) and Congress (32%) following close behind.

Politicians wax eloquent on fighting crime. Yet they choose criminals to contest elections. Most criminals are self-financing candidates and politicians prefer them as they are not a drain on party resources but in fact contribute to its coffers, points out Milan Vaishnav, author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. And they have higher chances of winning. Vaishnav found that candidates with criminal records had an 18% chance of winning their next election compared with a “clean” candidate who had only a 6% chance.

So why do Indians vote for, elect and even re-elect criminal candidates? Ansari has won the Mau seat five times in a row since 1996, twice from inside prison. Since 1993 when he entered politics, Raja Bhaiya has won assembly elections six times.

Is illiteracy to blame? Unlikely, as even states such as Kerala, which boasts of 94% literacy, elect criminals as legislators. Around 62% of legislators in the Kerala assembly at present have criminal cases against them.

Robin Hoods?

Vaishnav argues that Indian voters “often have a rational, strategic logic” for voting for criminal candidates. Where the rule of law is weak and the state’s delivery of services is poor, strongmen provide protection or deliver welfare benefits or settle disputes. These benefits are directed at their caste group or sectarian community, thus drawing their votes.

Many Indians blame the lack of choice. Indeed, as pointed out above, all parties put up criminal candidates, but this do not always do so. There are people with records of exemplary public service who contest elections. But rarely do they win.

Take Irom Sharmila, for instance, a social activist from the northeastern state of Manipur who fasted for 16 years to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian emergency law. During that period, she was held in solitary confinement and force-fed via painful nasal drip by state authorities.

Frustrated with the failure of her hunger strike to get AFSPA repealed, she ended the fast in August last year and switched to electoral politics to secure the goal.

In the recent elections to the Manipur state assembly, Sharmila contested Thoubal constituency against Okram Ibobi Singh, Manipur’s chief minister for 15 years in a row.

Voters did have a choice here. They could have voted for Sharmila, who put her own life on the line for a public cause. Yet they elected Singh.

Sharmila secured just 90 votes.

A businessman who voted in Thoubal constituency told Asia Times by telephone that “credibility of the candidate” determined his decision to vote for Singh and not Sharmila. “Singh has the capacity, the muscle to get things done,” he said, “unlike Sharmila, who has achieved nothing.”

The victories of people like Ansari and Raja Bhaiya raise serious concerns over the health of India’s democracy. But more worrying is the defeat of people like Sharmila.

While the former signals widespread rot in India’s democracy, the latter snuffs out hopes of reviving this democracy.

As a report in news portal The Wire rightly observed, “On polling day, voters in her constituency ensured not just the victory of the sitting chief minister and the defeat of Sharmila; they also scripted an elegy for Indian democracy.”

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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