Criminalization of Politics

It is often said that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. During the national elections for the 16th Lok Sabha in India, the parliamentary constituency of Varanasi has become a fiercely contested hot seat with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in fray from the constituency for a prestigious win and major rival parties including the Congress making all out efforts to defeat him. So it came as no surprise when the other day I saw a news item that the Quami Ekta Dal has resolved to support the Congress candidate from Varanasi.

What is interesting in this news item is the fact that the leader of the said party is widely known gangster-turned-politician from the eastern Uttar Pradesh and is the prime accused in the murder case of the elder brother of the Congress candidate of this constituency. He has been recently released on bail apparently to enable him to fight election from another nearby constituency. Even a person of ordinary prudence would easily decipher that the Congress party and its candidate are so desperate to defeat or give a tough fight to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate that they have no reservations in joining hands with a criminal-turned-politician even though he is under trial for the murder of the candidate's own brother.

Adversaries and impartial analysts feel that the said alliance has been forged mainly to win mandate from a large section of minority community voters which are said to be over three lakhs in the constituency. This is despite the fact that even if this alliance succeeds at Varanasi, the ruling party can’t stop BJP’s nominee to become prime minister if the latter musters a sizeable majority in the parliament in collaboration with allies. At best this can cause some embarrassment to the prime ministerial candidate and in the process the dirty politics might win and the democratic values lose.

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) is a non-government organization (NGO) working for transparency in the Indian politics. As per analysis carried out by ADR and National Election Watch (NEW) immediately after the general election for the 15th Lok Sabha in May 2009 on winning candidates, about 150 (28%) MPs from various parties had criminal records and out of this 72 (13.5%) were facing serious criminal charges like murder, attempt to murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping etc. As compared to similar data in 2004 general elections, increase in the category of MPs with criminal records and those with serious criminal charges in 2009 was about 17% and 30%, respectively. During the same period, the number of billionaires among winning MPs have also gone up from 154 in 2004 to 300 in 2009, almost a 95% increase.

While the elections for the 16th Lok Sabha are still on, the above NGOs have carried out the analysis of 8163 candidates out of 8230 candidates based on their self-sworn affidavits. The data and information available in the public domain indicate that out of the candidates analysed, about 51% are not even graduates. Of the major political parties, the Congress, BJP and AAP have about 28%, 33% and 15% candidates respectively with criminal cases pending against them. Further, the candidates with serious criminal cases including murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, crimes against woman, communal disharmony etc. include the Congess (13%), BJP (21%) and AAP (10%). At the same time, number of billionaire candidates including the Congress (79%), BJP (73%) and AAP (45%) is also significant. Needless to mention, this trend in respect of other national and regional parties is not much different.

Thus the criminalization of politics continues to be a serious concern both in terms of growing number and percentage of candidates with criminal background in successive elections. In order to increase the prospects of winning an election, parties appear to give preference to muscle power and money power over the image, honesty and integrity of candidates. The past trend suggest a convicted person or a known criminal is able to muster enough support to win mandate from people during an election. This in tandem with the social, economic and political complexities in this country provide ideal conditions for the manipulative politicians to shamelessly pursue and keep on playing the game of opportunism for their vested interests.
Although no reliable data would be available but the instances of the misuse of cash and kind incentives to influence or buy votes have also shown sharp increase in successive elections. It is an obvious corollary that candidates who spend huge amount of money to win elections, would also want to recover money spent with dividends by resorting to unethical ways and means and by granting favours & concessions to those who funded their campaign thereby compromising the chances of good governance and democratic functioning.
It is not that the problem of the criminalization of politics has not been realized. The growing trend of the criminalization of politics was studied by the former Union Home Secretary N. N. Vohra and the Vohra Committee had submitted its report way back in October, 1993. Parts of the report which were made public contained serious observations on the problem of the criminalization of politics and growing nexus among criminals, politicians and bureaucrats. The report had inter alia observed the rapid growth and spread of criminal gangs, armed senas, drug mafias, smuggling gangs,  drug peddler and economic lobbies in the country which have, over the years, developed an extensive network of contacts with the bureaucrats / government functionaries, politicians, media persons and strategically located individuals in the non-state sectors.
It is ironical that whenever an issue hot up due to public outcry or crisis felt in governance, every time a high level commission or committee is constituted by the contemporary government.  As the days pass, the heat and dust settles down and the issue takes a back seat in the sequence of priorities. So this report also did not see much follow up action to reach to a logical end by taking needful measures to curtail the criminalization of politics.
In this context, I recall a particular incident during my stay at Allahabad, UP over two decades back. There were two rival gangs in the city and incidents of their criminal activities and infighting were often in news. On one particular occasion, there was a grapevine that leaders of the rival gangs have challenged for eliminating each other by setting deadlines. Later, one of them was indeed killed in the broad day light in a locality in the old city. Who killed whom was talk of the town but as people philosophically say ‘the law will take its own course’, the law indeed took its own course and the murder mystery was never solved. Later on, the gangster who survived joined a political party and became Member of the State Legislative Assembly (MLA) on successive occasions and even the member of the 14th Lok Sabha. Interestingly, such people over a period muster a lot of support and following among public partly on account of fear factor and partly because they are also seen as saviour or hero in their own community.
There are criminals with the grave charges of crime such as murder, attempt to murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping, extortion, land grabbing etc. whose help in terms of muscle and money power is sought by politicians to dominate election scene. Besides, there is a large number of criminal-turned-politicians too with similar criminal background who actually contest and win elections as party candidates and even hold important position while the party endorsing them is in power.
There are several factors and reasons responsible for the criminalization of politics. The way elections have become a hectic and costly affairs over a period of time, the parties and individual politicians need huge money and muscle power to win elections. There are laid down norms and limit on canvassing and spending in every election which is considered not suffice by many, hence all overt and covert means are resorted to by the election candidates. Consequently, they try to engage any willing person/group irrespective of background if this suits their interests. It’s so often that the vote-bank politics decisively prevails upon the national interests even if it is detrimental to integrity and sovereignty of the nation. The money and muscle power of the criminals have tremendous potential in influencing electorate often decisively in favour of candidates contesting election. Hence it is not surprising that the parties and many politicians are found too willing to exploit and avail any such opportunity available.
Thus the criminalization of politics continues to be a serious cancerous disease both in terms of growing number and percentage in successive elections. Apart from taking willing support of criminal elements, in order to increase the prospects of winning an election, parties appear to give preference to candidates as their party nominee with enough muscle and money power over the ones with clean image, honesty and integrity.
In India, almost every party fields up candidates with criminal records, on the pretext that the person is innocent till he is convicted by a court of law. It is another fact that many criminal-turned-politicians face numerous charges of serious crimes with cases remain undecided in the judiciary for decades. Besides there are instances, when the state has withdrawn pending cases with grave charges against such criminals or criminal-turned-politicians. When such a huge amount is spent to win elections with politician-criminal nexus, they are sure to find ways and means to recover the money spent with handsome returns. So it is not surprising that the country has seen many scams over the years with the involvement of politicians holding high offices in the government in collaboration with criminals.
Needless to mention that the onus is on the entire system including the political parties, law & order machinery and electorate for the present sorry state of affairs, where criminalization of politics has willy-nilly been accepted as way of life. There are instances when a person with criminal cases pending fights election while in jail and yet he wins election. As per existing law, people who have been convicted at least on two counts shall be debarred from fighting an election. Consequently, many charge sheeted criminals with dozens of serious cases pending can participate in electoral process. Ordinarily, a charge sheet is filed against an individual when prima facie enough evidence exists to prosecute the person. Despite this position, charge-sheets and pending cases are not considered as disqualification of a person for fighting elections.
The criminalization of politics combined with corruption is perhaps the biggest threat of this democratic nation today. As can be seen from the foregoing, the root causes of the progressive criminalization of politics are the ever growing nexus of money power, muscle power and dirty politics. Many criminals and mafia flourish under the patronage of the elected representatives of the state and national assemblies and many of them join band-wagon of active politics to represent public by winning popular mandate by hook or crook.
Since 2002, all candidates contesting elections of any civic body, state legislature or parliament are required to declare, among other things, the details of their criminal charges, financial position and educational qualification but enough measures have not been taken to disseminate this information so that this actually reach electorate for making their choice.
The ground reality is that a sort of symbiotic relationship exists among many criminals, politicians and bureaucrats.  In the process, a politician’s stake is achieving a particular stature and recognition which often enables him to act above law of the land. Many bureaucrats, in turn, are found too eager to follow and oblige their political bosses keeping eyes on plum assignments and postings including their aspirations post retirement. The criminals lend their black money and muscle power and in turn derive strength and favours from the political links to flourish their coercive activities and brush up against law.
What is the solution then in such a scenario? Bringing out radical electoral reforms is crucial to ensure that only people with unquestionable integrity become representative of people. To discourage people with criminal background to become an elected representative, one possible way forward is to amend law to ensure that any person who has been charge sheeted shall not be allowed to participate in the electoral process as a candidate till he is absolved of any charges in the court of law.  The usual argument is given that a person is innocent till he is convicted by a court of law. But the case in point is that a charge sheet is issued against an individual only after a prima facie case is established against him. There may be instances when police or CBI have framed charges which are politically motivated but such instances would be few and worth ignoring in larger national interest.
The other and for more simpler approach could be that the recognized national and regional parties voluntarily resolve to avoid having any link or giving tickets during election to persons with known criminal background. This approach is more of a test of morality and ethics which can be pursued only by the parties and politicians with high moral standards and least or none vested interests.

But the vital question in either case is whether continuing vested interests, perceived benefits of money & muscle support and insatiable greed for power will ever allow consensus among the law makers (elected representatives) of various parties to frame effective laws or voluntary distancing from the criminal elements and activities?


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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