Author Milan Vaishnav discusses his book on crime and Indian politics.

The nexus of crime and politics is quite apparent — and baffling — in India, the world’s largest democracy: 34% of its members of Parliament have ongoing criminal cases and around 21% are facing charges that, if upheld, would merit prison time. These are people that Indian voters put in power.

Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace whose primary research focus is on the political economy of India, says one reason why voters choose to elect candidates with dubious reputations is due to the “huge abyss between the aspirations of the people and what institutions can deliver.” In his book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, Vaishnav notes that there is need for large structural changes to restore public trust in institutions. His findings also have implications on the nature of democracy itself in other societies.

Vaishnav discussed the various issues raised in his book with [email protected] and Devesh Kapur, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India. Vaishnav and Kapur are also co-editors with leading academic and political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the book, Rethinking Public Institutions in India.

When Crime Pays Democracy

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics by Milan Vaishnav

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: What inspired you to write this book?

Milan Vaishnav: I was in India in the summer of 2008. At the time, the government of India was led by the Congress Party and they faced a vote of no confidence over the controversial U.S.-India civil nuclear deal. The government was so nervous it might actually fail this vote and would have to call fresh elections that, 24 hours before the vote was to take place, they temporarily released six members of Parliament [from jail] who were either convicted or indicted of committing murder, have them come to Parliament, cast a vote and then get carted back off to jail.

I remember watching these scenes unfold on television news and I thought, “Well, this is rather interesting.” I thought, quite naively, ‘Are there many criminals in Indian politics? This didn’t really merit much attention; it was a sort of blip. But the more digging I did, the murkier it became. It seemed that this was common knowledge; everyone acknowledged that, yes, there was a marriage between crime and politics. I kept looking for a book that would explain to me what was going on so I could come back to India to find a topic to research for my dissertation.

By the end of the summer, I concluded that I was going to have to write that book if I wanted the answer.

Devesh Kapur: Give us a sense of the scope of this. We know from your book there are a fair number, or lots, of people with criminal charges, both in national parliament and in state assemblies. What’s the scope of this issue or challenge or problem?

Vaishnav: In 2003, the Supreme Court of India ruled that anybody who stands for elected office in India must, at the time of submitting their nomination papers, also submit a judicial affidavit, in which they detail their criminal record and their financial details. So we now have a window into this universe of crime and politics. What the data shows is that as of 2014, which is the last time India held a general election, 34% of members of Parliament face ongoing criminal cases, which means there are judicial proceedings underway to prosecute cases against them.

Some 21%, or roughly one in five MPs, face what is known as a “serious case,” which is something that, if there were to actually be a conviction, would merit hard jail time — leaving aside what we might consider to be minor transgressions, things like defamation or libel, unlawful assembly. Focus instead on things like attempted murder, dacoity, banditry, kidnapping extortion — these are serious crimes. What’s interesting to note is that if you look at the last three general election cycles — 2004, 2009, 2014 — these proportions are actually going up rather than going down.

“Voters … often support candidates with criminal reputations, not in spite of their criminal bona fides, but because of them.” –Milan Vaishnav

If you go down to the state and local levels, you find very similar patterns. One in three state legislators in India today is also under criminal scrutiny. This is a significant number. When you look at where this is happening, if you were to plot this against a map of India, it’s happening in virtually all four corners of the country.

Kapur: These are criminal charges. Under Indian electoral law, they would not be able to stand [for elections]. How many of these people are actually convicted or do we know the eventual outcomes of these charges?

Vaishnav: Here’s what we know. These are more than just charges. Typically, what happens in a criminal case is someone files what’s called a “first information report.” The police gather evidence. The prosecutors then decide whether or not there is a case to be made. They then present that to a judge. A judge decides to take cognizance of the case and then frames the charges against the accused. What these politicians or these candidates must disclose are only those cases where a judge has taken cognizance or framed the charges already.

So it has passed several hurdles before it shows up in the data, so to speak. Having said that, these are now convictions and India is a country where you have the rule of law. There is a sense that people are innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, due to the weaknesses of the Indian justice system, very few of these cases ever reach their logical conclusion. A tiny percentage, less than 1% of all of these cases that we have data on, actually show convictions on the affidavits of these criminal politicians.

Kapur: One implication of what this might mean is that the politicians will never have an incentive to strengthen the justice system because it serves their interest to keep it weak so that these cases just drag on and on. And of course, the implications of a weak justice system are not just for the politicians; they affect all aspects of life. Might that be valid?

Vaishnav: The weakness of the rule of law presents a dual advantage. The first advantage is that they can get away with engaging in illegal activities without a high probability they are going to get caught and face actual justice. The second implication is that they can do things once they’re in office that allow them to manipulate the rules in their favor. So they can bend rules in order to distribute goods, services to people who support them. They can help put pressure on the system.

Kapur: Especially the police.

Vaishnav: Especially the police to help their backers. The rule of law actually provides them a sense of immunity or impunity. It also allows them to be seen as people who know

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