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India: The crime of politics
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The controversy over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) granting membership to a top mafia don has drawn attention to the extent to which the membership of India's political parties has become criminalized. While the BJP has subsequently reversed its decision under pressure from the media, the issue is far from closed as almost every party has members with a criminal background.

The mafia don to which the BJP opened its doors is D P Yadav, a "hardened professional criminal" - as police records describe him. His area of operations is said to extend across national capital New Delhi and the neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Besides being named in nine murder cases, Yadav's name figures in three cases of attempted murder, two cases of dacoity (robbery by an Indian gang of bandits), besides several cases of kidnapping for extortion. He has been charged under a number of acts, including the Excise Act, Gangsters' Act, and even the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act. Illicit liquor supplied by Yadav was responsible for the death of around 350 persons who consumed it. His son is the prime accused in a murder case in Delhi last year.

While Yadav's criminal record can be traced back to the late 1970s, his economic clout brought him rich political returns within a decade. In 1989, he stood for elections, won and even held a ministerial post in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly. He has made his way through several parties, including the Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. But his stint in the BJP lasted barely four days - the party withdrew membership to the mafia don on Tuesday, realizing that his entry would dent its image as a self-professed "clean party".

While the Yadav membership episode has thrown the spotlight onto the BJP's nexus with criminals, a look at the membership lists of India's political parties would indicate that the BJP is not alone in welcoming society's delinquents. And it is not as if those with criminal records remain mere members. They figure as contestants in elections, and some even sit in parliament and state assemblies.
The weekly newsmagazine India Today reported that of the 5,539 candidates who contested the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections last year, 965 had criminal records. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution pointed out that criminalization has become a worrying characteristic of India's politics and electoral system. According to unofficial studies cited by the commission, in 1996 as many as 39 members of parliament, including four ministers, faced criminal charges, which included murder, rape, dacoity, abduction, assault and breach of peace. An investigation into the record of 500 persons who were candidates in the lok sabha (lower house of parliament) elections of 1998 revealed that 72 of them had criminal proceedings pending against them.

Phoolan Devi, better known as the "Bandit Queen", is perhaps among the most well-known of India's criminal-parliamentarians. A lower caste woman who suffered a bad marriage and sexual abuse for years, Phoolan became a bandit and spread terror in villages in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In 1981, during a raid on a village, she recognized two men there as the assailants of her lover. She returned to the village and gunned down 20 upper caste men. She surrendered two years later and served 11 years in jail. When she came out of jail, she emerged as a leader of the underprivileged, contested elections and entered parliament. Phoolan's transformation from outlaw to fugitive to law maker was dramatic. To many, she was not a criminal, but a victim of caste and sexual oppression who was forced to violate the law as it provided little justice to people like herself. Her entry into parliament was therefore justified by some political parties and sections in the media.

Criminal intent
The reason many criminals enter politics is to gain influence and ensure that cases against them are dropped or not proceeded with. They are able to make it big in the political arena because of their financial clout. Political parties tap criminals for funds and in return provide them with political patronage and protection. As the Times of India points out: "Indeed, today, far from shrinking at the thought of harboring criminal elements, parties seek them out, judging the muscle and money combination they represent to be of enormous value. Rough estimates suggest that in any state election 20 percent of candidates are drawn from criminal backgrounds. For the parties, it means overflowing coffers and unlimited funds to fight elections and for the criminals it means protection from the law and respectability in the eyes of society."

Another reason why political parties are not averse to fielding mafia dons is that winnability, not merit or experience, determines who gets to contest elections. And mafia dons and other powerful gangsters have shown that they can convert their muscle power into votes, often at the point of the gun. Voters in many pockets in the country are forced to vote for the local strongman. The reign of terror that these criminals have spread in their area of operations ensures that they win the seat for the party.

In the 2000 elections to the Bihar state assembly, every single one of the underworld dons and scamsters who contested the polls either from jail or in hiding was elected, and with big margins. Among those who won with huge margins were men accused of offences ranging from extortion and kidnapping to murder. Some of them were even brought from the jail by police van for the swearing-in ceremony at the assembly building.

It is the mutual benefit that the criminal-political party nexus promises which has prompted India's parliamentarians to refrain from passing legislation that would rid politics of the corrupt and criminal. Indian parliamentarians, normally divided along party lines on most issues, closed ranks when the judiciary issued an order calling for steps to address the problem.

Acting under the Supreme Court's orders, the Election Commission made it mandatory for candidates to disclose at the time of filing nominations details of criminal background (if any), their assets, their liabilities to public financial institutions, and their educational qualifications. While this is a step towards weeding out criminals entering the electoral arena, it is really more about disclosure rather then disqualification of criminal elements. While reluctance of politicians and political parties to tackle the problem is a major reason for the growing criminalization of politics in India, there are other difficulties.

An editorial in The Hindu observes: "One problem with the 'criminalization of politics' contention is that many characters with an unsavory public reputation can point out that they have no 'criminal background' in the sense they may have faced, or may be facing, criminal charges, but have not been convicted in any court of law. In other words, they must be presumed innocent of any crime. A second problem is that when it comes to criminal cases, the lines are blurred. Mainstream politicians, including some senior ministers, chief ministers and even ex-prime ministers, have faced corruption and other criminal charges and a few have even been convicted by courts at some point in the marathon legal process. What is the yardstick that can be applied to them? It is clear that technical or legalistic answers will not suffice. The answer must lie in good, clean democratic political practice, watchdog news media, and a vigilant public opinion that insists on raising the bar for all political parties."

Sharp media criticism of the BJP's decision to welcome Yadav into its fold pushed an embarrassed BJP leadership to backtrack and withdraw membership to the don. This is a positive signal and augers well for the future.

What makes the problem even more complex is that these candidates with a criminal background manage to get democratic endorsement. The fact that these dons are able to win indicates not only the enormous clout they wield but also that corruption and the background of the candidates have become non-issues to voters. Every politician and bureaucrat is seen to be corrupt and criminal. So the question of voting for a "clean candidate" does not arise. Moreover, with religion and caste factors determining their choice, voters do not ponder enough on the merit of the candidate.

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Feb 28, 2004





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