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 Knowledge at Wharton 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.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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 how to get things done. And I think you pointed out something which is very important, which is they don’t have incentives to ultimately fix what ails the system, because the moment you come up with a sustainable solution, you are no longer needed as an intermediary because then the courts work fine and the police work fine. So, why do I need a strongman who has a criminal reputation to be my political representative to mediate this relationship between the state and citizen, right? So what that means is these politicians are often interested in Band-Aid solutions.
Knowledge at Wharton: You referred to the interplay between the judiciary and politicians. I wonder what your view is of the nexus between the business community and the criminalization of Indian politics? Does the influence of business make the situation better or does it make it worse?
Vaishnav: We have to take a step back and think about how the system came to be. Even if you go back to the earliest general elections, you had criminals active in politics. However, they were situated on the periphery of politics, so they were often working as hired guns for a political party. When election time came around, they would help to mobilize turnout or suppress turnout or hand out goodies, so they were very much free agents.
Over time, as their clout started to grow and competition started to intensify, these individuals, who had been working for parties said, “Well, you know, I’m the person doing all the hard work, but I actually have the clout and resources and authority and I can just cut out the politician and become the politician.” And because elections had become so expensive, and much of the money was coming — what we call “in the black” — through unaccounted sources, the criminals had an advantage. If you needed someone who was able to move a large amount of money in the political system and knew how to do it undetected, they were good intermediaries for business to funnel money through.
“The rule of law actually provides them a sense of immunity or impunity.” –Milan Vaishnav
I think it is true today that parties have a portfolio and a sense of options. There are some instances where you may want actively to recruit business people directly. One way that is quite apparent today is through the Upper House of Indian Parliament, where there are no direct elections, these are indirectly elected figures who tend to represent corporate interest or moneyed interest. This becomes a sort of patronage position, because many businessmen don’t necessarily want to enter the rough and tumble of retail politics. It happens to be the case that there is much less criminality of the sort I am talking about — serious crime — in the Upper House, because for most of these criminals, their stock in trade is really in the direct connect with the voter.
Kapur: When the Supreme Court [made] the 2003 decision, there was a lot of hope that there would be much greater transparency in the system. And there’s a general belief that transparency has been good for democracy. And yet, you know, two things happened after that which are even more puzzling. Despite this greater transparency, political parties have continued to nominate these guys. In fact, it’s increased. Even more puzzling, perhaps, is that voters, continuing to know this, continue to vote for them. How do we understand these two fundamental, seemingly contradictory impulses of a democracy?
Vaishnav: There is conventional wisdom out there from the social sciences that often times, voters are electing corrupt, criminal, “bad politicians” because they simply lack good information about their background.
If you don’t have good information as a voter, you can’t really discern who’s a good type and who’s a bad type. That’s been the prevailing wisdom. What my research shows, in fact, is quite the opposite — that voters, armed with information, often support candidates with criminal reputations, not in spite of their criminal bona fides, but because of them. Because in a country like India where the rule of law is weak, where government is not seen as an impartial or effective arbiter to get things done, to deliver basic security, law and order, services and so on, people are willing to find somebody who will fill in that vacuum.
And what the criminals have been able to do is to use their criminality, in a sense, as a signal of their credibility to do whatever it takes to represent their constituents. An important piece of this is, in fact, that India is so socially divided and in many parts of the country there are very deep and quite contentious social cleavages, often on identity lines. The identity could be religious; it is often caste-based or ethnic-based. And so, they are able to use those differences to say, “You need someone like me, who is going to do what the state doesn’t provide. But I am going to be purely focused on making sure you, my community, my fellow caste mates or co-religionists are protected against threats from outside.”
So they have become these Robin Hood figures, essentially, who are not necessarily re-distributing from the rich to the poor, but re-distributing in favor of their own social group.
Kapur: India is not unique. If we follow the Philippines — here is a President who openly boasts that he actually killed people and he’s not there playing on social divisions as much and he’s widely popular. If you see the rise of people [like U.S. President] Donald Trump and [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, this appears to be a wider phenomenon where you have people with what you call in your book “muscle,” openly flaunting muscle.
It’s not about wisdom, it’s about sheer muscle and almost reveling in that. Does that make you wonder about the wisdom of democracy itself? Does it undermine some of our basic faiths in the tenants of democracy?
Vaishnav: There are two parts to your question. I think the first is — what’s the global relevance of the story that I tried to tell in this book? And here, I think India is not the only country where you see a symbiosis between crime and politics. One could look at countries like Brazil. One could look at Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia [and] the U.S. certainly in historical contexts. If you were to rewind the clock and look at what American politics looked like at the turn of the 20th century, you had corrupt machines that were ethnically motivated who were doing many of the same types of things that we now see in India.
“Because elections had become so expensive, and much of the money was coming … through unaccounted sources, the criminals had an advantage.” –Milan Vaishnav
So there’s no two ways about that. But I think there is a larger connection that can be made, and this gets to your second point, towards the sort of strongmen politicians who are, shall we say, “nontraditional political entrepreneurs,” right? Someone like Donald Trump. You know, think about what Trump’s two motivating ideas were. One is that the government doesn’t work. It’s not working for the little guy in our country, it’s not working for the Average Joe who is in the Midwest. You need somebody who knows how to work the system to get things done for you. Remember, “I alone can fix it,” that was his mantra, right?
Remember his response on taxes was, “It’s not that I did anything illegal, I just knew how to play the game better than everyone else, and I’ll play your game for you.” The second was using social divisions, which exist in American society, but emphasizing them and turning up the volume, as it were. To say particularly to non-college educated whites, “You know, this was once your country and now look what’s happened to it.” Those things that were beneath the surface and bringing them above. That’s exactly the story that I describe in my book. Now is it a failure of democracy? I’m not so sure. It’s a failure of institutions to deliver. And in the U.S., it represents two very different cases.
On the one hand, India never had strong institutions to begin with. And if you look at the gap today, which you have written a lot about, between institutions and democracy, there’s a huge abyss between the aspirations of the people and what institutions can deliver. [With] America, you can’t say the same, we’ve had a tradition of hundreds of years of strong institutions, but they have now decayed.
Look at Congress. Look at the courts. Public trust in these things needs to be renewed and we haven’t done the hard work of reimagining those things. And so, we’re in a situation of institutional decay. But to blame the voters — or democracy — is maybe not the right diagnosis. Voters are making very rational calculations and saying, “Look, I need somebody. The status quo doesn’t seem to be working.” And so, until traditional political parties are able to lift up their game, I have to look out for me.
Kapur: Ironically, they might be electing the very people who will further undermine the institutions. In some ways, it becomes not ratcheting up, but a ratcheting down. Do you fear that?
Vaishnav: I do fear that in the following sense. If you go back to the Indian case, as I had mentioned before, we’ve moved beyond the era where Band-Aid solutions are needed. We need large, structural changes. For political parties or politicians who want to demonstrate that they can offer governance without necessarily being self-serving or almost cold and heartless when they interact with the voter — the onus is now going to be on them. But criminal politicians have, in some sense, tainted the waters.
If you’re an honest, upright person living in India today, a young person, who’s interested in public service, you are going to take a seriously hard look at your future before you decide to plunge in those waters because you don’t want to be associated with a profession that’s [seen as dominated] by people who are ruffians. We are at that position where we might be creating, instead of a real virtuous cycle, a real negative feedback, a vicious cycle.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your research, did you come across countries that have figured out how to get criminals out of politics? And if so, how did they do it and what can India learn from their experience?
Vaishnav: In some ways, America did do a couple of things right. If you think about the period of our history when we had very corrupt and corrosive politics — this was the Gilded Age, the period after the Civil War where you had both the rise of crony capitalism, the rise of corrupt machines, the muscular politics that we now see in India. But you had political leaders who fought for things like civil service reforms, cleaning up the spoils system, reducing the discretionary authority of the states, regulating business so that they couldn’t become so large that they could just capture power as a sort of monopoly.
Now unfortunately, all of these changes came as a result of big scandals that hurt the economy and hurt many ordinary people. And unfortunately, it’s a sort of truism in politics that a crisis is what leads to reforms. India hasn’t yet hit that moment of crisis. But if we continue on this present trajectory, at some point I fear that we could see one of those moments. But we also have to keep in mind on the optimistic side that India’s democracy is very young, it’s only 70 years. Many other countries have struggled with this and found the way out. There’s nothing predetermined or predestined about that. But it’s entirely possible, that India, too, will work through its current challenges.
“India’s democracy is very young, it’s only 70 years. Many other countries have struggled with this and found the way out.” –Milan Vaishnav
Knowledge at Wharton: You began by telling your anecdote about how it was the experience with what is happening at the Congress Party that inspired you to write the book. But are all parties equally culpable or do you find there are some parties that are worse than others when it comes to dealing with criminals and their angst?
Vaishnav: There were two things that surprised me about this area. The first is geographically how diverse this phenomenon was. As we talk about India, we typically think that it’s the poorer or more backward parts of the country, which tend to be concentrated in the north, what we call the “Hindi Heartland” that have the worst, the most coarsened kind of politics. In fact, while there is some truth to that, you see crime in relatively well-to-do states, like Gujarat and Maharashtra. You see it in many southern states. You see it in a place like West Bengal, which had been under Communist rule for three decades.
This is not something that can be narrowly pinpointed to one geography, neither can it be narrowly pinpointed to one party. If you look at the parties yjsy have won the most number of seats over the last 10 years, they include the Congress and the BJP, which are the two national parties, they include the Communist parties, they include the regional parties of Uttar Pradesh, Indian’s largest state. So this is a grab back.
You have center-right parties, they have center-left parties, they have extreme left parties, regional parties which are caste and ethnically motivated. And if you look at the levels of criminality, both average criminality and serious criminality, there’s very little difference among these parties. This seems to be, when it comes to political parties, an equal opportunity phenomenon.