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Monday, September 20, 2004

The whole of last week, the entire media and the state was agog with the Krishna Yadav episode. The details of the scam were covered widely elsewhere. Instead I would like to focus on why are criminal elements finding a place in the political arena and why are political parties harbouring them?

In 1999, as part of its Election Watch effort, LOK SATTA made public a list of candidates with criminal record who were nominated either for the state or union legislative office by major political parties. The political parties were asked not to nominate the candidates on the list (Krishna Yadav’s name was also there). Leading parties did deny seats to several of the potential candidates with criminal records listed earlier by LOK SATTA. But the parties still were compelled to nominate many candidates with dubious antecedents. In fact TDP nominated 20 candidates and Congress nominated 12 candidates with a criminal record during the 1999 elections. Therefore it is quite clear that both the major political parties have criminal elements in their ranks.

This sort of politician-criminal nexus is by no means unique to our state. A study undertaken by Election Commission estimated that approximately 700 out of the 4072 legislators in the country have a criminal record. We all know only too well the extent of criminalization of polity in states like Bihar, UP and in cities like Mumbai and Delhi.

Does this mean that all our political parties are inherently criminal in nature?  I would say NO. There are many honourable and eminent politicians who have and are doing a terrific job in the service of the public. In the same token, I do believe that most major political parties are genuinely interested in public good. In fact operating under highly strenuous circumstances, they are trying to do a valiant job of giving due representation to public opinion. The unanimity of the entire political spectrum in freezing the number of parliamentary constituencies in each state for 25 years, is a testimony to their patriotic credentials. Delimitation based on population would have jeopardized national unity by, creating North-South divide.  Even though many of the north Indian parties had a lot to gain from delimitation they refused to do so in the larger national interest. Then why is this politician-criminal nexus formed and what sustains it?

Given the nature of our electoral system, the legislative office is not perceived by both the candidates and the general public as one of law making and oversight. Legislators are seen as the disguised executive. In a caste-ridden society like India, the politics at the constituency level are controlled by the local dominant caste. When these local groups elect the disguised executive in the form of a legislator, what they are looking for is control of the executive branch of government through that legislator.  What the dominant groups want is a legislator who can get a local police or revenue official transferred, who can intervene on behalf of the accused in a criminal case, or at best one who can be a dispenser of patronage in the form of many government welfare schemes.  In our system of democracy, these legislators' support is critical for the survival of the government.  Rarely is this support given on the basis of principles or ideology or public opinion.  Invariably, there is a price extracted for such support, which can be in many forms.  The executive is then at the mercy of the legislators, on whose continued good will and support its survival depends.

In the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of elections that we have the candidate who obtains the highest number of votes is elected irrespective of his support base. Given the fragmented nature of our polity, the absence of a two party system, and the low voter turnout, it is often enough for the winning candidate to just get a plurality and not the majority of the votes cast. Therefore elections at the local level are often a test of supremacy of the local dominant groips. All means – money, muscle power, other inducements, threats, brute force – are liberally employed to get elected locally. And all these means are only at the disposal of the criminal and nefarious elements, without whose support no party/candidate can win an election in many constituencies.

Even if one party refuses to harbor criminal elements, the opposing party immediately takes advantage and ropes in their support. Therefore there is no incentive for any major political party to deny entry of criminal elements and in fact they are penalized heavily if they chose to stay clean.

Therefore it is quite clear that the politician-criminal nexus goes beyond individuals and is the result of systemic lacunae. The sensible way out is to adopt a proportional representation system of elections coupled with direct election of chief minister at the state level. Only then can clean candidates enter the political process and be elected to public office. And only then can governments remain honest and public-spirited in their actions.