Why Crime and Muscle Rule Indian Politics


Several state assembly and municipal elections are currently on. And given this, it is common to see stories in the newspapers and the digital media talk about the fact that many candidates contesting these elections have criminal cases filed against them.

Just having criminal cases being filed against an individual is not a big deal in Indian politics. The politics of protest as well ingrained as it is in the Indian political system, leads to a situation where many minor charges like unlawful assembly or trespassing, get filed against any individual trying to make a mark. Hence, minor charges are par for the course.

But then there are many other charges like murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, physical assault and crimes against women, which have nothing to do with an individual practising to become a politician. Let’s take the case of the current Lok Sabha, elections for which happened in 2014.

As per research carried out by the Association for Democratic Reforms: “Out of the 542 winners analysed, 185(34 per cent) winners have declared criminal cases against themselves.” In the 2009 Lok Sabha, 158 winners (30 per cent). The figure has clearly gone up.

How do things look when we look at MPs with serious criminal charges, which as I said earlier in the column, is what we should really be looking at? AS the ADR report points out: “112 (21%) winners have declared serious criminal cases including cases related to murder, attempt to murder, communal disharmony, kidnapping, crimes against women etc.” This number had stood at 77(15 per cent) out of the 521 winners that ADR had analysed in 2009.

As is obvious, many MPs have serious criminal charges filed against them. And this is true largely at state assembly levels and municipal levels as well. Of course, the proportion varies across different parts of the country.

Having said that, individuals with serious crime charges against them, get elected because political parties give them electoral tickets in the first place. So, the question is why do political parties give them tickets? The simple answer is that candidates with serious criminal charges have a better chance at winning.

Milan Vaishnav has crunched the numbers and calculated the probabilities of winning in his new book When Crime Pays—Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.  When it comes to Lok Sabha elections, the win rate of clean candidates is 6 per cent. The win rate for candidates facing a criminal charge of any type is 17 per cent. And the win rate for candidates facing criminal charge of serious nature is 18 per cent.

How do things look at the state assembly level? Clean candidates have a 9.5 per cent chance of winning. The probability increases to 19 per cent for candidates with minor cases. For candidates with serious criminal charges the probability shoots up to 23 per cent.

The point being that political parties give tickets to those with criminal charges against them, simply because these individuals stand a better chance at winning. Over and above this, such candidates tend to bring their own money when it comes to financing the elections. And that really helps.

As Vaishnav writes: “The key factor motivating parties to select candidates with serious criminal records comes down to cold, hard cash. In a context of costly elections, weakly institutionalised parties, and an ineffectual election finance regime, parties are likely to prioritise self-financing candidates who do not represent a drain on finite party coffers.”

What this means is that candidates with criminal cases against them tend to bring in their own money in order to finance electoral expenses. This essentially helps the political parties because it frees up resources for others including party elites.

As Vaishnav summarises: “Parties place a premium on muscle because it often brings with it the added benefit of money… Data drawn from nearly 70,000 aspirant candidates in India over the last decade substantiate the claim that money and muscle are inexorably linked.”

And that is something we need to worry about.

The column originally appeared on February 22, 2017, in Bangalore Mirror