How to Get the Criminals Out of Politics

Journalists constantly wring their hands over the growing criminalisation of politics, and call on political parties to choose better candidates. Such moral lecturing is vacuous. Criminals are not entering politics because of some inexplicable moral lapse by candidate selection committees, but because they have huge incentives to get in. To get them out, we must cange the incentive system.

Many laws need changing, but one single change can have a huge impact. Let the law provide that criminal cases against legislators will be heard before all others on a day-by-day basis to ensure a quick verdict. In one stroke, that will create a huge disincentive for criminals to contest elections. Many will resign from the legislatures to escape the consequences.

Today, criminals join politics to gain influence and ensure that cases against them are dropped or not proceeded with. The law disqualifies convicted criminals from fighting elections. But this does not keep criminals out of politics because legal delays, often abetted by political pressures, make convictions of resourceful crooks rather rare. Criminals threaten witnesses with death, and the feeble state cannot protect them. So we need radical change.

I wonder why public pressure for such change is not greater. Our standards have dropped so far that we no longer realise how outrageous our situation is by international standards. When I tell foreigners that our legislatures are full of bandits, they smile incredulously. Surely you mean, they say, that bandits assist your legislators? No, I insist, the bandits are the legislators. At which point the foreigners look appalled and foxed: they cannot understand how this can be so in what claims to be the world’s biggest democracy.

A casual look at last week’s events shows how commonplace is the mixing of crime and politics.

Exhibit 1: the Gujarat police say the man behind the Godhra massacre was a local Muslim politician, a feared don.

Exhibit 2: Mansoor Ahmed, Samajwadi Party MLA, was shot at a public meeting. His family says the killing was staged by a political rival, Tanveer Ahmed, who was denied the Samajwadi ticket and so contested, unsuccessfully, on the BSP ticket. Gang killings and political killings are becoming indistinguishable.

Exhibit 3: Ram Sewak Gautam, a policeman who had the temerity to raid the premises of don-cum-politician DP Yadav and track down his son Vikas–who is accused of murder–was transferred in the middle of the murder case. Most newspapers ignored this. It is no longer news that officials seeking to catch political criminals get sidelined.

Look further beyond last week to the UP Assembly election. According to India Today, 965 of the 5,539 candidates who contested the UP elections had criminal records. That is a whopping 17 per cent of all candidates.

Why are political parties so happy to adopt criminals as candidates? To understand the answer, recall Max Weber’s definition of the state as the only entity that can use force with impunity. The rule of  law is supposed to ensure that anybody else who uses force is jailed.

But in India a weak police and legal system ensures that Mafia dons get away with murder. They can use force with impunity. So, a la Max Weber, the Mafia have as much legitimacy, in practice if not in theory, as the state. A criminal who can collect protection money is as powerful as an official tax-collector. A don who can use force to settle disputes is actually superior to the state, which is unable to settle disputes because of legal delays. A criminal candidate who can capture and stuff ballot boxes is, in our twisted democracy, on par with a popular politician who wins every vote. Normally officials will report booth capturing, but not if the capturing don can credibly threaten them with death.

Besides, dons have lots of money, which is very useful for fighting expensive election campaigns. India has no system of public funding to enable honest people to meet election costs. Black money is needed in hoards, and here criminals have a huge comparative advantage.

In the UP election, Mayawati auctioned several candidatures to the highest bidder. So, according to reports, did the Samajwadi Party. Obviously, criminals will get the better of honest folk in such auctions.

Why do dons invest large sums in getting tickets? Because a ticket to the Assembly is a ticket to kickbacks and extortion using political power. Since the legal system no longer penalises theft, politicians who steal have a comparative advantage over others. Returns on political investments are so high that criminals are disinclined to invest in tax-free RBI bonds. Politics is so much more profitable, and just as tax-free.

So, our system has unwittingly created huge incentives for criminals to enter politics. In the long run, we must clean up the legal and police system. Meanwhile, we need quick steps to change the incentive structure.

One is to provide public funding for elections. That will reduce the comparative advantage of criminals, and increase that of honest candidates.

The second is to have a blanket ban on defections, a major source of political profit. Any legislator who defects or disobeys the party whip in a vote of confidence should be forced to go back to voters for election on a new election symbol. Those who split a party should go back to voters too. That will restore some meaning to representative government.

But the most far-reaching measure, surely, will be to give automatic seniority to cases against legislators, which should be heard on a day-by-day basis.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, you need to find a new way of reviving the sagging fortunes of your party. Why not try to seize the high moral ground by introducing a bill to prosecute criminal legislators quickly? Your Law Minister, Arun Jaitley, will surely comply. True, such a law will be dismaying for Mafia dons in your own party. But other parties have even more of them, and will suffer even more. What are you waiting for?

What do you think?