Criminalisation of Politics: A Trend on the Rise

As the 2020 Bihar Legislative Assembly Election wraps up with the National Democratic Alliance emerging as the winner again, voters wonder if the Prime Minister will finally make good on his 2014 pre-election promise of cleansing the political system of criminals. Ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party went on to field the highest number of criminals in the 2014 General Election. 


The seeds of criminal involvement in politics were sown in the fertile grounds of Begusarai on the eve of the 1957 Bihar assembly election. The Congress party is believed to have employed upper caste zamindars to intimidate voters at the Kachhari Tola booth of Rachiyari village into voting for their candidate, Saryug Prasad Singh. This was later dubbed as the first instance of booth capturing in India.  


Unlike today, the role of muscle in a nascent India was limited to securing political stability. While criminals did not directly contest elections, they played a key role in assisting the Congress Party to retain its position in the Indian democracy. The equilibrium of power sharing was maintained by an elaborate network of upper caste goons exercising violent means to hijack the electoral process in favour of the ruling party. They backed the party candidates in exchange for unchecked power and money.


Enterprising on the caste system, the Congress Raj continued till the late hours of the 1960s. However, with Congress’ 1962 disaster and dwindling popularity, the once subdued class of criminals came to the forefront of political competition. Criminals contested elections and in 1985, Harishankar Tiwari became the first politician to win an election whilst being imprisoned.


Four decades later, the political landscape has not taken a turn for the better. Out of 3722 of the total 3733 candidates contesting the Bihar election, 32% have declared criminals cases with one fourth having declared serious criminal cases against themselves. However, it would be ill-advised to hold one’s breath on the possibility of emancipating the electoral system from criminals as the candidate selection process is intrinsically linked with money. It does not come as a surprise that Anant Kumar Singh, a Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate with more than 38 registered criminal cases against him also happens to have the second-highest declared assets in the election. 


Over the years, the share of party nominees with a criminal background contesting election has only increased. Bihar has stood witness to a 96% increase in the number of such candidates contesting Legislative Assembly election between 2005-2015. The Lok Sabha election of 2019 saw a 26% increase in the number of elected candidates with criminal histories from the preceding 2014 election, where the number stood at 185. The share of elected MPs with criminal records has risen steeply ever since the 2009 general election. Where it once stood at 24.3% after 2009, now the number has almost doubled.


Though the Supreme Court earlier this year took theoretical strides towards curbing the problem, it is unlikely to reap any benefits on the ground. The court in February made the disclosure of criminal history mandatory for all candidates. Additionally, it also instructed compliance with the Election Commission on the matter along with the publication of reasons for the candidature of such nominees. 


If the 2015 Bihar Assembly election taught the nation anything, it is that published criminal records have little to no bearing on a party’s vote bank. With 57% of the sitting MLAs in the Bihar Assembly having an alleged criminal past, the future looks bleak. Accountability remains low as these maligned records are written off in the name of popularity or social good is done by the said candidate. In terms of absolute numbers, the BJP and Indian National Congress have fielded the highest number of alleged criminals in elections. There still exists no provision for the disqualification of such candidates unless convicted for two years or more. 


Today, every State and Union Territory in the country faces the same problem as Bihar. The share of party nominees with registered criminal cases in the 2020 Delhi assembly election stood at 20%, with 43 of them getting elected. A similar pattern can be observed in Maharashtra during the 2019 Legislative Assembly election where 916 out of the 3112 analyzed candidates had a criminal record. Share of MLAs with declared criminal cases now stands at 64% in the Maharashtra Assembly. The absolute number of criminals contesting elections has increased significantly ever since 2014 at the state and national level. While criminals have thrived in politics ever since the inception of the country, the steep rise in the share of such candidates contesting and winning elections is cause for concern. 


These numbers are indicative of a larger pattern of understanding between criminals and parties. In an increasingly competitive and polarized political sphere, goons with local strongholds are used as a means to expand party vote bank. In his book, When Crime Pays – Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, Milan Vaishnav explores the depth of this very understanding that greases the wheels of corruption in the country. India’s electoral democracy is not free of external influence with money and muscle having emerged as key players. Self-financing goons rid parties of the added monetary burden. However, the larger question is, why do people vote for such candidates despite knowing their criminal record? The answer lies in the promises of accountability and stability that they make. With the Indian electoral democracy fractured along communal lines, voters wish to ensure their stronghold within their community. Apart from that, voters also succumb to the threat of physical or financial harm. Additionally, while voters are often strong-armed into voting for certain candidates, social capital built on the back of the caste system or religious hatred is also exploited to win seats. Candidates fan the flames of religious and communal fanaticism to their own benefit. In an era where chants like ‘mandir yahi banega’ and ‘jai shri ram’ have become synonymous with a form of exclusionary fundamentalism, it has become all the more important for such candidates to swear allegiance to camps. Elections are not always rigged; they are just community-driven. The promise of accountability, coupled with prompt justice makes an enticing case for such candidates. 


In recent years, voters have found it increasingly difficult to ascertain sustained dominance in the political domain, and as long as candidature cannot be challenged on criminal grounds, parties will continue to hijack the electoral process. Incitement along communal and socio-political lines has not been made grounds for disqualification and political parties, despite SC rulings, continue using it to their advantage. However, as Clifford Cohen put it “all too often, our elegant political theories amount to nothing more than ideology triumphing over common sense”. While one can theorize on the liberation of Bihar from the clutches of crime, the 2020 election needs to be studied in the context of a divided neo-colonial nation, in need of care. The appeal of criminals contesting elections lies in their ability to provide this care. 

Stuti Mathur is a political science student. She enjoys discussing politics and watching dystopian movies. 

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