Review: Why Criminals Enter Politics in India

In 'When Crime Pays', Milan Vaishnav explores the factors that influence voter demand for candidates with criminal reputations, showing that voters prefer them not despite their dubious record but because of it.

“There are two ways of making politics one’s vocation: either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ politics,” said German sociologist Max Weber in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation‘. Surely, many politicians have come to live off politics but what are the ‘incentives’ that encourage individuals soaked in criminality to take the plunge into it in the first place? At a time when we are witnessing increasing criminalisation of politics in our democracy, this question needs to be confronted head on and that’s precisely what Milan Vaishnav sets out to do in his book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.

The author has adopted a political economy approach to the study of the “symbiotic relationship” between crime and politics in India. The book is divided into three parts: Part I lays down the subject of enquiry and gives a broad overview of the larger changes that have happened in our society and economy since independence; part II explores the demand side and the supply side factors influencing the marketplace for criminals in politics and part III examines the nature of that marketplace and discusses concrete steps that need to be taken to minimise its importance.

While we know that the share of MPs and MLAs with criminal backgrounds has been growing steadily, the puzzle that stares us in our face is why such candidates get rewarded and not rejected by the voters. The author says that “the market metaphor serves as a useful frame to understand why the appeal of politicians linked to criminality endures”. Political parties act as a platform, purveying criminal candidates to the voters. This marketplace is best seen as a ‘platform market’, where strong ‘network effects’ are at play and the two sides – demand and supply – mutually reinforce each other.

One notices that the presence of criminal elements in politics is not altogether new. As the historian Srinath Raghavan has pointed out, muscle-power as embodied in entrenched caste-relations in rural India was instrumental in mobilising votes for the Congress party in the first two decades after independence. But the phenomenon we are looking at is the transformation of criminal individuals from being the hired guns of party politicians to becoming full-time politicians themselves. Why did they have to take the giant leap?

“Three trends – political fragmentation, deepening competition and continued Congress decline – converged in the late 1980s to break open the political system in an unprecedented manner”. How did this incentivise criminals to make their foray into electoral politics? The explanation offered is an interesting one: “Thanks to the uncertainty stemming from greater electoral competition, they were no longer able to rest easy knowing that the party that employed them would remain in power”. The author intelligently deploys the concept of ‘vertical integration’ to elucidate this development.

Milan Vaishnav When Crime Pays - Money and Muscle in Indian Politics Harper Collins, 2017

Milan Vaishnav
When Crime Pays – Money and Muscle in Indian Politics
Harper Collins, 2017

What do political parties gain by recruiting criminally connected individuals, especially when it can be self-defeating as the party’s image can take a beating for fielding criminals in elections? This is where the role of ‘competition’ comes into play. With the proliferation of political parties and expanding size of the electorate, electoral democracy has become a costly affair, which needs a steady flow of money to keep its wheels moving. Criminal candidates with ill-gotten wealth make themselves available to political parties as “self-financing” candidates and promise financial rents to the party coffers, thereby liberating parties of the binding constraint.

The supply side incentives are clear, but doesn’t the demand side (voters), which demands democratic accountability, express its dissatisfaction at this trend by rejecting such crooks? The author argues that “where the rule of law is weakly enforced and social divisions are rampant, a candidate’s criminal reputation could be perceived as an asset”. He identifies four channels through which such candidates establish their credibility – redistribution, coercion, social insurance and dispute resolution. All four, including coercion, are the sole prerogatives of the state and by guaranteeing these through their criminal reputation, they signal ‘credibility’.

The crucial question that begs our attention is whether they cater to a cross section of the electorate. The answer is no and it is so because, such individuals exploit social divisions to thrive and promise to protect sectional interests by engaging in “defensive criminality”, where they use strong-arm tactics to uphold the dignity of their caste brethren. The tension between caste-kinship and citizenship will be the driving force of a social churning that would put Indian democracy’s stressed institutions to further test in the political sphere. These criminal politicians are partial answers to the governance vacuum and know it is in their interest not to think up sustainable solutions that would render them irrelevant: “If the rule of law vacuum were solved by investing in state capacity to provide basic public goods, criminal candidates would lose their lustre”. In other words, even a minimal state envisaged by Adam Smith can fix our problems if it gets its institutional structure right.

By explaining how these factors influence voter demand for candidates with criminal reputation, the author debunks the “ignorant voter” hypothesis and shows that voters prefer such candidates not despite their dubious record but because of it. This thesis neatly fits into the classic economic paradigm of rational individuals making decisions in their self-interest by efficiently processing all the available information. But the author alerts us to the caveat that this thesis is context-specific and cannot be universally applied.

It would be pertinent to look at the trends in the dynastic consolidation of political power and perpetuation of criminality in politics. Recall that during the political Emergency, the complete takeover of state power by the Nehru-Gandhi family resulted in the criminalisation of the entire state apparatus and it was only a matter of time before the regional and smaller players emulated the first family’s model of centralising power. From the Akalis in Punjab to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, most parties are run as family firms.

Milan Vaishnav. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Milan Vaishnav. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Nonetheless, it is important not to forget that leaders of such parties enjoy popular support in spite of their corrupt and criminal backgrounds. The paradigmatic example is Jagan Reddy of YSR Congress, who was seen by the masses as achha chor (Robin Hood types), as the veteran journalist P. Sainath put it, in the run up to the 2014 general elections. Lack of internal party democracy has increased the discretionary powers of the party patriarch/matriarch. The author has dealt with this aspect in detail to show how it encourages the continued supply of criminal candidates.

In using the marketplace analogy, the author states that a truly “free” market works through arm’s length transactions and informational symmetry. He argues that “politics often departs significantly from these core tenets” and “politics is about the structure of power”. These arguments are equally applicable to the so-called free market as well. In fact, information asymmetry is a major source of economic power and the invisible hand of the market doesn’t hesitate to use its invisible fist. As for the free market conception, it would be illuminating to read Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism to know that the myth of the free market is predicated on weak grounds.

The author uses the growth of multiparty competition as one of the explanatory factors to show what forced criminals to enter politics. If one assesses this argument within the analytical frame the author has used, then contrary to the standard economic proposition that competition will lead to social well-being and optimal outcomes for all, competition in the electoral marketplace has resulted in sub-optimal outcomes. An important observation made in the book is that criminals are recruited by political parties across the board to contest elections and their ideological vacuum allows them the suppleness to recruit such candidates. If the recently concluded assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and its aftermath is any indicator, then one can argue that it is perfectly compatible to have both programmatic content and criminal legislators who can push the boundaries of that content.

That said, this is an intellectually stimulating work of scholarship. The interesting anecdotes and apocryphal stories about the criminal candidates add rich flavour to the narrative. The author has crunched truckloads of data by mining the Election Commission’s database of candidate affidavits and findings from independent election surveys. The numerous graphs in the book effectively supplement the well-constructed narrative. For those who despair about the state of politics, the book is a sobering reminder that ‘politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards’ and ‘it takes both passion and perspective’.

Raghunath Nageswaran holds an M.A. in Economics from Madras Christian College.