Rahul Gandhi doesn’t often gatecrash press conferences or publicly challenge decisions made by Manmohan Singh’s government. But in late September 2013, he did both.
At a news conference where the Congress was defending its ordinance to protect tainted lawmakers, Gandhi walked in unannounced and decried the party’s stand as “complete nonsense.” In an uncharacteristic outburst, he further suggested that the ordinance — introduced after the Supreme Court ruled to bar lawmakers with pending criminal charges from sitting in Parliament — be “torn up and thrown out”.
This wasn’t the first time that the Congress brass had spoken out against MPs with criminal records sitting in Parliament. In 2010, Sonia Gandhi called for consensus on preventing individuals with criminal records from contesting elections. “We need to do more in contending with the influence of money and muscle power”, she said.
Eventually, of course, nothing of the sort happened. Given the proximity to the elections, one theory (not entirely unbelievable) was that the Congress needed the support of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav, among the accused in the Rs 940 crore fodder scam.
The truth going into the 2014 elections is that about 28 percent of the country’s members of Parliament have criminal records according to data released by the Association for Democratic Reforms. They cut across age, states and party lines, although the large contingents are from the BJP, NCP, SP and Congress.
How then, do such politicians manage to find a place in Parliament? Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contends that at a time when elections are becoming increasingly expensive to fight, some of it may have to do with money.
“If one looks at the assets of the more than 45,000 candidates who contested state elections between 2003 and 2009, the median ‘clean’ candidate has a personal wealth of roughly 400,000 rupees, compared to assets of 1.1 million rupees for the median indicted candidate,” Vaishnav wrote in 2012. “Parties place a premium on criminality (i.e. muscle), in part, because it often brings with it the added benefit of money.”
Another view is that voters see a politician’s criminal record as a badge of honor, as the New York Times argued last year, in attempting to decipher the electoral charm of Kameshwar Baitha. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MP has 46 cases against his name: 17 for murder, 22 for attempted murder, six for assault with a dangerous weapon, five for theft and two for extortion. That he is a former Maoist probably explains some of it.
Not just insurgents, there are even a few famous faces that make up the tainted 28 percent. Former Indian cricketer — and current television wisecrack — Navjot Singh Sidhu is among them. Convicted of homicide in 2006, Sidhu later won an appeal in the Supreme Court that allowed him to stand for election.
The Aam Aadmi Party, however, has promised change. “In all political parties today criminals and mafia goons are given election tickets,” AAP says on its website. “Such people will never be given tickets in our party.”
Despite such ambitions, if the AAP succeeds, it could potentially change the character of the Indian parliament. But much will depend, as always, on India’s voters.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article inaccurately indicated that Milan Vaishnav suggested that the lack of information helped politicians with criminal records win elections. The error is regretted.
Anand Katakam dreams of working in Minnesota or Manipur after his time at the Columbia Journalism School. When he isn’t attending class, he is roaming the streets with his camera. Find out more about his wanderings @anandkatakam