Criminalization of Politics- a demand and supply phenomenon
The world’s biggest democracy holds its biggest asset in criminality in its electoral politics.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Is that perhaps the reason why we are witnessing increasing criminalization of politics in our democracy where one in four MLAs and one in three ministers face serious criminal charges?
Milan Vaishnav in his book Where Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, tries to systematically analyse this issue through the market logic of demand and supply of criminality. Connecting the dots, the author tries to substantiate the causality in the negotiation of the political power.
Tracking the beginning
The criminal traces in our politics aren’t altogether new. It coincides with our zamindari system, where the legality of a strongman who could settle all the disputes through violence and coercion existed. The politicians using antisocial or lumpen elements in the earliest elections post-independence, replete the historical records. The Congress party started hiring goons whenever it felt the insecurity of increasing competition. During Indira Gandhi’s tenure in the 1970s, this picture slightly started to shift to the society where these criminals promoted themselves into politics directly. This shift was seen because of Congress party’s hegemony and rising multi-party competition across Indian states, Mr. Vaishnav argues. The goons used to insure themselves by entering into a contract of providing service during the elections for immunity later. But because of the rising uncertainty of whether the party will be able to hold tenure in the intensified competition, they started providing their own political cover. The hunger for power is not easily satiated and the goons who played second fiddle to politicians now wanted to enter politics themselves.
Be it YSR Reddy in Andhra or Pappu Yadav in Bihar, such ‘strongmen’ have had a deep heroic identity amongst local people of the region who believe the power to be foremost.
The Demand Supply framework
Vaishnav attempts to explain the criminalization of politics through the economic framework of demand and supply for alpha criminal candidates. The political parties act as the marketplace, facilitating the criminal candidates in return for funding and vote bank of local ‘followers’. The two sets of factors responsible for injecting a supply of criminals into electoral politics at this precise stage of India’s history were “pull” factors, or structural forces that created a certain enabling environment, and “push” factors, or the immediate influences on the behavior of criminals. They sought to vertically integrate their operations and cutting down politician middleman in order to have maximum control over their own survival and protection. They had been functioning as the local power broker in the words of Vaishnav, who had accumulated considerable social capital. Entering the world of politics allowed them greater financial and social rewards on their initial investment.
Also, the political parties depend largely on the illicit financing because of the ever-increasing election costs and the ban on corporate donations in 1969. Self-financing candidates are not only able to cover their own campaign costs but might also be in a position to pay their parties for the less endowed candidates. Thus party values the ‘muscle’ for the money that comes along with it. In some cases, criminal candidates contesting helps raise the entry barrier in the regions they operate in, through their network of goons to thwart the political activities of challenges.
This gives us an insight as to why criminals themselves want to join politics and also why the parties wholeheartedly welcome them, thus explaining the supply side.
Surprisingly enough, the supply of these criminals-cum-politicians is met with an eager demand by voters.
One reasonable argument comes from the ‘ignorant voter hypotheses’. In a poor country like India, it is highly plausible that voters make their decisions on the Election day, ignoring the qualifications and track records.
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”. Casting themselves as modern day Robin Hood, their credibility to protect the interests of their community increases. Vaishnav asserts that the legacy of the caste hierarchy has ensured that a lower caste voter may prefer voting for an upper caste strongman to voting for an upstart belonging to the lower or intermediate castes. “Where voters can be mobilized on identity grounds, there can be a payoff to fielding a candidate, who may be a criminal, but also a local ‘folk hero’ to his community,” writes Vaishnav. This points towards the candidates’ ability to mobilize popular, caste-based support.
Hence the demand for criminal politicians is a direct consequence of social cleavages and faulty state institutions.
In using a highly contextualized marketplace analogy, the author states that a truly “free” market works through arm’s length transactions and informational asymmetry. He points out that “politics often depart significantly from these core tenets” and “politics is about the structure of power”. These arguments resemble the free market as well. Information asymmetry, in fact, is a major source of economic power and one can the invisible hand of the market doesn’t hesitate to use its invisible fist.
The worshipping mentality of voters is amongst the strongest reasons for the demand of criminals in Indian politics. The zamindari system, caste system and colonization combined with structural loopholes (like campaigning laws and financing), corruption (extractive, regulatory and political rents) and redtapism have cultured people into respecting the power that will serve their community’s self-interest in the short term.
Irrespective of numerous allegations of sexual assault and boastful proclamation about not losing voters even if he killed someone in broad daylight, Donald Trump became the U.S. President regardless of the charges of amassing disproportionate assets, J. Jayalalithaa enjoyed a hefty fan following and was re-elected as the Chief Minister of a progressive state like Tamil Nadu.
Clearly, the amalgamation of criminality and politics works through a channel of demand and supply phenomenon, where everyone wins but only fair politics and democracy loses out.