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Why voters elect ‘criminals’

Two questions have been asked: Why do political parties field so many “criminals”? Why do voters then select “criminals” when they go to the polls?

Updated: March 24, 2014 8:47 am

Awareness campaigns for voters or debates on campaign finance can only have a limited effect

This election season, there has once again been a great deal of debate on the reasons that lead to so many known or suspected “criminals” being elected in India. Two questions have been asked: Why do political parties field so many “criminals”? Why do voters then select “criminals” when they go to the polls?

While both questions are worth addressing, this article will focus on the latter. Two explanations have been put forth as the cause of the choices that Indian voters make. For some, the relative lack of information among the electorate is important: because many voters simply do not know who has been convicted of serious offences, let alone who is suspected of such offences, they continue to vote for poor characters. This is in part the logic that motivates the efforts of civil society organisations such as the Association of Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch. If information is the problem, a solution may be to ensure that voters know whom they are voting for when they go to the polls. The second, frequently proposed, explanation emphasises the “demand” for criminal politicians: because strongmen and other “Robin Hood” type figures may be able to bend the rules and better serve their constituents —  even if this is done at the expense of social welfare — some voters may value criminality.

There is certainly some truth to these explanations. Other arguments may also be proposed. The commonly held perception among voters that criminal charges are political in nature —  understandable in a judicial system prone to so much undue influence — likely does not help. As a consequence, even well-publicised criminal charges may not necessarily damage a candidate’s reputation. More importantly, voters may not always perceive that they actually have alternatives. In a climate coloured by general distrust of the political class, voters may doubt that a presumably virtuous candidate — one who has not incurred criminal charges — would in the long run turn out to be a more virtuous representative than a “criminal” they are already familiar with. Moreover, some voters will not even have to contemplate such a choice when they go to the polls this election season, insofar as the two or three main candidates they will be choosing from may all be facing criminal charges.

Yet these arguments may be missing an important point. Whether voters select virtuous representatives is only partially related to the information to which they have access, to how they react to criminality and to the alternatives they face. More than anything else, it is about the relative importance they place on the probity of candidates, in comparison with the other factors motivating their choices. If the “weight” they place on probity is small, they might actually prefer a specific “criminal” candidate to the alternatives, even if they tend to dislike candidates with “criminal” backgrounds. Suppose, for instance, the party and the caste of candidates are major factors in voters’ choices and their perceived probity plays a more minor role in these decisions. In such a configuration, depending on the alternatives voters face when they go to the poll, it is easy to think of situations in which many voters would prefer a “criminal” to their more virtuous alternatives, even if they dislike “criminal politics”. The intuition here is simple: if partisanship and caste matter more than the probity of candidates, then they should trump probity at the polls, including when voters actually value probity.

In order to substantiate this intuition, I ran a survey during the summer of 2013 over a large sample of UP voters. As part of this survey, respondents rated fictional candidates whose key characteristics had been randomly varied. In this experiment, voters were told in unequivocal terms when the fictional politician they were evaluating had a criminal background. As a result, one can assume that they felt considerable social pressure to penalise fictional candidates with “criminal” profiles. As noted above, this is likely different from what happens in real life. But it allowed me to make inferences about an interesting hypothetical question: If one was sure that voters knew about the criminal background of candidates and if one was sure that this information led voters to penalise criminal types, would we observe voters turning away from “criminal” types and towards more virtuous candidates?

The answer is no. As could be expected, voters felt compelled to rate criminal politicians much lower than their more virtuous alternatives. This may not necessarily be the case in reality, but the research design nonetheless highlights an interesting find —  even as voters penalised “criminal” types overall, they rated some “criminal” profiles much higher than some more virtuous alternatives. Why? Simply because the combined importance of the candidates’ party and caste often overpowered the initially negative reactions they had to the criminal reputation of these candidates. To put it simply, voters often preferred a “criminal” candidate from their own caste and party to a non-criminal candidate who was missing one of these attributes.

These findings inspire two conclusions. The first is that awareness campaigns probably won’t solve the problem. It takes more than information for voters to recalibrate their priorities. As long as voters give greater weight to party and caste, rather than the probity of candidates, outcomes of this nature will occur. This logically leads to a second, broader conclusion: when considering the causes of “criminal politics”, we should not restrict ourselves to debates about campaign finance. Insofar as caste-based voting enables parties to get away with bad candidates, the factors that give rise to caste-based voting must also be examined. Interestingly, these factors are broadly the same as those that motivate criminal types to seek office in the first place —  that is, the fact that broken institutions have, over the years, led to patronage and rent-seeking, often organised around the lines of caste. If the source of “criminal politics” lies in this (dis)organisation of the state and into a generalised lack of accountability, quick fixes may only yield limited results, and real improvements may be conditional on deep institutional reforms of the Indian state.

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