Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

Lawbreakers, Lawmakers

What sustains the marketplace for ‘criminal’ politicians? This book has some good answers

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics by Milan Vaishnav

Name: When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics
Author: Milan Vaishnav
Publisher: Harper Collins
Page: 433 pages
Price: Rs 799

The volume under review is a scholarly account of the interrelationship between criminals and Indian politics. The book analyses how the growing presence of criminals in the legislatures is consistent with largely free and fair elections in India. The author resorts to the device of an electoral marketplace in which the criminal politicians exist. Criminality is defined in terms of ongoing criminal cases even if guilt is not conclusively established. It is argued that while criminals have been associated with politics for long, they “have moved from the periphery to centre stage”.

The explanation is sought in the exploding cost of elections and the need of the political parties for funds. It is argued that voters have “a rational incentive to back politicians with criminal reputations”. Further, “many voters vote for politicians because, rather than in spite, of criminal reputations.” All this is because “India embarked on its democratic journey without first possessing capable institutions of governance.”

It is concluded that “malfeasant politicians and popular accountability can in fact be compatible…” So, “raising the level of transparency regarding the nexus between crime and politics will not be sufficient to stamp out this link.’” The analysis is based on data from secondary sources, like the Election Commission and the author’s own efforts and experience gained in Bihar where criminalisation of politics is possibly most widespread. Cases of Raja Bhaiya, Madhu Koda, Shahabuddin, Jagan Reddy, etc. are presented to illustrate the interplay of crime and politics.

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Remedies are discussed and the author says, “…the problem with the Indian state is not that it is too big; it is that it is big in all the wrong places.” He feels “…India’s democracy is not, in fact, the difficulty. Rather, what India lacks is a state that can keep pace with popular aspirations.”

The book is divided into three parts. The first traces the evolution of the problem to give the context of the “…discussion of the marketplace for India’s criminal politicians.” This is discussed in Part II which also brings out the historical roots of the problem. Part III looks to the future, international experience and remedies. The book raises methodological issues related to the use of data. E H Carr in What is History? suggests that the choice of data used for analysis is based on the researcher’s framework and that determines the conclusions. In the book under review, it is largely assumed that politicians and politics are to blame for the problem and the voters have little choice. An alternative interpretation is possible.

The role of businesses in fostering illegality is underplayed even though it is central to the problem. Crony capitalism has thrived and grown since Independence and has played a crucial role in propagating illegality (to make extra incomes). This has percolated to all parts of society, including elections. The government is not exogenous and its leadership uses illegality to favour some. It is often said: what is the use of being in power if we cannot favour our people?


As argued by this writer and others, in independent India, the state was given a large role to solve the critical problems of the majority of Indians — poverty, health, education, etc. This required optimal use of resources and austerity. But the elite, in its self-interest, adopted a top-down approach to development. These two aspects contradicted each other and led to a breakdown of consensus over policies.

While the policies could not be jettisoned, they were subverted through illegality which then led to the rise of criminality. The top-down policies failed due to the paucity of resources and the technology imperative. This led to rising discontent as seen in the emergence of Naxalism and Maoism and the drive of the marginalised to attain power to deliver to their constituency.

To wrest power from the entrenched upper castes and landlords, the backward sections had to match their strong-arm tactics. This led to criminality in a political sense. Additionally, an entrenched feudal consciousness makes the public deferential to the powerful.


As this writer has often argued, growing illegality has led to the growing black economy which underlies the widespread policy failure in India and that causes erosion of faith in the capacity of the state to deliver. Black money (not economy) is referred to only tangentially in the book even though it is central to the erosion of faith in the state and the rise of criminality. This writer has shown that the black economy has led to a loss of an average of 5 per cent rate of growth since the mid-1970s.

Democracy is a process which weakens or strengthens with social actions. The book under review argues, “Criminals bring money to the parties…Money and muscle are inexorably linked (p. 122)”. But the leaders of most political parties do not lack funds. Further, big business is willing to give more at the time of elections (and usually) so that they can maintain a hold over power to manipulate favourable policies. The problem is not funds but the vested interests wanting to control policies — to subvert them. The funds needed by all the political parties for a national election are estimated to be less than 0.5 per cent of the black economy.

The book focuses on a marketplace for criminals — demand and supply for them. But the situation is akin to barter and there is asymmetry. Once a candidate is elected, a voter cannot throw him (the product) out and go for another. The book points out that constituencies where criminals were elected have a lower rate of growth and higher poverty.

Solutions are suggested (pp. 250-80): reform in laws, police, courts and political parties and managing ethnic tensions. As this reviewer has pointed out in his writings, there are no simple technical fixes. A consensus is needed over policies for them to be voluntarily followed. There have been dozens of committees and commissions that have gone into different aspects of the black economy and many of their suggestions have been implemented but illegality has continued to grow. There is no magic wand. No review like this can do justice to a book like the one in hand and it is a must read to understand Indian politics.

First published on: 18-03-2017 at 05:53:31 am
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