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Missing the real malaise of the body politic

Data suggests that criminalisation of politics is not the cause,but only a symptom,of dysfunctional democracy

Written by RAHUL VERMA |
June 12, 2013 1:48:03 am

Data suggests that criminalisation of politics is not the cause,but only a symptom,of dysfunctional democracy

In the current Lok Sabha,162 of the 543 members have criminal records against them. Seventy-six MPs are facing charges for serious criminal offences under the Indian Penal Code such as murder,rape,kidnapping,robbery,etc. This pattern is replicated in state assemblies and in local elected bodies,where supposedly one in five elected officials are charged with at least one case. Research has shown that during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections,a candidate with criminal charges,all else being equal,had a far greater probability of winning elections in comparison to a candidate with no criminal record.

This overwhelming presence of elected representatives facing criminal charges in legislative bodies of India is at the centre of the overarching public sentiment against politicians and electoral politics. During the agitations over the Lokpal Bill,Arvind Kejriwal’s remark about criminals in the House compelled Parliament to issue a privilege notice against him. A defiant Kejriwal,in a four-page reply to the House,asked,“ [.. how can I respect Parliament of present times?” Recently,Jay Panda,an MP representing the Biju Janata Dal (BJD),has submitted three private members’ bills in Lok Sabha to address the issue of criminal legislators. The current outrage against legislators with a criminal record is not new for Indian politics. Various government commissions in the past (especially the Vohra Commission in 1993) have recommended measures to deal with the criminal-politician nexus. Civil society organisations have been calling attention to the criminalisation of legislative bodies in India. The Supreme Court intervened in 2002 and since then,all candidates contesting for elections have to compulsorily declare their criminal record,if any,and their assets.

In the face of this loud and persistent noise around the criminalisation of Indian politics,we ask whether,once elected,do MPs with a criminal record behave differently from their peers who do not have a criminal record? To answer this question,we collected five disparate measures of the performance of MPs. We looked at their attendance in Lok Sabha,their participation in Lok Sabha debates and questions raised by them in Lok Sabha. These data were compiled by PRS Legislative Research. Second,we examined the utilisation of MPLADS funds that are allocated to MPs. This data came from the ministry of statistics website. Third,we collected data on the reported assets of MPs (the veracity of this information is questioned by many) and MPs’ criminal records from the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). The data is drawn from affidavits filed by the MPs. ADR has meticulously collated and arranged the information to distinguish between two kinds of criminal records — serious (with charges like kidnapping,murder,etc.) and those who are charged with less serious crimes.

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We find that MPs with criminal records are statistically no different from their peers with no criminal record on five indicators mentioned above. First,on average MPs are crorepatis,and MPs with serious IPC charges are likely to have more assets,but not much more. On average,an MP with no charges declared assets of Rs 5.7 crore,whereas an MP with serious IPC charges declared assets of Rs 5.8 crore.

Figure 1 demonstrates that MPs with criminal charges are less likely to attend Parliament. MPs with serious IPC charges have a 70 per cent attendance record in Parliament,MPs with non-serious charges have 74 per cent attendance,and MPs with no charges have 79 per cent attendance record. However,when they do attend Parliament,MPs with criminal charges against them are more active than their peers. Figure 2 indicates that they are more likely to raise questions on the floor of the House. On average,MPs with serious IPC charges asked 272,MPs with non-serious charges asked 305,and MPs with no charges asked 232 questions,respectively. MPs with a criminal record are also equally likely to participate in debates on the floor of the House. The average participation rate among MPs is 31 debates.

Figure 3 suggests that there is no difference between MPs who have been charged with a crime in their utilisation of MPLADS funds. MPs with and without criminal charges against them have spent similar proportions of the funds allocated to them. These data show quite clearly that as far as these indicators are concerned,there is no significant difference in the performance of an MP with a criminal record and an MP with no criminal record.

There are,of course,some caveats to our analysis. Our analysis is limited to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and is based on the information available with the three organisations mentioned above. Further,a deeper analysis may reveal that the nature of the questions posed by MPs with criminal charges against them are systematically different from the kind of questions asked by MPs with no charges against them. Similarly,it could be the case that the kind of MPLADS spending by MPs with criminal records is different from that of MPs without such a record. Only more sustained and systematic research can answer these questions.

Indeed,law-breakers should not be lawmakers. There is a clear moral position one can take against politicians with serious criminal charges against them. But our preliminary data analysis shows that once in office,politicians with criminal charges against them behave no differently from MPs with no criminal charges against them. The data we present suggests that to blame politicians with criminal records for everything that is wrong with our system would not be very prudent.

The criminalisation of politics is not the cause of the dysfunctional democracy in India,but a symptom of greater malaise in our democracy. Kejriwal’s assertion and Panda’s effort is commendable,but will only touch the symptom and not cure the cause. In the National Election Study (NES 2009),voters were asked whether they would prefer a candidate with a criminal record who gets work done or a clean politician who cannot get their work done. The rural poor said that they would not mind voting for a candidate with a criminal record if the candidate can get their work done. They also preferred an approachable politician to an honest politician. The poor’s preference for a politician who can get things done “no matter what” is,in our opinion,because of the daily actions of a state that either treats the poor shabbily all year round,intimidates them,or is simply absent. That needs to be addressed.

The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science,University of California at Berkeley,US

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