Candidates facing criminal charges keep their hold on Indian voters

About 40 percent of sitting MPs in the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament had criminal cases against them as of September 2023, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a Delhi-based election research think-tank.

Rohini Mohan

Rohini Mohan

The Straits Times


Politicians with criminal backgrounds tend to be more influential in the world’s biggest democracy and are difficult to displace as they use money and muscle to keep their seats, said Mr Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

May 10, 2024

BENGALURU – An MP seeking re-election in the southern Indian state of Karnataka is facing allegations of sexually assaulting hundreds of women in his constituency, drawing attention to the increasing proportion of the country’s leaders and candidates accused of serious crimes.

Prajwal Revanna, 33, the MP for Hassan constituency and grandson of former Indian prime minister Deve Gowda, is the subject of around 3,000 damning videos being circulated around the country that show him having sex with women, some of them through force.

His father, state legislator H.D. Revanna, 66, is also accused of intimidation in some of these cases.

Both men face charges of kidnapping, rape and sexual harassment from three police complaints filed by victims.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a Delhi-based election research think-tank, about 40 per cent of sitting MPs in the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament had criminal cases declared against them as at September 2023, with 25 per cent accused of serious crimes including murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women.

ADR is a premier, non-partisan think-tank whose petitions for electoral reforms led to a Supreme Court order in 2002 making it mandatory for candidates to declare their assets, education and criminal cases.

In 2023, another petition led to the striking down of electoral bonds that allowed political parties to get unlimited corporate donations without disclosing their sources to the public.

Politicians with criminal backgrounds tend to be more influential in the world’s biggest democracy and are difficult to displace as they use money and muscle to keep their seats, said Mr Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr Vaishnav is also the author of the book, When Crime Pays: Money And Muscle In Indian Politics.

“Criminality is intimately linked with the increasing costs of elections,” he added.

The ongoing general election in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is seeking a third term, is perhaps the world’s most expensive.

The Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, which has been tracking election spending for decades, estimates that parties and candidates will spend an estimated 1.35 trillion rupees (S$22 billion) in this election, double the amount spent in the previous election.

Said Mr Vaishnav: “As the costs of elections are surging, parties and candidates are under pressure to spend more money to woo voters and launch expensive social media campaigns.

“Now, more than ever, political parties are attracted to self-financing candidates with deep pockets who will be able not only to cover their own costs, but also bankroll the parties for the privilege of running.”

Individuals who are part of a criminal enterprise represent an important demographic that parties can tap, as they have liquid assets and desire the perks of being in office, “one of which is to slow down justice, if not derail it”, he added.

Candidates are legally required to inform the Election Commission about any criminal cases pending against them in a self-sworn affidavit, as well as declare their wealth and assets.

ADR analysed self-sworn declarations of candidates in four phases of the seven-phase election.

The first three phases were held on April 19 and 26, and May 7. The fourth phase is on May 13.

Polling is now complete for more than half of the 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.

ADR found that of the 5,872 candidates contesting the ongoing election who will form the next government from June, 1,105 face criminal charges – which is about 19 per cent of all candidates.

Worse, 13 per cent, or 773 of all candidates, face serious charges including assault, murder, kidnap, rape, corruption and crimes against women. These offences carry a punishment of five years in jail or more.

Taking note of an “alarming” rise in candidates with criminal charges contesting elections, the Supreme Court in 2020 made it mandatory for political parties to furnish reasons for fielding candidates with criminal antecedents and explain why non-criminals could not be selected.

But ADR’s research found that it has made no difference, because a candidate’s “winnability” through local patronage networks and money trumps all other factors.

The explanations from parties for choosing candidates with alleged criminal backgrounds include that these candidates are “well known”, a “publicly accepted leader” and a “senior and dedicated party worker”, for whom no replacement could be found.

Almost half the constituencies in India have three or more candidates with pending criminal cases, which ADR defines as “red alert constituencies”, said Mr Jagdeep S. Chhokar, ADR’s founder and trustee.

“Voters are not ignorant about the crimes of the candidates, but they don’t really have options. Their choice is severely pre-constrained by a set of choices made by the political parties. Until political parties stop fielding such criminal individuals as candidates, things cannot change,” he said.

Mr Vaishnav’s research found that many Indian voters also perceive criminality as a signal of credibility.

“When you’re in a country where there is social upheaval, the rule of law is weak and the government doesn’t always function as it should, voters often see criminality as a sign of the candidate’s ability to get things done for their constituents… People think criminal candidates might be better at extracting things from the state,” he said.

“Criminal politicians cast their crimes in defensive terms; that they had to attack, murder or kidnap a rival to protect their community. As cases go on, sometimes for decades in court, it also gives the politician some deniability,” he added.

Professor Narayana A, who teaches policy and governance at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, said: “Not all legislators with criminal backgrounds behave the same way – some interfere with daily administration, while others don’t.

“But the very presence of such murky characters in the core of the state ends up weakening the government, as it makes all sorts of compromises to prevent the leader from getting convicted or found out.”

In the polling phases held so far, of the 773 politicians accused of serious crimes, 130 face charges of crimes against women, including rape and sexual assault.

The sexual assault allegations against Prajwal Revanna came to light after polling on April 26 because his family had secured a gag order against any reporting of the alleged assaults. When the videos made their rounds, three victims filed police complaints, accusing him of rape, sexual harassment, threats and blackmail.

H.D. Revanna has since been taken into judicial custody, while Prajwal is understood to have fled to Germany using his diplomatic passport. An Interpol Blue Corner notice has been issued to locate and identify him abroad.

Said Prof Narayana: “The Prajwal case appears to be a sign of wayward behaviour from a politically influential family, the kind that you find all over India lording over feudal islands in a democracy.

“They often have disregard for the law, a feudal lifestyle and a strong control over a district or region, no matter who is the elected leader. Usually, they get away with anything, but this time, it has come out, and the nature and scale of the crime is such that it cannot be brushed away.”

As Prajwal’s Janata Dal (Secular) party is an ally of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), opposition leaders have accused the BJP of promoting sexual assaulters.

BJP leaders have denied any knowledge of the allegations before the election, and have promised a fair investigation.

Mr Chhokkar said that only two things could remove criminal politicians from the system.

The first is to bar people charged with crimes that would result in a jail term of more than two years from contesting elections.

The second, he said, is for the Election Commission to hold re-elections in constituencies where more voters have picked the “None Of The Above” option that allows them to reject all candidates. This will force parties to field better candidates.

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