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India: Crime and Politics

The Nexus Is As Logical As It Is Paradoxical

by Ajay K Mehra, 26 January 2009

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(Published earlier in: The Statesman, 25 January 2009)

Two major scams – the DDA housing allotments and the Satyam scandal – have hit the headlines almost simultaneously. Both developments follow the lynching of the PWD engineer MK Gupta by BSP goons led by its MLA, Shekhar Tewari, in UP’s Auraiya town. He had refused to raise Rs 50 lakhs for chief minister Mayawati’s birthday bash.

The housing allotment and the Satyam scam highlight the level of corruption in the country. The UP incident confirms what can be called the politicisation of crime. Although there is no direct linkage between the three, corruption in public life has historically led to criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime.

It bears recall that it was the Vohra Committee that in 1993 had first exposed the criminalisation of politics. Before that, several reports since independence had highlighted different aspects of corruption. The Transparency International’s ratings over the years have not been flattering for India. The 2008 report ranks the country at 72nd amongst 179 countries.

The Vohra committee report had sparked a political discourse. In his address to a joint sitting of Parliament on the golden jubilee of Independence (August 15, 1997), the then President, KR Narayanan, said: “Sheer opportunism and value-less power-politics have taken over the place of principles and idealism, relationships between people, groups and parties... And corruption is corroding the vitals of our politics and our society... It seems the people have to be in the forefront of the fight against corruption, communalism, casteism and criminalisation of politics and life in the country.”

Two weeks later, the Lok Sabha responded by adopting a resolution which stated: “All political parties shall undertake all such steps as will attain the objectives of ridding our polity of criminalisation or its influence’. Mulayam Singh Yadav, then the defence minister, added a politician’s qualifier: “The NN Vohra Committee Report had talked of a nexus between judges and criminals, and bureaucrats and criminals as well. But only the nexus between politicians and criminals is mentioned."

The Supreme Court issued a directive to the Election Commission in 2002 to the effect that rules must be framed to get candidates seeking election to Parliament or a state legislature to file affidavits on any criminal activity, so that “the little man may think over before making his choice of electing lawbreakers as law makers”.

The EC complied with the directive despite unprecedented political resistance. The constitutional authority was able to generate popular awareness over the fact that politicians were acting like criminals, and criminals getting space in the Indian polity.

It was revealed that 16.28 per cent of the candidates contesting the 2004 Lok Sabha elections had criminal antecedents. Since one-fourth of the MPs elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 had criminal cases against them, it is obvious that a large of number of tainted candidates won the contest.

The National Election Watch, a civil society initiative, reported that in comparison to 18 per cent of tainted candidates winning in the state assembly elections, 20 per cent of such candidates won in 2008.

Compared to the Congress, the BJP and the Left, there were more tainted members in the regional parties, notably the BSP. No wonder, as many as 22 ministers in the 49-member Mayawati government – ten holding cabinet rank – had criminal cases pending at the time of the swearing-in ceremony in 2007.

The situation has reached alarming proportions as the first signals of corruption and criminalisation were ignored. And when the matter was in the public domain, the political class put up a spurious case for status quo.

It bears recall that Mahatma Gandhi and other senior leaders had commented upon corruption when elected governments were formed in the provinces in 1937. The AD Gorwala committee (1951) classified the deviation from moral standards of ministers, legislators and administrators under three main heads: ‘corruption, patronage (based on communalism, sectarianism, nepotism and favouritism) and influence.’

There have been a series of scandals since independence: the jeep scandal involving VK Krishna Menon, the LIC-Mundhra deal, the HG Mudgal affair, etc. Not a single case led to any action. The Santhanam Committee (1964), observed: “We wish we could confidently and without reservation assert that at the political level, ministers, legislators, party officials were free from this malady (corruption).” However, it was the assassination in February 1965 of Pratap Singh Kairon, Chief Minister of Punjab from 1956 to 1964, that exposed the honeymoon of politics with crime. He had resigned after being indicted by the Das Commission.

The nexus between politics and crime is as logical as it is paradoxical. It is logical because politics is about power and the pursuit of power in highly competitive electoral contests requires huge sums of money (preferably unaccounted), which are more easily available in the world of big crime. The game of power is also incomplete without musclepower. This gives the contestant a visible but undefined intimidating edge. The world of crime has two important ingredients sought by the world of politics – the power of money and muscle. The investment of both ingredients in politics is highly profitable in terms of legitimacy (in a purely legal sense) and systemic protection. Irrespective of who seeks the other first, the nexus has a logic howsoever contrived or resented by society.

It is paradoxical because democratic politics and the pursuit of legitimate power are based on the rule of law. The nexus of politics and crime and eventual induction of criminally inclined politicians, if not criminals themselves, in the process of governance contravenes the rule of law. It violates the spirit of constitutional and democratic governance. For, if the government is run by such elements, the law is enforced by forces that might swear by it but would believe neither in constitutional government nor in the rule of law. In such a scenario, both society and the polity are bound to suffer.

Coalition politics legitimises this process. In the 14th Lok Sabha, the communist parties along with the Congress have the least number of members with criminal elements. Yet, the RJD with the largest percentage of ‘criminal’ MPs in the Lok Sabha is a Congress ally. And in its zeal to look for a popular leader for a resuscitated third front, the Left opted for Mayawati, whose BSP closely follows the RJD.

There may be hope yet if citizens’ groups, civil society and the ‘so-called intellectuals’, who according to Mulayam Singh Yadav do not know the basics of grassroots politics, mount a sustained campaign against this process.

The writer is Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida