Posted by: John Elliott | March 15, 2009

Campaign aims at “no criminals” in Indian politics

At last some leading public personalities are attempting to clean up India’s crime-ridden political system.  For years people have metaphorically wrung their hands in horror and frustration as criminals have tightened their grip on politics, especially in the poorest and roughest states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

These criminals enter parliament and state assemblies and work closely with other corrupt politicians, the police, judiciary and bureaucracy who all help them run their gangs and fix government decisions and contracts.

This trend is now being attacked by a campaign called the Forum for Clean Politics, which is being run by the Public Interest Foundation, which in turn is headed by Bimal Jalan, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India and a top finance ministry bureaucrat, who is now a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament).

Bimal Jalan

Bimal Jalan

Figures on the forum’s website show that one in five Members of Parliament elected in India’s 2004 general election had pending criminal cases against them, either awaiting trial or on appeal after conviction.  About half the cases are for murder, violent robbery or rape.

Those involved include 19 (40%) of 48 Maharashtra’s MPs, 13 (35%) of Bihar’s 37, and 23 of UP’s 80. Bihar’s list includes Lalu Prasad Yadav, the railways minister, who was the state’s chief minister till he had to resign over corruption charges.

Even more surprising and shocking is that  five out of nine MPs (56%) in the Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is headed by agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and aviation minister Praful Patel, have criminal cases. 

Similarly, 42% – eight out of 19 – from the UP-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is run by Mayawati, UP’s chief minister, are in the list.

Mayawati and Pawar are among the country’s most important politicians and they are both possible candidates to be prime minister, if neither the Congress Party nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win enough seats in the coming general election to lead a coalition.

I spoke to Jalan yesterday and he made the point that, bad though it was, a few criminals in politics did not matter so much when India’s parliament was dominated by the major parties. Now however, with the growth of coalition governments at both national and state level, small parties and their MPs exercise considerable influence.

“Governments have a lot of power over things that criminals want such as land rights and allocation of land, property rights, mining rights and environmental decision,” he says.

The figures show that MPs and candidates with criminal records are more common in regional parties like the NCP and BSP than in Congress and the BJP, where the percentages drop to around 20%. Analysts say that this is because regional party leaders and criminals are mutually useful to each other – criminals provide party finance and muscle power, and receive favourable decisions in return.

The statistics are based on returns that election candidates have to file with information of cases pending for more than two years. They are allowed to stand and be elected when they have either not been convicted, or are on appeal, because they can claim that they are innocent – though in many of the cases their guilt is beyond question. In India’s often corrupt judicial system, it is easy to delay and even fix cases so as to avoid a final decision.

Jalan is not sure how much impact the campaign will have, but he is sure that “parties will be much more reluctant to nominate people with criminal records”. Other foundation members include Naresh Chandra, former cabinet secretary and ambassador to the US, Tarun Das of the Confederation of Indian Industry, and Suresh Neotia, chairman of Ambuja Cement whose Neotia Foundation has provided the finance.

The campaign is being supported by some newspaper groups, including the Times of India, and other organisations. It is using mobile phone text messages to encourage voters to ask questions about candidates’ past histories, plus  You Tube (two films click here and here), and has gathered 4,000 members on its Facebook entry for No Criminals in Politics. There is also an advertisement campaigns on tv and in newspapers encouraging people to vote with slogans like “keep religion out of politics and politics out of religion”.

Other public figures including Ratan Tata, head of the Tata group, and E, Sreedharan, who runs the highly successful Delhi Metro, last year launched the Foundation for Restoration of National Values. This is reported to be taking legal action over the vast numbers of government advertisements that appeared two weeks ago just before the general election was announced.

All this may not have much effect on the coming election, but it is a beginning. India’s greatest strength is its democracy and it is time it was wrenched free of criminals and their political friends.

“ENOUGH – CLEAN UP PARLIAMENT” – in Italy – a current campaign to oust Italian MPs who have criminal convictions – see an Italian blog (in English)


this post is also on the FT India page,dwp_uuid=a6dfcf08-9c79-11da-8762-0000779e2340.html



  1. Indian politician Amar Singh seems to support the cause of taking criminals out of the political system. In his blog post the Indian leader claims that Mayawati’s BSP is the one responsible. Counting chickens again….

  2. There’s an effort going on using Facebook to encourage young voters to take a stand in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009.

  3. Nick, the kind of ad you suggest is actually also on….a candidate is subjected to a regular job interview and he’s taken aback that he’s being questioned about his credentials and qualifications. The idea conveyed here being: this is a job, like any other, and you need to be qualified, not just willing! Other than this, our various tv discussion forums provide viewers and journalists plenty of opportunity to make the same point forcefully to politicians. Media-activism plays a key role here.

    And yes, people do know to not vote for dishonest politicians.

    However, these ads are directed at the middle class which has largely not voted in the past.
    Information is the key difference between this election and our past elections. We’ve had very few means of finding out more about our candidates…like the person’s previous work experience and if in fact they’ve been hauled to court for anything. Now, this information has been made public by the Election Commission and the various groups John mentioned.

    So the middle-class voter who either never voted, or voted thoughtlessly earlier, is now promising to make use of newly accessible information to make himself/herself heard. The earlier indifference has been replaced by a greater political engagement. It’s this middle-class voice that is reflected in the new public service campaigns.

    Humphey, as far as social and other pressures that work to influence voting patterns in rural india, I’m also not sure of statistics in this regard. But one should note that regardless of whatever pressure might work, Indian elections have regularly seen the ‘anti-incumbency’ vote at work in the past. That is, no government won two terms because people were disenchanted with how their elected reps. had worked. This has changed recently, as voters are clearly rewarding hard-working Chief Ministers by giving them a second term in office. This doesn’t directly answer your question, but it shows that clearly social pressure to vote a certain way has always had a limited shelf-life, as governments have been voted out with unfailing regularity if they have failed to deliver.

  4. Thank you John for sharing this. I read another interesting piece at

  5. I would like to address the message in the YouTube Ads. It seems like (I do not speak Hindi, so may well be far from the mark here) it is telling people to vote for honest candidates. I obviously agree and applaud this, but surely people know to vote for the person that isn’t a rapist, thief or murderer!

    Shouldn’t the Ad campaign be somehow shaming the government into not allowing those with criminal records be acceptable as candidates – as a starting point?

    The campaign would be as simple as listing the statistics in the article above. It’s pretty damning evidence!

    Have I missed the point?
    Would Ads like I have suggested be allowed to run in India?

  6. thanks Humphrey – it’s amazing that India’s democratic system works, though it is far from perfect as these figures show, but I don’t have the percentages you ask for.
    The system is slipping into hands of political dynasties and regional party leaders, whose personal agendas often mean they care less for democracy or India than past MPs, as well as politicians with criminal links.
    On the positive side, the expansion of an urban middle class means that more people are able to decide for themselves how to vote without being herded or bullied by caste groups or gang bosses.
    And MPs, parties and governments that fail to perform are thrown out – that’s how it works.

  7. What percentage of India’s electorate do you estimate has access to full democracy – as say measured by the EU or the US where 100% have the freedom to vote for whatever candidate you wish without fear of punishment or sanctions from special interest groups such as the ones you referred to in your piece. And what percentage is denied it? Or would you disagree with the premise?

  8. Like in everything else, there is a lot of merit in getting the magnitude right.

    Of course there are criminals involved in Indian politics and some get elected. But at the same time everyone who happens to have a criminal case registered against them is not a criminal. In India getting cases registered against your foes is a time-honoured tradition, especially in the countryside. Police often file “cross-cases” so they are able to oblige both sides in a quarrel.

    Is Lalu Prasad a criminal in the literal sense? I don’t think so. In the fodder scandal, he was (I am told by people whose information is good) under the impression that those who were obtaining his signatures on paper, were doing so to secure fodder from government supplies and selling it at a profit in the open market. After the scandal broke and he found that it was a fraud on the government’s treasury he stopped signing anything.

    In the long history of representative politics in India “cash-for-preferential-access” is undesirable, but labelling it as “criminal” blurs the important distinction of what one can live with and what one ought not to. i.e. you can live with a gentrified corrupt politician, but not with a gang-lord or casual murderer — as opposed to ones of passion !

    It has been a blessing that India’s Prime Ministers and many other senior ministers have generally been people of integrity even as the electoral machinery needs funding. And it is important that we demand integrity and make common cause against the criminalization of politics. In doing so we should not loose sight of the need to avoid the plain interpretation of the term.

    Btw for those who have led gentler lives, you could not be a student activist (which involves some processions, courting arrest etc) without having a number of charges filed under CrPC, i.e. criminal law. Does that make such people criminal. Of course not.

    And then of course in the heartland, you could never be a landed farmer of (political substance. i.e. engaged in the commodity called power & patronage) if you did not have a couple of murder or attempted murder charges filed against you. Who would take you seriously otherwise? You may or may not have warred (and killed) a long-time foe but at least you were important enough to be taken seriously and named in the FIR by the family of the deceased. Some of them are criminals in the moral (and meaningful) sense of the term, some are not and some are fine people.

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