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).
Figures on the forum’s www.nocriminals.org 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) http://www.beppegrillo.it/eng/condannati_parlamento.php
this post is also on the FT India page – http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7fb849ce-1227-11de-b816-0000779fd2ac,dwp_uuid=a6dfcf08-9c79-11da-8762-0000779e2340.html