Indian members of Parliament went home last week amid hoots and howls, derided as the sorriest lot ever to disgrace the halls of the world's largest democracy. The 14th Lok Sabha, or People's House, met for only 46 days in the past year—the fewest ever—because of disruptions caused by its many dubious members. One in 10 members didn't participate in a single debate. Eleven M.P.s were expelled for taking bribes. The coal minister was compelled to step down when he was convicted of murder (though he was later acquitted on appeal). And when the opposition called for a confidence vote, several members had to be transported to the People's House from the big house—where two of them are serving life sentences for murder—to participate. As the legislators adjourned last week, House Speaker Somnath Chatterjee wished them good riddance: "You do not deserve one paisa [cent] of public money," he scolded. "I hope all of you are defeated in the next election."
That's not likely. Parties in India have long used allies with shady pasts to influence voters. But as the power of the national parties waned—accelerating in the late 1990s—because of the rise of caste- and ethnicity-based regional players, alleged and convicted criminals began to play a broader role. No single party has won enough parliamentary seats to govern alone since the Congress party did so in 1984, and the number of seats won by India's six national parties—which include the Congress, the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—fell from 477 in 1991 to 388 in 2004. Now, in many constituencies, there are four or five significant parties, and the share of the vote needed to win a seat has fallen as low as 15 percent. As a result, criminal strongmen no longer need to throw their support behind a leading politician, because the number of votes they need is small enough that they can win elected office themselves. With regional players well positioned for the next general election on April 16, there is some chance that a politician who has undergone a criminal investigation could become the prime minister.
The 14th Lok Sabha was the first in which it was crystal clear just how many members were alleged crooks. Thanks to new rules pushed into law by a group of fed-up college professors after years of resistance from dozens of political parties, candidates for the Lok Sabha for the first time had to disclose their assets and criminal records. The disclosures seemed to have little impact on the 2004 election: 128 of the 543 winners had faced criminal charges, including 84 cases of murder, 17 cases of robbery and 28 cases of theft and extortion. Many face multiple criminal counts—including one M.P. who faces 17 separate murder charges—and no major party is beyond reproach. Because the disclosure requirement is new, it's impossible to plot a trend line, but most experts say the situation is deteriorating. "The general opinion is that the influence of criminals in politics is steadily increasing," says Himanshu Jha of the National Social Watch Coalition.
Indian law bars convicted criminals, not alleged criminals, from running for office, but a loophole allows even convicts to continue in politics as long as the case is under appeal. In India, that can mean 25 or 30 years, the course of an entire career. And the problem goes well beyond alleged criminals who hold elected office.
Due to a fractured electorate and rampant flouting of campaign-spending limits, gangsters have muscled into positions of influence close to Parliament, and the problem is spreading. While the middle class protests, party workers distribute liquor and cash to woo voters in the slums. In lawless states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, thugs intimidate poor farmers into toeing the line. In riot-torn Gujarat and West Bengal, party cadres are alleged to harass and threaten nonsympathizers, sometimes confiscating their voter-registration cards. And elsewhere, aspirants like Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena—known for beating up migrants coming to Mumbai to hunt for jobs—use vandalism masked as street demonstrations to raise their political profiles. "Whether you call them goons or you call them political activists," says Jha, "it is becoming a blurred line."
The havoc created by India's criminal politicians is wide-ranging. Criminals seek political office to enrich themselves and gain protection from prosecution, and they easily pervert the police and the administration to their private purposes. When police officers or magistrates attempt to enforce the law, a powerful M.P. can engineer their transfer; in 2005 M.P. and convicted murderer Mohammed Shahabuddin of Bihar arranged the transfer of a magistrate who had sought to bar Shahabuddin from the district as a threat to public order.
Even on a matter as vital as last year's nuclear pact with the U.S., the alleged criminality of key politicians is believed to have made a crucial difference in the path India chose. When Singh and the Congress party opted to go ahead with the pact, their allies from the left parties withdrew their support for the government, forcing a confidence vote. After some frenzied horse-trading, the legislators of the Samajwadi Party—whose leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was under scrutiny for corruption by the Central Bureau of Investigation—switched positions to support the nuclear pact and volunteered to replace the left parties in the coalition. The government survived, and the pact went through. But soon after, stories of mysterious briefcases full of cash traveling from party offices to the homes of M.P.s began to circulate. The CBI—often criticized for acting as a political tool of the ruling party—dropped its case against the Samajwadi Party leader. And the probe into the "cash for votes" scandal fizzled before it even started.
The major parties are not above all this. In the outgoing Parliament, 26 Congress M.P.s and 29 BJP M.P.s faced criminal charges. About a fifth of the representatives of the two major parties were under investigation. Nor has either party been shy about giving ministerial posts to politicians accused of serious crimes. For example, Congress installed Shibu Soren as coal minister even though he was at the time under trial for the alleged kidnapping and murder of his former personal secretary and the alleged massacre of 11 people in sectarian violence. (He was later acquitted in both cases.) "The sole criterion for a candidate has become what they call 'winnability,' not his character, not his performance, not his competence, not his ability to assess national issues," says Arun Shourie, a former journalist who is now a leading member of the BJP. "In this way, people you would not give a job to—in fact, you'd make sure that they don't come near your organization—have become part of the legislature."
Come April, experts agree, the list of candidates competing for office is likely once again to be significantly shorter than the list of criminal charges against them. Even the mainstream political parties have resisted change. When the college profs first mobilized as the Association for Democratic Reforms in 1999, filing suit to force candidates to disclose criminal records, it sailed through the Delhi courts. Then the BJP, the Congress and 20 other political parties united to stymie the new rules through legal technicalities, delaying implementation for years. ADR member Jagdish Chhokar says the official resistance proved two things: that "the political establishment can be united" on an issue they care about and "that the government can be efficient," at least in defense of thugs in office.
Standards have indeed fallen so low that neither the BJP nor the Congress have pledged to eliminate even violent offenders from their rosters and instead must rely on the argument that their criminals are cleaner on average than others'.
"Neither the Congress nor the BJP have people with serial, cognizable offenses," says BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy, arguing for a distinction "between crimes of moral turpitude" and "heinous" crimes. Congress spokesman Satyavrat Chaturvedi says, "I can't say there's never been a case where a criminal has been given a ticket, [but] professional criminals, habitual criminals, those people will not get tickets."
It makes one wonder: How many murder charges are required before you're considered unfit to represent the good people of India?