For the past three years, a federal prison in the badlands of northern India has been the next best thing to freedom for Mukhtar Ansari. A tall, mustached member of the Uttar Pradesh state legislature, he's awaiting trial for more than two dozen alleged crimes, including murder. But Ansari has remained steadily in touch with his loyal supporters—especially in recent weeks, while he ran for a seat in the nation's parliament from his cell. Dedicated campaign workers like Lakshmi Devi, an elderly local widow who thinks of the jailed candidate as a modern-day Robin Hood, have been routinely allowed to call on Ansari at any time of day. They need only to flash an entry permit—not a government-issued photo ID, but a note on Ansari's personal letterhead. "Gatekeeper Sahib," the old woman's tattered letter says, handwritten in Hindi. "Do not stop aunty from coming to see me."
The national Election Commission finally caught wind of Ansari's cushy setup recently and transferred him some 250 miles away to another prison, just a few days before election day for Ansari's district. (Voting is done in five stages across India, with results to be released on May 16.) Ansari's new jailers were instructed to set up an elaborate network of video cameras to keep track of his visitors. Still, Ansari's jailhouse parliamentary run helps show how unsavory the country's politics can be. India's people joke that they can't tell whether the criminals are masquerading as politicians or vice versa. And the system is especially infested with seedy characters in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of the poorest, where the New Delhi–based Association for Democratic Reforms says 46 parliamentary candidates in the current field of 268 have police records.
Ansari has never been convicted of anything, and he has denied any wrongdoing. But this is hardly his first campaign from prison. He was elected to the state legislature in 1996, just weeks after being charged with firing an AK-47 at a local policeman. He won reelection by a gaping margin in 2002 while facing a charge of illegal-arms possession. He ran for and won a different seat in 2007 while awaiting trial on charges including the murder of Krishnanand Rai, a rival politician. Ansari has said he couldn't have done it because he was in jail when gunmen on five motorcycles surrounded Rai's car and opened fire. But India's Central Bureau of Investigation responded by producing voice recordings of purported conversations between Ansari and Rai's killers. The case continues to creep through India's sclerotic judicial system.
But criminals are widely viewed as rebel heroes in rural Uttar Pradesh, and Ansari's arrest record is more asset than liability. Gona, the widow Lakshmi Devi's home village, is festooned with his campaign posters. People think of him as their savior and protector. For his good friends he serves as a one-man employment agency, and he generously distributes cash to the indigent, paying for weddings, dowries, eye operations. Although power outages are frequent elsewhere in the state, in this area the villagers count on having electricity 22 hours a day—thanks to Ansari's influence, they say. When villagers have legal problems, Ansari is the man they turn to. They say he dispenses justice faster and surer than the courts. Devi says he intervened once when her son was wrongly arrested after a feud with an upper-caste landlord's son. All it took was one call from Ansari to the arresting officer.
The worst of it is that India's campaign-finance laws may be what brought hard-core criminals into the process, according to Amitabh Bhattacharya, a local journalist who has followed Ansari's career. Political parties can't legally raise more than a fraction of the money they need, says Bhattacharya, a columnist for the English-language daily Northern India Patrika. As a consequence, the parties made deals with mobsters for their muscle power and fundraising talents. In exchange, the gangsters received plump government contracts.
Gradually the crooks began running for office instead of just buying influence. Even convicted criminals can remain in office while they appeal to higher courts, and cases can drag on for years. Few people in Uttar Pradesh seem to mind. "To me a criminal is a criminal is a criminal," says Bhattacharya. "But that's not how everyone thinks."
One of India's best-known politicians recently visited the area to campaign for Ansari. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the single-named Mayawati, has been described as India's Obama because she was born into the Dalit caste—the so-called Untouchables. She exhorted the crowds not to think of Ansari as a criminal. "A person who fights those who harass the poor people cannot be termed as a criminal just by implicating him in false cases," she declared. "Mukhtar is a victim, and I consider him innocent."
Villagers in Gona won't stand for any criticism of their candidate. "His enemies often spout nonsense about him," said Shakuntala Devi, a sinewy 40-year-old woman. "He is only bad with people who are bad with him." Special prayer sessions are held at the village temple for Ansari's release. Still, people who have visited him in jail say he's not suffering too badly. They say some inmates act as his personal servants— washing his clothes, brewing his tea, giving him massages. His wife sends him homemade food, and people say he even converted part of his old prison compound into a cricket ground and taught his fellow inmates how to play. Freedom can wait.