Nearly 20 percent of the political candidates running in India’s upcoming parliamentary elections face criminal charges — with some as serious as rape, murder and extortion — according to a study out this week from Indian think tank Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
With new parties like Aam Aadmi using their party platforms to bring anti-corruption to the forefront of public attention, there was hope that change was in the air. According to the ADR’s report, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) had the highest percentage of candidates facing charges, at 39 percent. Though the report states that the Aam Aadmi party still saw a rate of 16 percent.
In fact, an AAP member and candidate for the Kandhamal constituency, Narendra Mohanty, also known as NaMo, has the highest number of criminal cases in the state of Odisha, at 28 — including three for murder and one for attempted murder.
As of Friday, the AAP has reportedly withdrawn support from Mohanty, in light of the data that was released. Mohanty said he felt it was sad that the leaders in New Delhi did not seek his explanation before withdrawing support.
“This is a setback to those fighting against injustice to poor tribals at the grassroots,” he said.
The ADR has sifted through data from half of India’s states, finding that at least 278 of the 1,566 total candidates in Monday’s elections are facing criminal charges. These candidates are vying for 120 vacant seats in the 545-member lower house.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon in the world of Indian politics. The ADR expects the final numbers on their study to find between 20 and 30 percent of candidates facing criminal charges, reflecting their findings in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections.
ADR — one of the 268 think tanks up and running in India — was founded by a group of professors in 1999. The group subsequently asked the Delhi High Court to disclose the criminal, financial, and education background of candidates before they were elected.
Ahead of India’s general elections, Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Shri Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Buxar, Bihar, on April 2.
In an attempt to appeal to Yadavs, the largest caste group in Bihar, Modi attacked Lalu Prasad for siding with a party promoting animal slaughter.
The Supreme Court sided with ADR in 2002, and the group was able to put out their first analysis before the 2004 parliamentary election. Prior to this initiative, the population was largely in the dark about their candidates’ histories.
“We are using this information from the last 12-13 years to build up public opinion for changing the political process,” Professor Jaydeep Chhokar, a representative at the ADR, told VICE News.
ADR also uses this information to file public interest litigation in the court system to boost democracy and electoral reform among political parties. In 2012, for example, it filed to have a candidate's paperwork put online within 24 hours of the nomination.
The data collected by the ADR is declared by the candidates in campaign paperwork. These criminal charges are not convictions though, and some wonder how many instances are in fact false accusations being used to take down public officials.
“The part I've not been able to wrap my head around is how many of these cases are malicious,” Sadanand Dhume, a Wall Street Journal columnist, told VICE News. “These things can be used as political tactics.”
Though Dhume has used the statistics in his own writing and finds them interesting, he does take it with a grain of salt, considering, for example, that a candidate could manage to have a competitor slapped with criminal charges of questionable validity.
One oft-cited example is the case of Rahul Ghandi. In 2006 the Congress party MP and current candidate for prime minister was accused of kidnapping and raping a woman in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
In 2012 the Supreme Court dismissed the case, ruling the charge was “without substance.” The accuser and regional Samajwadi Party member, Kishore Samrite, was ordered to pay damages to Ghandhi.
Any of the criminal charges against candidates being analyzed by ADR have made it to the third step in the judicial process, where a judge has decided there is enough validity for the case to go to court, but the trial has not begun.
With the study’s release coming just days before 815 million eligible voters will head to the polls in the world’s largest democracy, its results could cause increased voter concern over criminalization and corruption in India’s political system. But the complexities of the political system in India don’t necessarily lend themselves to a show of voter discontent on election day.
“In so many instances people tell me the system discourages them,” Hanamanthray Biradar, a 23-year-old law student living in Bangalore, told VICE News. “The system encourages those with criminal backgrounds.”
Biradar said the political system and their options on the ballots are ruled by family connections and bank accounts, and rarely offer much in the way of voter choice.
“The most important criteria for giving a party nomination is winnability,” Prof. Chhokar said, explaining that voter choice is pre-constrained by who the party decides will run.
With a growing population, elections in India have grown increasingly more expensive in recent years. The need for financially self sufficient candidates has also grown — something that Milan Vaishnav, a South Asian associate at the global think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says can oftentimes comes with criminal ties.
According to Vaishnav, statistics he gathered in the last two elections indicate candidates with serious criminal charges have a 25 percent chance of winning compared to 7 percent for individuals with no charges.
“It’s a demonstration of your sort of credibility,” Vaishnav told VICE News. “If you have a reputation as being a strong man, you have to be engaged in criminal acts that are of a serious nature, because you’re essentially sticking your neck out for your constituents to get what you want.”
From an observer’s perspective, the study’s results may cast a negative light on Indian politics, but there is optimism in the fact that the mere existence of this data is an improvement.
“One shouldn’t underestimate the value of this information being in the public domain,” said Vaishnav, noting growing awareness among the public of the connection between money and criminality in politics.
Sanjay Kaul, a spokesperson for the BJP Delhi office, says studies like those from ADR have caught the attention of national parties. BJP has taken this type of information seriously, he said, pointing to the dismissal of party members with so-called integrity issues as evidence.
“It has heightened the sensitivity of the issue,” said Kaul, “create a tolerance breakdown for this activity, and eventually parties will push for change.”
Biradar said he is optimistic about the recent Supreme Court decision in India, which aims to speed up the judicial process for criminal cases against parliament members.
He is also hopeful about the new None Of The Above (NOTA) ballot option, which voters will have for the first time, and allows them to not vote for any of the candidates. NOTA votes, however, will not actually be a part of the vote tally, nor count against a candidate.
With his concerns about youth unemployment and corruption, Biradar would like to see candidates elected who are under the age of 30, and come from lower classes — even if the odds are stacked against them.
“I ask my friends daily if we can have someone from a modest, honest background in the highest office. I have hope,” he said.