Why People Elect Crooks
When Crime Pays
By Milan Vaishnav
(Yale, 410 pages, $40)
The next time you sink into despair after news of a politician’s sexting or gaffes, be consoled: At least your city councilman didn’t start out as a bootlegger who did time for inciting religious riots. Your state legislator (probably) doesn’t threaten to feed people who cross him to crocodiles kept in a private lake. Your state governor didn’t cut massive pay-to-play deals that helped his son’s wealth grow 4,000-fold in a decade.
Many Indians aren’t so lucky. In “When Crime Pays,” a close look at the underbelly of the world’s largest democracy, Milan Vaishnav starts with a simple question: Why do decent people elect flagrantly indecent representatives? Not out of ignorance, he thinks. The voters he interviews in one district are amply informed about their state assemblyman, a mustachioed, upper-caste bruiser with a pet python and a fondness for guns. “Many of them,” Mr. Vaishnav reports, “could recite specific alleged criminal acts in great detail.” Nor does he blame ballot-stuffing or voter intimidation, which the authorities have gotten much better at stopping. “Candidates in India,” you will be pleased to learn, “can no longer openly brandish weapons while on the campaign trail.” Rather, Mr. Vaishnav, a political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment, believes that when the state fails to provide equitable access to housing, justice, jobs and public services—as India regularly does—criminals acquire unique advantages as politicians. They can flaunt their rough edges as proof that they will fight for their constituents— that they alone can help the downtrodden navigate a broken system. And because most of them actually do have experience subverting the system in one way or another, they can deliver. Once in office, they get wells dug. They resolve disputes with bureaucrats and the police. They take good care of widows and the jobless. And, sometimes, they become spectacularly rich in the process.
Crooks have played a part in Indian politics since the republic’s very first elections, in 1951-52, and despite the country’s economic progress, its politics may be getting more criminalized, not less. In 2014, the year Indians supposedly voted for clean government by catapulting Narendra Modi to the premiership, they also elected to Parliament nearly 200 people implicated in pending criminal cases—a third of the 543 winning lawmakers that year, a higher share than in the two previous national elections. Fully 22% of the winning candidates from Mr. Modi’s own party faced serious charges, including attempted murder, assault and theft, that could lead to hard prison time. These were no loonies on the back bench: Mr. Modi brought eight of them into his first cabinet.
Studying the intertwining of money, muscle and politics in India was, for a long time, guesswork. Candidates in elections weren’t required to disclose their finances or criminal histories until 2003. Mr. Vaishnav makes prodigious use of the data trove that is now available, however, and the numbers get crunched in eye-popping ways. During the 2000s, we learn, the average wealth of a sitting state or national lawmaker in India tripled in a single term in office. In the past three national elections, the median criminal candidate had four times the net worth of the median untainted candidate— and was roughly three times as likely to win.
Mr. Vaishnav’s book generates more heat when the author goes out into the field. During election campaigns in India, candidates woo voters with speeches, personal outreach—and free stuff. The more routine goodies include cash, jewelry, cellphone minutes and liquor, from moonshine to top-shelf brands. But crackdowns on giveaways have spurred innovation. Mr. Vaishnav learns of candidates who sponsor “weddings” at which thousands of locals are invited to eat and make merry. The only thing missing? A bride and groom.
Funding such exploits—spending in India’s 2014 parliamentary contest was estimated at $5 billion, which would make it history’s second-most-expensive election after the 2012 U.S. presidential race—necessitates further dirty dealing. In one of Mr. Vaishnav’s best-known research papers, he and his co-author found that the demand for cement tends to take a hit in election months. That’s when builders, angling for permits, pour cash into politicians’ coffers instead of buying construction materials. Favors are sometimes returned manyfold after elections are over, and Mr. Vaishnav looks at some cases of cronyism of the familiar type. (Mining company bankrolls party’s election victories; party turns a blind eye to the company’s illegal mining; company’s owners buy a throne made of gold for their mansion.) We also meet more ambiguous figures, including some who seem to be thug, mafia don and Robin Hood all rolled into one. Ahead of polls in the eastern state of Bihar, Mr. Vaishnav watches a local strongman stride through a village with a band of followers in “a display of force and virility.” The politician, Anant Singh, was well-known for his past shoot-outs with police and gangs—yet boasted of organizing 10,000 weddings for poor folks in his constituency. In Bihar, Mr. Vaishnav also meets Sunil Pandey, a longtime assemblyman and former leader of an upper-caste militia group who completed a Ph.D. while in prison for kidnapping. His thesis was on—what else?—the philosophy of nonviolence. Mr. Vaishnav asks Mr. Pandey if he finds this ironic. His reply: “Life is limited and people have unlimited requirements. Thus there can be a need for force in some cases.”
This sober, scholarly book could have used more such moments of bleak comedy. It is filled with outrageous characters but written without outrage—or much feeling of any kind—though it doesn’t leave you with much hope that things are about to improve for India. Late last year, Prime Minister Modi canceled all large bank notes overnight to drive out cash piles held by corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. He has talked about taking bold steps to make political finance transparent, a cause all national parties have resisted. Will he drain the swamp or be beaten back by it? Sadly, the swamp has the better odds.
Mr. Zhong is a reporter based in New Delhi for The Wall Street Journal.
They flaunt their rough edges as proof that they will fight for the people. And because many have experience subverting the system, they deliver.
[Sri. BS. Raghavan is the former Chief Secretary of Tiripura and former Policy Advisor to UN]