Politicians must be seen as model citizens, upstanding and righteous, with a blemish-free reputation – after all, they represent us, the people.
Of course, in reality, politicians are just people, who share the same human imperfections that we all do. It’s just that politicians need to be seen to be that bit more virtuous, don’t they?
Well, it depends on which country we’re talking about, because the difference in approach can be quite stark. For example, in the UK, any politician remotely linked to a ‘scandal’ (it doesn’t even need to be unlawful) would be expected to resign their position, or would be relieved of their position anyway. Some high-profile examples include Andrew Mitchell and the incident known as ‘Plebgate’, and the Expenses Scandal that exposed numerous politicians exploiting the parliamentary allowances system for their own personal gain.
In India, it’s a little different…
A book published earlier this year, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, by Milan Vaishnav, took an in-depth look at the political system in India, and found that they take an alternative view when it comes to the behaviour of their politicians.
There’s a co-dependence between crime and politics in India that has become endemic. Many parliamentary candidates with criminal backgrounds are winning votes because of their criminality. Bizarrely, ‘clean’ candidates are viewed as a less attractive proposition by voters. This graphic of the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament, known as Lok Sabha (House of the People), illustrates the point.
To put this into perspective, the 2014 General Election in India elected a total of 543 MPs, 34% of whom faced criminal charges. Some of these charges were fairly minor, however, more than 20% of the new MPs faced much more serious charges, including attempted murder, assault and theft.
So, why are Indian voters so willing to have such people represent them?
One of the reasons suggested is that voters in constituencies where social divisions are driven by caste and religion are feeling let down by their government in carrying out its functions in an impartial manner. There’s a view amongst those considered lower down the pecking order that they are being short-changed in the delivery of some essential services, as well as in the dispensing of justice and the provision of appropriate security.
The criminal candidate is seen as someone much more likely to restore these fundamental services, specifically because of their criminal connections and activity.
So, when individuals with criminal backgrounds make a move into the political arena, it’s easy to see the benefit to them individually: more power, more influence, more opportunity to increase personal wealth even further (a 2013 study showed that the average wealth of sitting legislators increased 222% during just one term in office).
But what do the political parties themselves have to gain by recruiting criminally connected individuals? Well, the cost of running elections is growing all the time, and in a country as vast as India – which has three million political positions in a three-tier democracy – it means that those candidates who are able to self-finance their campaign are viewed as more desirable simply because they are not draining the party coffers. And, unsurprisingly, it’s the criminals who possess the deepest pockets.
Everyone wins: the candidates, the voters and the parties. The morality of such a system, though, leaves a bitter taste.
We’re supposed to put our trust in our politicians to represent us in the right way. In this respect, India has a long way to go.
Review of When Crime Pays