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Congress goes to polls with scandalous record in corruption
Reuters
New Delhi, October 07, 2013
First Published: 13:36 IST(7/10/2013)
Last Updated: 18:24 IST(7/10/2013)

For two decades, Lalu Prasad was a giant on India's political stage. He ran a state of 100 million people, he took charge of the country's massive rail network and his party was a crucial prop for the shaky coalition government in New Delhi.

Yadav managed all this while thumbing his nose at the law, riding triumphantly on the back of an elephant after a brief spell behind bars in 1997 as a crowd of admirers cheered.

Last week, a court sentenced Yadav to five years in prison for his part in a multi-million-dollar embezzlement case. It was a landmark moment in a country where public disgust with corrupt politicians is finally starting to bite.

Voters could throw the ruling Congress party out of power at the next general election, due by next May, for presiding over one of the
most sleaze-ridden periods in the country's history.

An opinion poll in August said the party's parliamentary strength could drop to about 125 out of 543 elected seats. Currently it has 206, and rules with the help of coalition allies.

"Endgame of India's unclean politics," Kiran Bedi tweeted cheerily after Yadav was bundled off to jail last week.

The popular outrage has also spawned a clutch of new parties committed to ending the nexus between politics and crime, and it has put corruption firmly on the agenda for national polls.

Probity has never been the strongest suit of the world's largest democracy. A staggering 30% of lawmakers across federal and state legislatures face criminal charges, many for serious crimes such as rape, murder and kidnapping.

More than 90% of funding for the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, comes from unknown sources, according to the advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms.

Yet, only once in India's history has the public booted out a government for shady dealings. That was in 1989 when the Bofors scandal contributed to an election defeat for the Congress.

The scandals have come thick and fast on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's watch in the last few years.

There was a huge scam over the sale of the 2G mobile spectrum, which Time magazine listed as number 2 on its "Top 10 Abuses of Power", behind the Watergate scandal. The botched hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games led to dozens of corruption cases, and then the government was hit by a furore over 'Coalgate'.

All this has prompted the emergence of an anti-corruption movement, one that swelled in 2011 with huge protests led by Anna Hazare, who styled himself as a crusader in the mould of Mahatma Gandhi.

The outcry has continued since then, rattling the government, in part because much of it comes from the urban middle-class, a traditionally apolitical bloc whose sudden engagement could shatter electoral calculations.

A Lowy Institute poll of Indian citizens in May found that 92% thought corruption had increased over the past five years, and even more believed that reducing corruption should be a top priority for their government.

The Aam Aadmi Party has tapped into the angst over sleaze. The AAP chose a broom as its symbol, to suggest it is sweeping the muck out of politics. In a video game launched last week, Arvind Kejriwal navigates the corruption-plagued streets of the capital wielding a broom.

An increasingly activist judiciary has added to the clamour to rid politics of criminals. In July, the Supreme Court decreed that lawmakers convicted of a serious crime would immediately forfeit their seats, closing off a loophole that had allowed politicians to stay on during appeals.

Last month, the court ordered the Election Commission to introduce a "none-of-the-above" choice for voters, allowing them to reject unsavoury characters instead of choosing the best of a rotten bunch.

The AAP, which is expected to disrupt the usual two-party race in a Delhi state election next month, is just one of several parties to be set up on an anti-corruption platform.

Among them is the Nav Bharat (New India) Democratic Party of Rajendra Misra, who gave up various business interests to join public service seven years ago. He worked with the main national parties to improve policy and governance, but was disillusioned by the venality around him and finally decided to go it alone.

"India isn't a poor country. It's a poorly managed country," said Misra, who is planning to stand in next year's election.

There will be many election first-timers like him: young white-collar working professionals challenging a system where political seats are mostly occupied by old men and handed down to next generations like family heirlooms.

Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the chances of a criminal candidate winning an election are three times better than others, and money is not the only explanation.

"Candidates often use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to protect the interests of their parochial community," Vaishnav said, saying that voters sometimes choose criminals not despite of their criminality, but because of it.

Still, a recent drama in the Congress party showed which way the wind is blowing. The Union cabinet issued an executive order allowing convicted lawmakers to continue to hold office and stand in elections, in essence defying the Supreme Court. Critics said the move was aimed at shielding allies - such as Yadav - whom the Congress may need to form a ruling coalition after the elections.

As brickbats flew, Rahul Gandhi stunned and embarrassed his own colleagues in a rare public outburst, calling for the order to be "torn up and thrown out".

A few days later, humiliated and looking divided, the government withdrew the decree.

"Rahul did that because he is convinced that this would destroy the tattered remnants of Congress' credibility," said Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst. "Had this gone through, Congress would no longer be a victim of the criminalisation of politics but would be a patron of it."


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