Considering the record number of criminal cases against him, SP Udayakumar, the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from the iconic Kanyakumari seat – the country’s ocean-hugging southernmost tip – could be a notorious criminal. Only that he is no thug but India’s best-known anti-nuclear campaigner.
With 382 cases against him, Udayakumar is the candidate with the largest number of criminal cases in the first six phases of the 2014 elections. His supporters claim the charges are trumped up, slapped on him for doggedly resisting the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project -- India’s biggest nuclear plant – in Tamil Nadu.
Yet, unlike Udayakumar, a large number candidates trying their luck in the polling slated for the sixth phase on Thursday, have sinister records. Nearly 15% face some kind of a criminal case, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, which went through their disclosures. Nearly 10% face grave charges such as murder, arson and rioting.
While the Udayakumar-led People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy claims the nuclear project robs fishermen of their livelihoods and poses safety hazards, a state-ordered probe deemed the plant fully compliant with safety norms.
Despite a Supreme Court direction that a bulk of the cases against Udayakumar be withdrawn, the charges still cling on to the hardy activist, a PhD from the University of Hawaii.
Udayakumar’s associate M Pushparayan, contesting from nearby Thoothukkudi constituency as an AAP candidate, ranks close behind him with 380 criminal cases.
Both have spent months in hiding, following a litany of cases, including sedition. “There are many issues I am grappling with. For instance, I have forgotten the switches for the lamps and fans at home,” Udayakumar wrote on Facebook recently.
The fear of arrest is constant. “A team of government officials follows me in a vehicle wherever I go and record my every single movement and meeting,” he said.
Most parties have shown no qualms about fielding candidates with criminal records. In the sixth phase, nearly 32% or 30 out of 94 candidates from the Congress have declared cases against them, followed by 26% or 20 out of 77 from the BJP. About 24% of the 111 BSP candidates face criminal cases.
In India's first-past-the-post election system, it often takes wealthy heavyweights to win polls. Findings from ADR show a candidate with a criminal case is twice as likely to win an election (23%), compared to a candidate without any charges, whose winning chance was just 12%.
The National Election Watch and the ADR analysed disclosures of 2,071 of 2,077 candidates contesting in the sixth phase. The rest were not screened due to unclear affidavits.
A 2011 joint research by Toke Aidt of the University of Cambridge, Miriam A Golden, University of California LA and Devesh Tiwari of the University of California at San Diego showed political parties are more likely to select alleged criminal candidates when confronting greater electoral uncertainty and in highly competitive seats.