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HindustanTimes Fri,29 Aug 2014

How lawbreakers become lawmakers in India

Ajai Pasricha   June 14, 2014
First Published: 10:07 IST(14/6/2014) | Last Updated: 15:30 IST(14/6/2014)

When it comes to fielding 'criminals' in an election, all political parties share a common manifesto.  The fallout and its irony: 112 MPs charged with murder, kidnapping, assault and rioting will, for the next five years, debate laws.

Their presence in Parliament inspires a fundamental question: Were they elected by the people--or elevated by the system?

More often than not, 'first-past-the-post' returns to Parliament those candidates rejected by the vast majority. In election after election, we have seen lawbreakers morph into lawmakers with minority backing. Their ability to influence, intimidate and entice a small segment of their constituency is enough to sneak into Parliament with complete legitimacy. Their double-barrel formula of muscle and money never fails. Nor can it be handcuffed.

The law says those accused of crimes cannot be disbarred unless they are convicted; and they cannot be convicted unless law-enforcing agencies move with speed and intent. Neither speed nor intent is a virtue of the Indian process. A lifetime can pass between the filing of a charge sheet and a conviction.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court has taken note of this and cracked an angry whip. The court's directive: Cases against MPs and MLAs must be settled within a year.

At the root of the problem remains the flawed electoral system: It raises more questions than answers, especially in India, where social divisions almost always dictate electoral outcomes. When castes and communities jostle for political power, the winner of an election is mostly drawn from the group that constitutes the 'largest minority' - often led by a local gangster who banks on caste affinities (and underhand tactics) to see him through.

To most voters a candidate's ancestry accounts for more than his criminal past. In the battle between kinship and probity, kinship invariably wins. The findings of Simon Chauchard of Dartmouth College confirm this. In an article titled 'Why voters elect criminals', he writes: "Voters often preferred a criminal candidate from their own caste or party to a non-criminal candidate who was missing one of these attributes."

The Election Report Card of those accused of crimes:  So often have we heard defenders of the faith--Indian democracy in its present form--say that we, the 'people', are to blame:  that we, the voters, return criminals to Parliament. Not true: people in their majority have shown more sense.

In the recent elections, approximately 270 million voters--one in three--chose to keep away. While a number of non-voters may have moved out in search of work, the majority hasn't: these are the long-suffering victims of broken political promises, who paint all political parties with the same black brush and do not see the point of an election. Their refusal to participate is a vote in itself, a tacit rejection of the entire political field, if not the system.  Some may argue that they should at least have pressed the NOTA option to be counted. The point is: Not to have done so doesn't mean they don't exist. Their numbers are too large to brush away.

In Porbandar, for instance, their numbers swelled to nearly 577,000 from a voter base of 1,385,818. Vithalbhai Radadiya (BJP), accused of culpable homicide, assault and rioting, polled 508,437 votes: A winning result, even as 64% of his constituency rejected his candidature.

In Panchmahal, Chauhan Prabatsinh Pratapsinh (BJP), accused of forgery and cheating, polled 508,274 votes from a bank of 1,423,385. Once again, minority support saw him through.

Rajesh Ranjan (RJD), the MP from Madhepura, Bihar faces 42 criminal charges. 75.6% of his electorate gave him the cold shoulder. 

The vote share of Rama Kishore (LJP), the MP from Vaishali, Bihar, was a shade worse. Accused of kidnapping and murder, he won despite 76.1% of his constituency wanting him out.

This sample size, though small, shows a trend and makes a point: Voters in their majority reject criminals; it is the system that allows them into the political mainstream. Not the people. 

What should India do? The answer is obvious. Make '50 percent plus one' the winning benchmark and insist on compulsory voting.  A constitutional amendment to this effect would make it hard for gangsters to compete. It would also emancipate constituencies from the political domination of minority groups. Anyone standing for elections would have to influence the voting majority with proper development strategies, not trivial and divisive issues of caste and religion.

Most mature democracies have abandoned 'first-past-the-post' and adopted systems that take 'the will of the majority' into account. In Australia, France, even Russia (not known for its democratic traditions), '50% plus one' is the minimum qualifying mark for an elective post.

Whether India should borrow a model or devise its own is a matter for constitutional experts to debate. What is beyond debate is that 'first-past-the-post' serves as a gateway for those better suited for life in the shadows.

(Ajai Pasricha is a communications consultant and an advertising professional of 35 years standing. He can be contacted at ajaipasricha@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal.)


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