On Monday, campaign workers of the Quami Ekta Dal party in Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh received some thrilling news: Their beloved party leader, Mukhtar Ansari, had been offered temporary parole from jail. He would soon be coming home. Ansari, a legislator who in the past has represented UP’s biggest political party, is facing a slew of charges, including murder for the 2005 assassination of a rival gangster (and fellow member of the state assembly).
Ansari isn’t alone. At least 10 state assembly candidates in UP are presently in jail awaiting trial on charges that include murder and racketeering. In the current assembly, 139 out of 404 legislators are free while facing criminal charges. Criminals and strongmen have long been a feature of Indian politics. Their ill-gotten wealth provides easy campaign cash, and they control constituencies with strong caste or religious loyalties. The police are kept under tight political control.
The cops have been known to file false cases against opponents of the ruling dispensation while the courts move slowly against those who are charged. If this outrages voters, the results at the polls don’t show it. Armed politicians may seem distasteful, but they often serve their constituencies in ways normal politicians and government agencies do not.
Ansari was perhaps the most celebrated (or infamous) of a group of ‘Robin Hood’ bosses who gained prominence in the 1990s. He was the man to see if you needed money for your daughter’s wedding or a government posting for your son. It’s said his influence kept the power flowing and the electric looms running in the textile-producing districts around Ghazipur when others endured extended blackouts. In the assembly, he and his opponents battled with rhetoric; on the street they fought with guns for control of lucrative government contracts.
No matter who wins the upcoming hotly contested election, a large number of the seats in the next state assembly will be held by politicians with rap sheets — or criminals who happen to be in politics. If criminal muscle is required to win, politicians and observers say, so be it. Last year, when Trinamool Congress workers in West Bengal complained about the induction into their ranks of a rival communist party cadre who’s been charged with four murders, their boss gave a chilling response: “The party cannot be run with writers and bearded intellectuals. [He] is our party’s asset.”
The SP, UP’s second-biggest party, has so far fielded the most tainted candidates — 28. A victory in UP would lead the SP to join Congress’s ruling coalition in Delhi, strengthening it ahead of the 2014 general election. Some voters are repelled by this criminal infusion. Others see these strongmen as a last line of defence in districts where economic and communal violence are a longstanding concern. A politician won’t save you during a communal riot, but a criminal just might.