How representative are our representatives?
India’s general elections are not just one of the most complex administrative exercises in the world, they also attract a wide variety of candidates from different social and economic backgrounds. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), nearly a fifth or 19% of the close to 8,000 candidates contesting the 2019 polls have criminal cases pending against them, while 29% have assets worth Rs 1 crore or more.
The report, which was released on Monday by the election watchdog, is based on the analysis of affidavits filed by the candidates with the Election Commission of India. Over the years, the number of candidates with criminal cases against them has increased as have the assets of candidates. The share of candidates with criminal cases increased from 15% to 19% between the 2009 and 2019 elections, while the share of crorepati candidates increased from 16% to 29%.
There is a strong link between candidates with criminal record and their increasing participation in the polity. In When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, political scientist Milan Vaishnav writes that the primary drivers that maintain the supply of candidates with criminal background are the collapse of the election finance regime and a continuing breakdown of the law and order situation. The demand for criminal politicians by parties, he writes, is also linked to the soaring costs of election campaigns, which parties are unable to afford. Therefore, self-financing by candidates is encouraged.
Does political participation have a positive impact on the assets of candidates? It would seem so. In a recent piece in Hindustan Times, Centre for Policy Research’s Neelanjan Sircar wrote: “If campaigns must be self-financed, then candidates may view contesting elections as an investment rather than a sunk cost, leading to greater levels of corruption in office as legislators try to recoup the costs of contesting elections.”
While the ADR report reveals a lot of what is wrong in the political process, it also highlights an important issue. Candidates are meant to be representatives of the electorate. But the figures reveal that is not the case. While nearly a fifth of the candidates have criminal cases pending, it is unlikely that one-fifth of the country’s voters have cases against them. Candidates are also far richer than the voters they represent. For example, 50% candidates contesting the 2019 elections own net assets worth less than Rs 23.1 lakh. But, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2018, 50% Indians had wealth worth less than $1,289 or about Rs 90,617 at the current exchange rate. Many of India’s political candidates could not be more different from the voters they represent.