Let’s talk about hate: In Indian politics, candidates who stoke communal hatred thrive
Let’s Talk About Hate: An HT analysis shows that politicians formally accused of communal crimes are four times likelier to win an election
More than fifty politicians who hold elected office in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies face charges in criminal cases related to inciting religious violence or stoking communal hatred, according to HT’s analysis of more than 50,000 candidates who contested elections in the past five years.
Though they comprise only a tiny fraction of all political nominees, candidates who have been accused or convicted of communal crimes win the elections they compete in far more often than those who have not been charged with any crimes, the analysis found, suggesting that voters see communalism as a reason to vote for a candidate rather than a political liability.
“Appealing to social divisions is a hallmark of so-called criminal candidacy in India,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace and author of a recent book on criminality in Indian politics. Criminal candidates “typically use their criminality as a way to signal their credibility to protect their own community.”
The list of politicians formally accused of communal crimes includes high-profile leaders such as Union cabinet minister Uma Bharti; current Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath; his deputy chief minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya; and the Owaisi brothers of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Hyderabad MP Asaduddin and his younger brother, Akbaruddin, an MLA in Telangana.
Laws against stoking communal violence and offending communal sentiments are contained in sections 153A, 153B, 295, 295A, 505(1)(c), 505(2), and 505(3) of the Indian Penal Code, as well as in section 125 of the Representation of the People Act, which criminalises the promotion of “feelings of enmity or hatred” between communities in connection with an election.
Most of the cases remain pending in India’s clogged courts. HT’s analysis found only one political candidate who had been convicted of a communal crime. That was Azmi Abu Asim, who won a seat in the Maharashtra assembly in 2014.
While courts tend not to penalize candidates for the criminal charges they face, voters often reward them.
In April, for instance, police booked T. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA who represents the Goshamahal constituency in Hyderabad, under section 295A. This section penalises “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and can result in a three-year prison sentence.
The complaint against Singh stemmed from a speech he made in which he threatened to “behead” the “traitors” opposed to the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.
When he last ran for office in 2014, Singh had already been charged with eight other communal crimes, according to the affidavit he filed with the Election Commission of India. That did not prevent him from winning the election by more than twice as many votes as the runner-up, Congress’s M. Mukesh Goud.
Interviews with voters indicated that Singh’s communal history enhanced his appeal. “Raja Singh stands for Hindutva, so we vote for him,” said Krishnamachari, 50, a government worker who supported Singh in 2014. “There are two sides to the coin. Someone’s criminal may be someone else’s saviour.”
Singh’s story fits a pattern of allegedly criminal communalism and electoral success. Candidates accused of communal crimes win their elections at a rate more than four times greater than those who have not been accused of any crimes.
Of the 41,488 candidates who had never faced criminal charges who ran in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and each state’s most recent assembly election, 2,550 of them (6%) won. But of the 187 candidates who had faced charges with at least one communal crime, 53 of them (28%) won.
The data for this analysis came from the self-reported affidavits that political hopefuls must file upon declaring their candidacies. The Association for Democratic Reforms, a government watchdog organisation, reads through the thousands of affidavits and posts the information online. HT wrote software to collect and analyse the data from ADR’s website, MyNeta.info.
Most of the country’s political candidates did not face any communal criminal charges at the time they ran for office. Of the 50,324 candidates included in HT’s analysis, 187 of them — less than one-half of one percent — stood accused or had been convicted of communal crimes.
Of the 3,727 candidates the BJP nominated for state and national elections, 48 stood accused of at least one communal crime. That’s about 1.3%, the highest percentage of any party that nominated at least 500 candidates. Congress, by contrast, nominated 3,553 candidates, of whom 12 (0.3%) had been charged with a communal crime.
BJP spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao dismissed the findings. “Most of these charges have been levelled with a spurious understanding of what constitutes communalism,” he said.
Supporters of BJP candidates accused in communal cases also played down the significance of the charges. “Being accused of communal charges and actually inciting communal violence can be different,” said Kuldeep Maurya, 36, who voted for Adityanath in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
More accused communalists have come from UP than anywhere else. Yet the phenomenon is not unique to India’s largest state. Candidates with communal criminal records also ran relatively frequently in northern Telangana, coastal Karnataka, along the southern coast of Tamil Nadu, and in states such as Assam and West Bengal along Bangladesh’s northern border.
Each of these places has seen its share of religious strife in recent years, offering a clue as to how accused communalists appeal to voters.
(With inputs from Niha Masih)
This is Part 4 of Let’s Talk About Hate, an HT series that looks at the different complexions of hate crimes such as race, religion, identity. Follow us at @httweets for updates or send your suggestions at email@example.com.