April 29, 2009 / 11:24 AM / 10 years ago

Bullets and ballots in India's general election

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - One is facing a murder charge, another arrested for abduction, while a third is fighting a robbery case. Welcome to India’s general election, where nearly a fifth of 5,500 candidates face criminal charges.

The Indian constitution allows politicians facing criminal cases to contest polls, and critics say mafia dons and corrupt regional bosses are using their money and power to garner votes.

Fear and reverence for politicians facing criminal charges play heavily in the minds of voters in India.

These candidates sometimes control large areas where state facilities are lacking. At some places, they have won an image of “Robin Hood” by fixing low charges for services like doctors’ fees.

Experts say it reflects how corruption and politics have co-existed in India for decades, undermining transparency and efficiency in governance and implementation.

“Criminals see this as a business opportunity to make money and gain a foothold in politics, while parties depend on them to win elections,” Himanshu Jha, coordinator of Social Watch India, a rights organisation, told Reuters.

A famous conversation that media mogul Rupert Murdoch had with the late Dhirubhai Ambani, then one of India’s biggest businessmen, illustrates the bond between politics and crime in India as reported in the book “In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India” by Edward Luce.

Murdoch had seen the prime minister and the finance minister. “Ah, you’ve met all the right people,” said Ambani. “But if you want to get anywhere in India you must meet all the wrong people.”

The ruling Congress party has 100 candidates facing criminal charges and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 98 candidates, according to the National Election Watch, an umbrella group for independent poll monitoring agencies.

VILLAGE HEROES?

A quarter of India’s 543 elected members in parliament already have criminal cases pending against them, according to Social Watch India. More than half the cases are serious in nature, and include murder and rape, the group says.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, widely seen as one of India’s most corrupt states run by near feudal leaders, regional strongman Mukhtar Ansari is contesting the election from his cell in a high security prison, where he is facing trial for murder. He has a dozen murder cases against him.

But he has a steady steam of visitors, and Mayawati, the chief minister of the state, also campaigned for him recently saying Ansari was being victimised and was innocent.

Harendra Malik of the Congress party has three cases against him in Uttar Pradesh, including murder and robbery, while Om Prakash Gupta of the Samajwadi Party, which supported the ruling coalition after the left pulled out last year, is facing 70 criminal cases including abduction.

But some suspected criminals are hailed as heroes.

Munna Shukla, contesting for the Janata Dal United in Bihar state, is facing a murder trial. His supporters treat him as a modern day Robin Hood for helping his community.

“That is how people facing criminals cases get the vote,” said Kuldip Nayar, a political analyst.

It is nothing new. Phoolan Devi, known popularly as the “bandit queen” and whose gang once killed 22 upper caste men in 1981 to avenge a rape, entered parliament in 1996.

Phoolan Devi was killed in 2001 by assailants, who said they wanted to avenge the deaths of people she killed.

Editing by Alistair Scrutton

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