When he decided to run for a parliamentary seat from Daltenganj, an impoverished, and mainly low-caste constituency in northeast India, Kameshwar Baitha made no effort to sugarcoat his criminal record.
Obediently, he cataloged the serious charges pending against him, all of which he says are false. There were 17 for murder, 22 for attempted murder, six for assault with a dangerous weapon, five for theft, two for extortion and so on, a legacy from Baitha’s previous career as a leader of the local Maoist insurgency. On top of that was the fact that he was in jail.
However, this did not hurt him with voters, noted his son, Babban Kumar, who hopes to follow his father into politics. With people in this area, who look to elected leaders as Robin Hood figures, it may have helped.
“You have to fight against something, how else can you get into politics?” Kumar said. “Without going to jail, you cannot be a big politician.”
New impulses are rippling through Indian politics this year, as a growing, urbanized middle class demands that hundreds of tainted politicians be driven from the system. In New Delhi, crowds driven by Internet campaigns have rallied around an anti-corruption platform, holding brooms to symbolize the coming cleansing.
The Supreme Court, sensing the public mood, ruled in July that it was illegal for politicians who had been convicted of crimes to continue holding office by simply filing an appeal against their convictions. The ruling would disqualify politicians sentenced to more than two years in prison by a lower court.
This change, which could uproot formidable political forces, was endorsed this month by the governing coalition’s crown prince, Rahul Gandhi.
The effort will meet its greatest challenge in another India —the old one, where voting is still largely driven by caste. In the tribal region that Baitha represents, the vast majority of elected officials face criminal charges, most related to corruption, but many for violent crimes. Voters typically dismiss such charges as trumped-up, one more attempt by elites to crush the champions of the poor.
These are some of the things that allowed Baitha to discuss the subject comfortably in the red-velvet seating area of a government guesthouse, as a ceiling fan turned overhead. He urged his guest to imagine if everyone convicted of a crime were barred from politics.
“The whole parliament will be empty,” he said. “It will become a joke.”
A big test of the new measures’ effect will come in the case of Lalu Prasad, the longtime leader of the neighboring state of Bihar, who was disqualified from holding office and running in coming elections this month after being sentenced on corruption charges. The case against him had proceeded at a snail’s pace for 17 years, as Prasad had thumbed his nose at prosecutors.
A master of populist showmanship who came from a caste of cow herders, he transformed his court dates into political theater. He arrived for one session in the back of a bicycle rickshaw, and once left jail on the back of an elephant.
The dance seemed to end with his sentencing. However, last week, sitting inside the Birsa Munda jail in Ranchi, it seemed he was perfectly capable of managing his still-formidable political empire. Scores of aides and supporters were clustered outside the jail’s iron gate, bearing coconuts and handwritten letters. Prison guards let visitors in and out at regular intervals, as if they were operating a reception center. The Telegraph, Ranchi’s main English-language daily newspaper, reported that he had summoned a tailor to his cell.
When a local anticorruption activist filed a complaint, charging that the visits were a major violation of prison regulations, Prasad decided to keep a “low profile” by receiving visitors only after 3pm, the newspaper reported. His visitors all said the charges were false.
Nationwide, the number of Indian officeholders facing criminal charges is extraordinary: 30 percent of winners in national and regional elections since 2008, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms in New Delhi.
The reasons are manifold; as India’s democratic system evolved, candidates depended heavily on thuggish “muscle men,” and later “money men,” to influence voters and sweep them into office. Corruption is widespread.
However, it is also true that spending limits are so low that virtually any candidate bent on winning would have to be willing to break the law. The penalty for filing false charges is negligible. And India’s independence movement was founded on civil disobedience, so lawbreaking is enmeshed in the political culture.
It is not yet clear whether this will change now, said Neerja Chowdhury, a journalist and political commentator. Major parties may steer clear of candidates facing criminal charges, fearful of losing a seat in case of disqualification, she said.
However, corruption, she added, “is more of an urban middle-class issue rather than for groups who are in ascendance.”