The list of charges against Indian politician Kameshwar Baitha is long and startling: 16 counts of murder, 25 of attempted murder, six of assault with a dangerous weapon, three of extortion and so on.
In many democratic countries, such severe criminal allegations would be catastrophic to a politician’s chances of winning a seat in the nation’s parliament.
Yet Baitha says the 109 charges, wracked up during his time as a Maoist insurgent in his home state of eastern Jharkhand, will not dent his chances at the ballot box as he seeks re-election in the mammoth elections underway in India.
“The kind of work I’ve done, and particularly my focus on the weakest social groups in my constituency, is what makes me popular,” Baitha said, dismissing the charges as false. “Everyone knows that I am the man to beat.”
Fighting corruption and cleaning up Indian politics are major issues at this election, particularly for middle-class and urban voters.
The five-week voting process ends on May 12 with results due four days later.
Baitha, who first won his seat in 2009, said voters in the impoverished and mainly tribal forest belt of northeastern Jharkhand see him as a Robin Hood-type figure.
“You are sitting in distant Delhi — come to the region and you’ll know what the people have to say about it, what they think of these cases,” Baitha said, becoming angry on the telephone.
Almost one-fifth of candidates standing for the 543-seat parliament face criminal charges, according to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reform, a Delhi-based think tank.
They are not only in remote and poor areas like Jharkhand, but at the center of power in India.
Five of the seven candidates contesting for the election frontrunner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi face charges, albeit relatively minor ones.
A key aide of BJP’s leader, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is tipped to become Indian prime minister on a platform of clean governance and strong leadership, is being investigated for alleged murder and extortion.
Traditionally, voters have not been troubled by criminal charges in a country where millions still vote strictly along caste and regional lines.
They also often believe false allegations are leveled by political opponents, with police and the judiciary — who have a reputation for corruption — obliging by laying charges.
“There is a lot of truth to this. Some of the charges are politically motivated and trumped up,” said Satish Misra, an analyst with the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
“But there are also a lot of serious criminals in politics,” said Misra, who has analyzed elections in India for three decades.
Misra blames India’s traditional feudal culture.
Even after the country’s democratic system was introduced, politicians still used so-called muscle-men and later money-men to “influence” voters and shoehorn them into power.
“The nexus between crime and politics is very strong,” he said.
Even when pressure grows on politicians to quit over allegations, they can often find a way around it. Lalu Prasad Yadav — a longtime head of Bihar, one of India’s most populous states — simply installed his wife when he was forced to step down in 1997 over long-running corruption charges.
Between the two of them, the couple ruled the state uninterrupted from 1990 to 2005 and Yadav went on to be a member of the Indian National Parliament and railways minister.
Under new rules set by the Indian Supreme Court, he was stripped of his parliamentary seat in September last year after being convicted over a scam involving the misuse of funds for animal fodder in the 1990s.
The new rules make it illegal for politicians found guilty of serious crimes to stay in office, although convictions can take decades.
The electorate is increasingly demanding a clean-up of politics with momentum growing thanks to anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, who has tapped into seething public anger over graft.
After making a stunning debut at state polls in Delhi late last year, Kejriwal’s party is tipped to win a handful of seats in these elections.
The former tax inspector’s message has resonated with many voters and forced the scandal-plagued Indian Congress Party, in power since 2004, and the BJP to take up the pledge of cleaner government.
“They [voters] know that if corrupt elements win the election, you will get corrupt governance,” the Association for Democratic Reform’s Trilochan Sastry said.
Baitha, a candidate for a regional party who has told media he was only an ideological not a militant leader of a banned insurgent group, seems unphased by the shifting mood.