‘Criminalisation’ refers to the use of criminal activities by politicians; either by direct malfeasance or by indirectly recruiting someone.
Why in news?
Last week, the Supreme Court asked the government about the status of criminal cases pending against elected ministers. The court recommended setting up fast-track courts to deal with the cases.
Criminalisation is not a new phenomenon; the first instances of “booth-capturing” were reported in 1957, and involved hired goons who would mobilise or suppress turnout, or vote on behalf of disenfranchised voters. In return for their work, politicians would protect these criminals from prosecution.
Criminalisation of politics – Why?
- Until the late 1960s, the re-election rates of incumbents were high. Hence goons were relatively assured of political favours after they helped a politician win the election. As political competition increased, the uncertainty around re-election of incumbent candidates also increased. This led to the entry of criminals in politics in order to maximise control over their own survival and protection.
- Indira Gandhi banned corporate financing of elections in 1969. This eliminated the most important legal source of campaign finance and pushed financing underground. At the same time, the costs of contesting elections kept increasing due to a rising population, increasing political competition, and the trend of giving freebies for votes. This led parties to a competitive search for underground financing, and they fielded tainted candidates because they could contest an election without becoming a burden on the party’s limited coffers.
- The root of the problem lies in the country’s poor governance capacity. Despite internal security concerns – India has the lowest number of police officers per capita—122.5 per 100,000 people—of any G20 member state, and the vacancy rate stands at 25%. Vacancy rates are 37% for high courts and 25% for local courts. This scarcity of state capacity is the reason for the public preferring ‘strongmen’ who can fill this governance gap and provide a parallel state for them.
- Sometimes these politicians align on communal lines as well, promising to serve the interests of a caste or religious community. Criminality, far from deterring voters, encourages them because it signals that the candidate is capable of fulfilling his promises and securing the interests of the
- Fast-track courts are necessary because politicians are able to delay the judicial process and serve for decades before prosecution.
- Bringing greater transparency in campaign financing is going to make it less attractive for political parties to involve gangsters. Thus, either the Election Commission of India (ECI) should have the power to audit the financial accounts of political parties, or political parties’ finances should be brought under the right to information (RTI) law.
- Broader governance will have to improve for voters to reduce the reliance on criminal politicians. That requires a rationalisation of bureaucratic procedures and an increase in state capacity to deliver essential public goods like security of life and contracts, and access to public utilities.