Milan Vaishnav’s Book Shows Crime And Money Help Win Elections In India

by Vivek Kaul - Apr 4, 2017 12:48 PM +05:30 IST
Milan Vaishnav’s Book Shows Crime And Money Help Win Elections In India An Indian woman has her finger inked by an elections worker before voting at a polling station on April 17, 2014. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
  • Typically, political science books on India tend to be more agenda-driven than data-driven. Vaishnav’s book is a pleasant surprise on this front and is totally data-driven.


Elections happened in five states in February and March 2017. Of these states, Uttar Pradesh is by far the biggest. The voters of the state elect 403 members to the legislative assembly. Over and above this, one member from the Anglo-Indian community is appointed to the assembly as well.

In a recent report, the Association for Democratic Reforms analysed the background of 402 out of the 403 MLAs who were elected this time around. It found that 143 MLAs or 36 per cent, have declared criminal cases against themselves. 107 MLAs or 26 per cent of the MLAs have declared serious criminal cases like murder, attempt to murder etc., against themselves.

This is a trend that is not just true about Uttar Pradesh, but is largely true across the length and breadth of the country. It also makes for the subject of the Indian-American academic Milan Vaishnav’s new book When Crime Pays.

Typically, political science books on India tend to be more agenda-driven than data-driven. Vaishnav’s book is a pleasant surprise on this front and is totally data-driven. This is a must read in a country where arts subjects are looked down upon because they do not have any maths in them.

The core point of the book, if I were put it in simplistic terms, is that if you have criminal cases against you, it is easy to get elected to legislative assemblies and the Lok Sabha. Vaishnav aptly names this phenomenon as the criminality premium. He crunches numbers from the last three parliamentary elections and comes to the conclusion: “The median ‘clean’ candidate has a personal wealth of just above 900,000 rupees, compared to roughly 4.1 million rupees for the median candidate with a serious criminal charge.”

There are two points that need to be remembered here. This is the wealth declared by the candidates themselves. Of course, it is safe to say that the real wealth of candidates is more than their declared wealth. Further, India’s politics of protest ensures that for politicians looking to climb the political ladder, minor criminal charges such as unlawful assembly, libel, or trespass, are par for the course. Hence, it is important to differentiate between a criminal charge and a serious criminal charge. A serious criminal charge essentially involves alleged crimes like murder, attempt to murder, physical assault, kidnapping etc. These are charges, which as Vaishnav says, are difficult to explain by falling back on the routine expression of civil disobedience in Indian political life.

Getting back to the earlier point, the median candidate with a serious criminal charge is much richer than the median clean candidate. Also, the alleged criminality leads to a better election result. As Vaishnav writes: “The relationship between wealth and criminal status is non-linear; the positive association between wealth and criminal status is even more pronounced for very large levels of candidate wealth…Alleged criminality seems to provide an added bonus to candidates’ electoral fortunes. Comparing candidates who did not face serious cases and those who did at every level of candidate wealth…candidates facing serious cases were more likely to win an election.”

This winnability is what makes political parties field candidates with criminal cases filed against them. Hence, even though political parties and their leaders keep talking about criminalisation of politics, they continue to field criminal candidates in elections. Did anyone mention doublespeak?

The larger point being that at the end of the day all parties want to win an election. As Vaishnav writes: “Candidates linked to crime appear to have a hefty electoral advantage. Based on data from the three most general elections—in 2004, 2009, and 2014—a candidate with a criminal case was, on average, almost three times as likely to win (an) election as a candidate who faced no cases. And of those facing cases, the ‘win rate’ of candidates with serious charges, in turn, is marginally higher than those who face only minor charges.”

Then there is the fact that candidates with an alleged criminal background bring in money, which political parties badly need to fight elections. They also bring in organisational muscle, which most political parties lack, as their real memberships have fallen over the years.

As Vaishnav writes: “In parties struggling to identify reliable sources of funding—a partial reflection of the decline of organizational strength—they have increasingly placed a premium on candidates who can bring resources into the party and will not drain limited party coffers. Candidates who are self-financing are not only able to cover their own campaign costs; they might also be in a position to pay their parties for the privilege of running and thereby subsidize lesser-endowed candidates. When it comes to campaign cash, candidates willing to break the law have a distinct advantage: they both have access to liquid forms of finance and are willing to deploy them in the service of politics. In some cases, money comes from illicit, rent-seeking business activities.”

All these reasons make criminal candidates valuable to political parties. This analysis is more from the supply side or as to why political parties field candidates with criminal cases filed against them. There is also the demand side. The chances of candidates with criminal cases winning elections are higher. This means that they are likely to get more votes than other candidates. Hence, there is also a demand for such candidates among the electorate because the feeling is that such candidates can get things done or protect the interests of their community.

Other than crunching data, Vaishnav does a good job of following a few candidates during election time. In one particular case, he follows Anand Singh, a bahubali, who happens to be the MLA from a place called Mokama, outside Patna. Talking to the voters in Mokama, Vaishnav finds out that the voters are totally aware of the pending criminal cases against Singh.

In fact, Vaishnav even carried out a survey in Bihar and one of the things he tried to find out was the link between the educational qualifications of Bihari voters and the frequency with which they vote for candidates with criminal charges. And his finding was interesting. As he writes: “There is no clear link between a voter’s education level and his or her propensity to vote for a candidate facing serious criminal charges. In fact, if anything, it appears as if more educated voters are slightly more likely to vote for such candidates than their lesser educated peers.”

In most cases where a candidate with criminal charges keeps getting re-elected, it is primarily because he has the support of one particular community which feels that the particular candidate will protect their interests. In case of Singh, Bhumihars of Mokama are his main support base.

To conclude, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how Indian democracy actually operates. And the picture that emerges is not a very pretty one. To put it simplistically, to win an election in India you now need to be extremely moneyed, with multiple criminal charges against you.

Over and above this, credit has to be given to Vaishnav for analysing and compiling all the data that he has. Further, he does not let the maths come in the way of his writing, which is a mistake that academics often make and in the process, render their books unreadable. I am happy to say When Crime Pays does not fall in that category.

Vivek Kaul is the author of the 'Easy Money' trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek
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