February 8th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
There was the old saying, in places like Italy, “When the state is weak, the mafia takes over.” This is now happening in India, with the formal endorsement of the electoral system. Very worrisome:
Sadly, this is not a book about some small, shady corner of Indian politics: 34% of the members of parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (lower house) have criminal charges filed against them; and the figure is rising (see chart). Some of the raps are peccadillos, such as rioting or unlawful assembly—par for the course in India’s raucous local politics. But over a fifth of MPs are in the dock for serious crimes, often facing reams of charges for anything from theft to intimidation and worse. (Because the Indian judicial system has a backlog of 31m cases, even serious crimes can take a decade or more to try, so few politicians have been convicted.) One can walk just about the whole way from Mumbai to Kolkata without stepping foot outside a constituency whose MP isn’t facing a charge.
Mr Vaishnav dissects both the reasons why the goons want to get elected and why the electorate seems to be so fond of them. Their desire for office is relatively new. After independence in 1947 thugs used to bribe politicians to stay out of trouble and to secure lucrative state concessions such as mining rights. It helped that candidates from the dominant Congress party were sure to win a seat and then stay there. From the 1980s, as Congress started to fade as a political force, bribing its local representative became less of a sure thing for local crooks. So in the same way that a carmaker might start manufacturing its own tyres if it finds that outside suppliers are unreliable, Mr Vaishnav argues that the dons promoted themselves into holding office, thus providing their own political cover.
As so often happens in India, poverty plays a part. India is almost unique in having adopted universal suffrage while it was still very poor. The upshot has been that underdeveloped institutions fail to deliver what citizens vote for. Getting the state to perform its most basic functions—building a school, disbursing a subsidy, repaving a road—is a job that can require banging a few heads together. Sometimes literally. Who better to represent needy constituents in these tricky situations than someone who “knows how to get things done”? If the system doesn’t work for you, a thuggish MP can be a powerful ally.