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ELECTION season is one of both celebration and concern. At one level elections provide us, once more, a chance to reiterate our claim as the world’s largest democracy, one which has, barring the brief interregnum of the Emergency, continued on the path set out by the founding fathers of our Republic. Moreover, our elections, while being intensely contested, are no grim affair; rather they reflect a carnival like atmosphere. Finally, unlike other parts of the world which report a declining participation in elections, voter turnout in India not only remains consistently high, the process elicits greater participation among the poor and marginalized. So, would we be wrong in claiming that electoral democracy, both as a normative ideal and in practice, has secured a firm buy in with the Indian electorate?

Elections are also the time when serious infirmities in our political system get exposed, prompting concern not just about their claim to be ‘fair and free’ but whether those eventually chosen can, in any meaningful and substantive manner, be expected to uphold the best interests of their constituents. If anything, cynicism about the representative character of our legislature has only deepened, with most observers convinced that a high proportion of those elected are ‘tainted’, more prone to serve partisan rather than the general interest.

The Association for Democratic Reforms, based on an analysis of the affidavits submitted to the Election Commission, points out that over one-third of the candidates in the ongoing electoral fray face criminal charges. Conforming the analysis presented in the path-breaking study, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics by Milan Vaishnav, the ADR further points out that selection of candidates facing criminal charges is common practice across parties and regions. Thus, for instance, in the current contests (Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa), no party can claim a higher moral ground. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, all the four major contestants – BJP, SP, BSP and the Congress – have fielded between 36 and 40 per cent tainted and questionable candidates. One wonders then what one should make of Narendra Modi’s explicit promise in the 2014 national election campaign that if he became prime minister, ‘No accused (with criminal charges) will dare to fight polls. Who says this cleansing is not possible.’

Even though the ruling party has of late gone silent in its claims about the virtues of demonetization, it is worth remembering that one major defence offered in favour of ‘the surgical strike on high denomination currency’ was its potentially cleansing effect on politics. The reduction in the availability of unaccounted money, it was expected, would not only make our electoral process less expensive, the greater use of ‘cash less’ transactions would dramatically increase transparency. All this, it was also claimed, would reduce the proclivity to rely on ‘unsavoury’ candidates with deep pockets. Well, if candidate selection across parties is anything to go by, this expectation is unlikely to be realized any time soon. It is instructive that not only has the prime minister stopped referring to the ‘virtues’ of demonetization in his election speeches, while surreptitiously introducing the old Hindutva agenda, the appointment of Keshav Prasad Maurya as the BJP state president, despite his facing over a dozen serious criminal charges, including one involving murder, is reflective of serious double-speak.

All this raises serious concerns about the quality of our electoral process. If despite multiple enquiry reports on electoral reforms – on election finance, greater transparency in income and expenditure of parties, limits on spending by candidates, debarring candidates with criminal antecedents – and vigorous campaigning by civil society organizations, electoral outcomes remain heavily weighed in favour of candidates with deep pockets and an ability to deploy ‘criminal’ means, clearly it is time that we revisit the question. Milan Vaishnav’s book referred to earlier shows that not only does wealth provide an electoral advantage, the magnitude of that advantage may actually be growing. More disturbing is his analysis that possessing a serious criminal record seems to pay significant dividends, even after controlling for a candidate’s wealth. Vaishnav’s analysis of the last three general elections indicates that a candidate who boasts of at least one criminal case is three times more likely to win as compared to an ‘untainted’ one. At the assembly level, the probability of winning for a ‘criminal’ candidate declines slightly; he/she is now twice as likely to win.

‘Wealth and criminality have an interactive effect: wealth significantly magnifies the electoral success of criminal candidates.’ Clearly, unless we acquire a better understanding of why parties choose certain types of candidates and why we, voters, approve of these choices, our efforts at cleansing our democracy are unlikely to yield meaningful results.

Harsh Sethi