THE business of politics, today, is more important than politics. In fact, politics is now taken over by business, either in terms of the entry of unscrupulous and discredited entrepreneurs in politics, or the increasing importance of ill-earned moneybags to win elections. As one commentator contends, “Politics has become a business, a way to earn huge sums of money in the most dishonest manner.” Liquor barons, miners, realtors, contractors, transporters, and religious-capitalists, as well a stream of regular industrialists, are fast becoming the new faces of Indian Parliament.
Several simultaneous factors combined to accelerate this trend over the past few decades. One of them is that the politicians used their clout to build sprawling business empires. They transformed into politician-businessmen. As money power became one of the most critical input to win elections, as opposed to the traditional ingredients like mass base, mass appeal, and community interaction, the business community, which had gamed and appropriated the system, turned into politicians. They decided that they could exploit and manipulate the system better if they were a part of it.
Another factor was the natural resource curse; as India exploited its resources more efficiently, it benefitted a section of the elite at the expense of the people, who remained poor. This new wealthy class, armed with huge amounts of wealth, found it logical to enter politics, which determined how the resources were used, misused, and abused. Thus, a host of illegal miners became parliamentarians and part of state assembles. These included the controversial Bellary Brothers from Karnataka. The resource curse worked in a similar manner in the oil and gas sector.
Over the past few years, several central and state politicians became the country’s largest colonisers. Aided by discretionary powers, ability to change the land use from agricultural to commercial or residence, they helped realtors and contractors to construct huge urban colonies in urban areas. Even the large farmers, who owned vast tracts of land became millionaires and billionaires, as they took advantage of the boom in land prices. As politicians became realtors, these neo-rich sections of realtors, contractors, and rich farmers enthusiastically entered politics.
Over the past few decades, religion too has become a business. The various ashrams, deras, gurus, and sadhus became rich beyond anyone’s imagination. Today, they are managed like the GDPs of small nations, and wield considerable influence over millions of their followers. In effect, they emerged as powerful vote banks that were actively wooed by the politicians. Over time, as is logical, the heads of these religious and spiritual communities decided that with the vote bank that they commanded, they could win elections on their own. And they did with the help of political parties.
WHAT aided these factors to become important was India’s overall economic growth over the past three-four decades. As the country became a two trillion economy, despite some years of low growth, growth became both stable and diversified, the overall wealth grew. More importantly, it grew in skewed manner which inflated the inequalities – the few rich became richer, and the vast poor poorer. Hence, wealth was concentrated in the hands of few people, who could use it in different ways, including entry into politics.
At the same time, as the country’s annual GDP grew, the central and states’ budgets grew enormously. Thus, the politicians had huge discretionary powers, and were in a position to dole out huge financial benefits, both for themselves and their loyalists and supporters within the business community. Thus, the linkages between politics and business became stronger and concrete, and enabled mobility from one profession to the other. This is evident from the huge scams such as 2G spectrum, and coal block allocations. This wealth benefitted both the politicians and businessmen.
A PART from money power, politics and elections needed muscle power. So, since Independence, criminal elements, underworld, and organised mafia were used to pressurise voters. The bahubalisin the north and eastern states were famous for this, and their roles were to create an atmosphere of fear that forced the voters to elect certain candidates. As the power bases of criminals increased, they entered politics. It led to an extreme criminalisation of politics. Today, almost a quarter to a third of the elected parliamentarians has criminal cases, including those related to murders, slapped on it.
gfiles analyses these trends in the context of the ongoing national elections. Based on affidavits filed by the candidates, who participated in the first four phases, we look at the characters and traits of the new actors who will be part of the next Lok Sabha. It seems that businessmen and criminals will dominate, as they did in the past.
New actors in Parliament
By the time you read this article, one will either know or about to know the names of the new parliamentarians that we will elect. Once again, as happens after every election, there will be the endless debates and discussions about the new government, and the how it will transform, or not change, the country. But rest assured about one glaring, fearful fact— the majority of the new Lok Sabha will comprise the rich, criminals, and less-educated politicians. Our hopes that hard-working, educated, and civil people manage the affairs of the country will be dashed. It will be mayhem once more.
It is unfortunate that in the seven decades of independence, our Parliament, like our society, has degraded and degenerated, rather than improved and evolved. From an era when educated professionals, full of passion, zeal, and commitment, fought for our freedom, we have reached a period when goons, capitalists, and illiterate rule us. From a period when politics was a tool to build a new modern nation, where its citizens could live in peace and harmony, and with equality, we have reached a stage when politicians have disregard and disrespect for the laws, institutions, and people.
This is not say that people with criminal records (may be falsified), those who didn’t complete school, or the ones who became wealthy have no right to enter politics or Parliament. This is to contend that our representatives mirror the society; as the latter has rusted, become materialistic, turned largely criminal, and remained foolish, so have the politicians. It is only logical to assume that such parliamentarians will have neither the will and courage nor the inclination and fervour to govern the nation. Their interests will be selfish, and merely to promote their vested interests.
All this is evident from an analysis of the affidavits filed by the thousands of candidates for the first phases of the ongoing national elections. According to the information available at the website of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 28.3 per cent of the candidates whose affidavits had the relevant details were multi-millionaires, almost 19 per cent had criminal cases of which over two-thirds were allegedly involved in “serious” crimes, and nearly 45 per cent had either not completed school education or passed the 12th standard. The national and regional political parties were full of them.
Let’s first look at the millionaires. The average assets per candidate in the first four phases came to Rs 4.38 crore. The wealthiest candidate, in terms of movable and immovable assets, is Konda Vishweshwar Reddy (Rs 895 crore), who became an MP in 2014, and then shifted his political allegiance from the Telangana Rashtra Saithi to the Congress in 2018. An engineer by profession, he has several IPRs (intellectual property rights) in his name. His passions include thermal energy storage, biogas, and swachch trucks.
Recently, Vishweshwar Reddy was accused of manhandling policemen, who went to “serve notices on him in a case of seizure of Rs 10 lakh from his associate Konda Sandeep Reddy at Gachibowli (Hyderabad), two days before the Lok Sabha elections in the state”. The police charged that Sandeep Reddy, who had the cash, also had paper slips “about expenditure for campaigning and liquor distribution”, along with “some information code”. Vishweshwar Reddy was denied an anticipatory bail by the local Nampally Court.
The second-richest candidate, with assets of Rs 660 crore, is Nakul Nath, the son of the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Kamal Nath. Like his father, the son is a product of Doon School, and did his MBA from Boston University in the US. Nakul Nath’s formal entry is a common phenomenon in Indian politics, and across political parties, where the heirs are provided “safe” seats. Since 1980, his father lost only once from Chhindwara, and that too in a by-election in 1997. Even in 2014, when the BJP swept Madhya Pradesh with wins in 27 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats, Kamal Nath retained his constituency.
A woman with a sizeable wealth, assets worth Rs 184 crore, is Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah. Born in Nepal, she married the scion of the erstwhile Tehri Garhwal royal family, Manujendra Shah Sahib Bahadur Maharaja. She was elected to the 15thLok Sabha, when she defeated Saket Bahuguna, the son of a former chief minister of Uttarakahnd, 2012. However, her seat was held for a record eight times by her father-in-law, Manabendra Shah. Although, she was the first woman to be elected to Lok Sabha from the state, it was yet another case of family-run and family-driven politics.
One of the interesting millionaires is another woman, Annu Tandon, who earlier managed Mo Tech Software, a company owned by Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance Industries Group. Her late husband, Sandeep, too worked for the Ambani, as is the case with her two sons. Sandeep joined Reliance after his stint in the Indian Revenue Service and Enforcement Directorate. He was part of the investigation teams that looked into the alleged foreign front companies of Reliance Industries and raided the residence of Tina Ambani, the Bollywood actress who married Anil Ambani, Mukesh’s younger brother.
While it will be unfair to comment on the above parliamentarians and current candidates, one can speculate in general as to how businesspersons and the wealthy are likely to conduct themselves in Lok Sabha. A case in point is Vijay Mallya, who ran away from the country after he was declared a wilful defaulter by the banks from which his companies borrowed huge sums. It now seems that he used his political clout to wrangle better deals from his lenders, which paid scant attention, either deliberately or by default, to the manner in which Mallya mismanaged the companies and misused the money.
Let us now turn our attention to the criminals. A scary scenario is sketched by the ADR in its analyses vis-a-vis what it dubs as “Red Alert Constituencies”, which are seats “where three or more contesting candidates have declared criminal cases against themselves” in their election affidavits. Half of the 374 constituencies that went to poll in the first four phases fell under this sub-head. There are score of constituencies, where 30-50 per cent of the candidates are slapped with criminal cases.
AS Eswaran Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav argue, “The inception of the affidavit regime in 2003 was the first time a detailed picture of the criminal records of politicians was presented to the general public. The picture, as it turns out, was not a pretty one. In 2004, 24 per cent of sitting members of Parliament faced criminal cases—12 per cent faced serious charges; this share grew to 30 per cent in 2009—15 per cent serious, and 34 per cent (21 per cent serious) in 2014. The proportions at the state level are similar.”
Both the authors found a surprising, yet logical and obvious, connection between the wealth of the politicians and their criminality. The reason is counterintuitive—both muscle power and money power is required to win elections. However, the extent of the linkage is shocking and disturbing. “In the parliamentary elections of 2004, 2009, and 2014, roughly 4 per cent of the candidates in the lowest quintile of candidate wealth faced criminal charges compared to nearly 15 per cent of the candidates in top quintile,” they said.
Other studies found different indicators to show how wealth and criminality moved in tandem in Indian politics. In 2014, the average wealth of the winning candidates was Rs 3 crore, “whereas the average wealth among winners with a criminal record was over Rs 4.27 crore and Rs 4.4 crore for winners with serious criminal records”. An analysis of all the candidates, who contested national and state elections between 2004 and 2013, “suggests a linear correspondence between wealth and criminality”.
In the past, we have seen hundreds of criminal-politicians in the election fray. Who can forget Mohammad Shahabuddin, who was elected for four successive terms to Lok Sabha between 1996 and 2008, and is currently serving life sentence. Or Mumbai’s Arun Gawli, who was never convicted by spent 10 years in prison, and is a known notorious criminal-turned-politician. Or Raja Bhaiya, who too spent years in jail. Well, our freedom fighters too spent time in jail, but theirs was a “just cause against an alien rule”.
But somehow it has become more open and common today. Although the political parties publicly rave and rant against this trend, they encourage it when it comes to the distribution of the tickets. As a recent study says, “Criminalisation of Indian politics and the consequent cult of the gun is the greatest danger that faces Indian democracy today.” It adds, “The malady has gone deep into our body politic in ruthless manner, the danger is that the electoral process would pass into the hands of anti-social elements….”
However, the problem is that under the law, a person is “not guilty” unless proven otherwise. To argue that someone with a criminal record should stay out of the electoral fray seems ingenious as well as unfair. At present, a convicted person cannot stand for elections. A similar argument can be made for the educational qualifications of the candidates. Lack of education can be because of several genuine reasons—lack of resources or family concerns. Therefore, it cannot become the ground to take away a person’s legitimate and democratic right to enter the Parliament or state assembly.
One can still make a safe assessment that at least the number of parliamentarians with better education needs to increase. This implies that the right to education has to be intact and inclusive, and the educated people have to look at politics in a different light.
Both the processes have begun but we have a long way to go, as is evident from the educational records of the nearly 5,400 candidates, who were analysed by ADR. A sizeable number of them were either illiterate or had left school at the secondary level.
In the recent past, the educated middle class and lower class has actively and indirectly participated in the political and electoral process. For example, they funded Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party, and also participated in the campaign process. Many offered professional help to ensure efficient governance. The same was true when Narendra Modi came to national power in 2014. It is another matter that many of them felt frustrated after a few years, and shied away from both politics and elections.
OF course, there is a case to be made that the cumbersome and overbearing combination of too much wealth, crime, and lack of education can prove to be combustible for any democracy. A mature nation needs to move away from each of these trends to provide better governance. In the case of India, the opposite seems to be true – the negative trends are growing, and rather fast. We need to stall them, rather stop them. Or else, we will miss the bus forever, as institutions crumble, and individuals become indifferent.
Most experts feel that the time is now. For the simple reason that the “India’s electoral authorities are well regarded when it comes to issues of integrity, transparency, and impartiality. Out of 125 countries, India’s Election Commission is ranked thirty eighth overall, and fourth (out of 35) for countries in its income bracket. Similarly, on overall confidence in national election authorities, India performs very well….”
-COVER STORY / Election Criminalisation / by Alam Srinivas