Why the Worst Get on Top – India Edition

Milan-figures-01Consider this extraordinary figure: 30 percent of members of parliament have criminal cases pending against them…the answer to why political parties in India nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds is painfully obvious: because they win (see figure 1). In the 2004 or the 2009 parliamentary elections, a candidate with no criminal cases pending had—on average—a 7 percent chance of winning. Compare this with a candidate facing a criminal charge: he or she had a 22 percent chance of winning. Granted, this simple comparison does not take into account numerous other factors such as education, party, or type of electoral constituency. Nevertheless, the contrast is marked.

Writing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace blog, Milan Vaishnav goes on to note that those with criminal backgrounds appear to have ready access to cash and in addition their toughness appeals to voters:

In contexts where the rule of law is weak and social divisions are highly salient, politicians often use their criminal reputation as a badge of honor—a signal of their credibility to protect the interests of their parochial community and its allies, from physical safety to access to government benefits and social insurance.

…The appeal of candidates who are willing to do what it takes—by hook or crook—to protect the interests of their community provides some intuition for why the odds of a parliamentary candidate winning an election actually increase with the severity of the charges, with slightly diminishing returns in the most severe instances…


Isn't India a classic case of both too much government and too little? It has poor state capacity and doesn't provide all the institutional prerequisites for reliable anonymous commerce backed by neutral law but it constantly regulates production. The bureaucracy is used primarily as a tool for rent-seeking rather than the situation in developed states where one might argue that limited rent-seeking is the inevitable cost of democratic and generally well-functioning government. In such environments -- typical of the underdeveloped world -- parties are weak, parochialism is high, as is patronage and the presence of politicians who are primarily elected on family connections or private power.

Another thing at play is India's crawling, slow legal system. If you assault someone at age 35 and manage to get the case to drag on for 15 years (quite typical in Indian courts) then file a few appeals it gives you ample time to stay an elected representative.

A lot of these guys may eventually get some jail time but by then they've made their fortunes & the harm's done.

I believe the term frequently thrown around on the right end of the spectrum is "anarcho-tyranny."

The centralized state, too weak to actually take on powerful and corrupt actors, overcompensates by constantly regulating, controlling and criminalizing the utterly trivial. Most people get into government for the power, if they don't actually have any power over anyone that matters they take it out by persecuting the weakest and least connected members of society. Much like an impotent man who beats his wife to make up for being a joke at work.

I guess this bodes well for Chris Christie

A good point that also helps explain this correlation. Successful politicians get targeted for extra scrutiny by the opposition. We all commit 3 felonies a day, after all, it's just that for most of us nobody at the DOJ cares.

Actually it bodes well for the Congressional Black Caucus. Whose members have managed to clock up some really impressive ethics violations over the years. A tad disproportionate even.

No doubt it is racism or something.

I am guessing this is not a specifically Indian thing. The real question is why the WEIRD countries are such outliers.

Lies, darn lies, and statistics. What this is probably showing is that southeast Asia is corrupt and those that get into politics end up inevitably being sued. Since incumbents win the majority of the time, this will result in incumbent politicians having criminal records (in the USA for the House of Representatives I believe the number is close to 90% incumbent reelection rate) The relevant stat to make Alex T's point is how many people running for office for the first time were criminals. I would imagine very little. That said, outside the USA and probably inside it there's a clamor amongst hoi polloi for a 'strongman' politician: like the 1930s US LA pol Huey Long.

Complicate topic because the law varies around the world. At least in the US there is a divide between criminal and civil law. Civil law examples are disputes on asset ownership, divorce, child custody, etc. Criminal law applies to murder, rape, drug dealing, kidnapping, etc.

From the link Alex sent, it is not possible to know if the criminal label is for a dispute over a failed business or murder.

The civil vs criminal divide is not so clear any more. Say, you renege on gambling debts. Shouldn't that be a civil offense, not paying your debts? But in Nevada I think not paying casino debts has been made a criminal offense.

I'm curious on when did India become part of southeast asia, and how a civil lawsuit turns into a criminal record?

And yes, really, the post should have been about Sashi Tharoor.

i completely agree with Ray Lopez. It would be relevant to analyze whether criminals become politicians or whether politics make them into criminals. The direction of the casualty is not clear cut.

I completely agree with ART. Also in SE Asia, which is the target paper geographic region, "libel" is used as a weapon between politicians. It's not just Singapore that does this either. So if you're an incumbent, and you do well in office (accepting money under the table, for building permits and the like, as is more-or-less expected of you, that's why people run for office!) then your detractors (your political opponents) will correctly accuse you of being on the take (because they know how the game is played) and you will counterattack by suing them for libel, and forcing them to prove you are corrupt (which is nearly impossible to prove) hence the "criminal charges" (since libel is technically a crime). And so it goes.

Politics is a business for sociopaths so it should come as no surprise that many criminals are really good at politics. American politics is littered with talentless sharpies sponging off the productive. Democracy seems to lack the policing mechanisms to filter out the criminals and the insane from the ruling class. Eventually, the ruling elites look more like Gypsy clans than political parties.

That's no way to talk about Slick Willie and Hellary.

I do beg your pardon. I've just realised that it was the Kennedys that you meant.

In light of which, it's reasonable to ask whether any of those Indian malefactors have actually drowned a girl.

Don't know about drowning, but there's one that has barbecued a girl. Google "Naina Sahni".

In a restaurant clay oven ("tandoor") too. So, next time you order some tandoori Chicken.....

Assume that political parties prefer candidates who have a high probability of winning and prefer candidates who do not have criminal records. When we look at the data we would expect to see that candidates who have criminal records would have a higher probability of winning. If political parties didn't care about criminal record, and only cared about probability of winning, we would expect to see the probability of winning would be independent of criminal record.

Nope, don't work that way. In SE Asia "bribery" is a way of life, since salaries for politicians are so low (pace Singapore, which specifically raised salaries to discourage bribe takers). Once you are in office you are then sued by rent seekers who wish to win your seat, so they too can enjoy the spoils of corruption. Hence the incumbents are "criminals", in a civil context, but it's equivalent to speeding 56 mph in a 55 mph zone in the USA: everybody does it. I myself have given bribes and so does every person in this country (Philippines) and every SE Asian country, and Greece and Italy and Russia and Mexico and and and for that matter, unless you wish to wait 10 years to get something that should take a few days. So this paper proves nothing, yet another example of B.S. economics.

Ray, you are wrong about both countries. It only takes a quick google session to see that politicians in both have not just been accused of petty bribery or fudging their tax returns but rather murder, rape, and organized crime and gangster activities. Even if you have never read a single article from a domestic news source in the Philippines, you must have heard of the Ampatuans. Then, if you do read domestic news, you would have come across families like the Levistes and Enriles where at least one member has been credibly accused of murder.

Hi Ricardo: I am quite confident of my facts, as I live here in the PH, and the Ampatuans are just an extreme tail of the bell shaped curve. Most politicians are criminals but not mass murderers. I think the paper is weak because it assumes pols are criminals before running for office, not after.

Or as Lord Acton would say: "Power corrupts, but |Absolute Power| corrupts |Absolutely|"

This is an important point, but you need to also consider the possibility of a causal relationship between criminal record and probability of winning. If there is a positive correlation (as the article seems to suggest) you would not necessarily expect the local parties to require higher viability from criminal candidates. If criminality increases viability, it would all come down to how the parties weight their preferences in your hypothetical.

I agree but this may also have a selection bias component? i.e. For a party to field a tainted candidate at an election, he's got to be really damn good at winning for the party.

Yep, Becker's theory of "discrimination" at work.

That's about what I was thinking. They have good reason to think the candidate will run despite some previous conviction. It has to be a very, very good candidate to run them despite the conviction.

Then again, it is also somewhat more understood in India that people who are likely to successfully run for office are likely to face efforts to tarnish them ... although I wouldn't dream of guessing what percentage were set up and while percentage were legitimate crimes.

In the US, federal authorities target elected officials in subordinate jurisdictions, keeping the midgets in line. Witness the Massachusetts Speaker of the House position, three of the last four having been convicted of crimes.

That's a misreading of the facts. The Feds go to their stash of notorious criminals when they need to pad their stats. If the Feds really targeted Massachusetts, the whole state democratic party would be in the can. The only pols left standing would be Mr. Frosty and the Fake Indian, because they are too stupid to be trusted by the local machine. No, the Feds simply pick from the low hanging fruit to keep up appearances.

Okay, I know the Fake Indian is Senator Pocahontas, but who's Mister Frosty?

Ed Markey. He used to drive a Good Humor truck. It is just a coincidence that he looks like a child molester.

Ezra Pound coined a gorgeous word in the Cantos - "pejorocracy", or rule by the worst. It's a shame the word isn't more commonly used.

Its better now. There is a non-profit organisation "Association for Democratic Reforms" that tries to disseminate information on Criminal records, Assets etc of the political candic\dates , so that the voters have more information.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_for_Democratic_Reforms. The Judiciary in India has also flexed its muscle in these areas by allowing Public Interest Litigations ( PILs) in these matters.

The only thing sadder than knowing that politicians are psychopaths is knowing that people will keep electing them again and again anyway.

This is not because criminals are more popular, but because criminal gangs control the slum and peasant votes. Indian democracy is a lot like the Gangs of New York without the over-acting.

I used to work with Indian companies on public offerings, and was surprised to encounter criminal cases pending against the directors and officers. I was told by Indian co-counsel, however, that many more cases can be brought criminally in India -- i.e., otherwise civil litigants can effectively bring criminal complaints -- and that this is not considered a big deal, just as directors being named in a lawsuit in the US is not a big deal, either.

Indian civil litigation system is slow and broken. So there is increasing temptation to commandeer the somewhat more threatening criminal system for what are essentially civil matters. So putting directors in jail for bad debts etc. is getting commoner. It's wrong though. I wish they curbed it.

And once you go into politics, you can expect the number of criminal complaints directed against you to increase.

This is actually nothing that is limited to India. I was in politics in Germany and then worked as a lawyer for politicians in Germany, There were criminal complaints against me and them all the time. Usually they didn't even lead to a prosecution, but it's still a nuisance you need to deal with, and something that poisons the political process.

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