Criminal Politicians

In India, a whopping 21% of the Members of Parliament have serious criminal cases against them. Why are criminals successful in politics? Writing in the FT, David Keohane reviews Milan Vaishnava’s excellent new book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.

Vaishnav’s main explanation for the continued electoral success of criminally tainted politicians is quite simple: They provide services the state does not.

In short, the state has failed to keep up with its voters’ expectations and that failure — of the rule of law along with many basic services — has allowed criminal politicians to serve in lieu of the state: providing protection, social welfare of a sort since the state makes it hard to get even a drivers license without paying a bribe, dispute resolution in the absence of a functioning court system etc. As Vaishnav says, the corrupt politician becomes “the crutch that helps the poor navigate a system that gives them so little access” in the first place….

In no time, Dagdi Chawl became ground zero for Mumbai’s notorious underworld. From his fortress-like compound, Daddy dispensed patronage, protection, and even justice to local residents. Journalists who came to interview Gawli wrote of the hundreds of men and women — unemployed youth, ageing widows, aspiring gangsters, and established politicians — who queued up on a daily basis in front of the iron gates of Gawli’s compound just for a few minutes of face time in the hopes of being showered with Daddy’s munificence. They came seeking building permits, ration cards, welfare payments, employment — a things the state was meant to provide but was either unable or unwilling to.

So, “a reputation as a matabhare (literally, ‘heavy handed’) person is considered to be an asset” in India because the state is so absent in so many ways.

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