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.


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

My painfully unpleasant relations with South Asian civil servants suggest this is exactly the wrong way around. It is not that the criminals have had to step in where the state has failed. It is that the politicians and the civil servants make sure that the state fails. There is no profit in issuing licenses or providing services. There is in turning public services into private gifts. The civil servants won't do anything except for a bribe - and the politicians let them in exchange for prompt service for their friends. The politicians need to know who voted for them and they need to reward them. They all need intermediaries so it doesn't look too bad or too criminal.

If the state worked in India, the people in charge would soon make sure it didn't.

Clannish societies are corrupt:

Change is slow but among the encouraging signs is ADR that releases Assets etc of candidates contesting in elections

Also see , a crowd-sourcing website aimed to reduce corruption.

Forty years ago it took me 23 days to convert Rupees (officially) to $260 to cover my first month's expenses before my Graduate Assistantship funds would come to me . It was in the office of the Reserve Bank in Mumbai . I was too naive to realize that a bribe could speed it up.

Today it would take 15 to 30 minutes in hundreds of Bank branches..

"a reputation as a ‘heavy handed person is considered to be an asset". As we all know , this is not necessarily only a third world feature.

It sounds like the late Roman republic.

I've never been to India (and am not sure why Tabarrok wishes to go there), but I've worked with many physicians in the U.S. who are from India. If people are identified by where they land on a scale, one end of the scale being the consummate team player and the other end the consummate narcissist, the physicians from India would be clustered near the same place on the scale. While it's true that physicians generally are clustered toward one end of the scale, the Indian physicians are clustered nearer the end. The narcissist plays a large role in economic development, but if everyone is a narcissist and nobody is a team player, chaos is the result. I suspect Tabarrok will learn an important lesson about the undervalued benefits of teamwork on his sojourn to India.

I have been to India. Overall I had a great time, but it seemed like everywhere people were trying to screw you in tiny ways. For example, we would hire a driver for a fixed, agreed-upon rate, and then at the end of the trip he would insist that we owed him extra for [ludicrous reason]. Or at national parks, they would try to charge my wife (who, at the time, was an Indian citizen with an Indian passport) the "non-citizen" price, simply because she was with me. (This was resolved by a 5-minute screaming match.) And so on.

(I haven't been to a ton of countries, but India is the only one where I had this kind of experience.)

File under: The government reflects the culture (or in India, cultureS) of the people.

Like Detroit administration reflects African American culture? Wait, that would be racist.

Actually I have had this problem of drivers asking for more than the agreed amount a good proportion of the times I took a cab in Detroit.

Good point Rayward. The Indians who manage to reach the US are the cream of a country of 1 bill. They are probably way smarter than the average American ding dong they have to deal with so it is not surprising that they might think they are better than you ( i guess that is what you mean by narcissistic). India is one of the great civilizations in world history and has accomplished terrific things in religion, philosophy, mathematics, art, music and food. Professor Tabarrok is lucky to be there although he will not always realize it all the time.

The Indian state is very much there. It has been captured, especially at the local level, by these criminals-turned-politicians who also deliver the votes to their respective parties. Perhaps demonetization was also intended to break this nexus.

You get criminality the more people's incomes are politically determined, or, more precisely, politically determined according to discretion or according to esoteric regulatory schemes. Fewer mercantile regulations, fewer tax preferences, less in the way of state-owned enterprises or state land, fewer patronage positions means less in the way of criminality.

You also get criminality where patterns of extended family relations vest great responsibility in those among them who occupy prominent and lucrative positions. Theodore Dalrymple has written about how this works in Southern Africa and among the Southern African diaspora. The implications of these family bonds can be touching - he had among his patients in London a woman devoting her life to the care of a disabled cousin (and not a 1st cousin, IIRC), but it also meant that the black doctors who worked alongside Dalrymple during his years in Rhodesia (paid the same salaries as the white doctors) could never live well because so many relatives were into them for money. When the black doctors were put in charge of the hospital after 1977, the place was quickly ruined because the black doctors were embezzling big time to take care of their relatives (and were expected by those relatives to provide).

A similar phenomenon you have is one Stanley Kurtz has identified as local to the Arab world and other loci where parallel cousin marriage is practiced: public life is an arena for tribal competition and negotiation, institutions of state are prizes, requests from relatives are how business gets done, and people in positions of influence spend boatloads of time writing letters of recommendation for their second cousins.

What will they do for a son-in-law?

Quite a bit as can be seen in the case of real estate wealth accumulation of Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law. No doubt Trump can trump that.

This paper seems apposite:

As do these:

The thing is, it's not hard to find malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance in the conduct of higher education. It's just that it's seldom defined as 'criminal' and the perpetrators are seldom prosecuted on the off chance it is.

Huh. It's as if, it's not the institutions that matter, it's the people who populate them.

No. As economist Murray Rothbard argued -- the state itself is fundamentally a criminal institution. Therefore, akin to the Mafia model, one will find inherent criminality anywhere a state/govvernment exists on the planet.

Rothbard also said Soviet Russia was preferable to the United States because Leverenty Beria was shot and J. Edgar Hoover was not. Man was an abrasive crank. Full stop.

The obvious answer is to simply remove the incentive to profit from application of the law by removing the law.

If building permits are for sale by the corrupt to the one willing to be the least law abiding, remove the need for building permits and both disappear.

But really it comes down to the fact that India is constituted a socialist state. What else would you expect?

You needed permits in my township for safety reasons. No one charged us a bribe. Upstate New York is not a socialist state.

Some day we will socialize the Buffalo Bills, however. God/Goodell willing.

May be without building permits , the buildings will disappear sooner. Currently because of the risk of being held accountable for permitting a building that collapses due to shoddy workmanship or materials, there is some accountability at least.

That is one benefit. But also one not considered. If the only way to do something is by being shoddy and by buying protection, the only people that will be doing it will be shoddy and crooked.

That is why these places end up working like this.

Building codes and permits are great if they accomplish what they are designed to do.

One thing you notice when doing business with South Asians is they put a maximum amount of effort into not being held personally accountable. It is their overriding concern. It is why they naturally develop labyrinths of complex bureaucracy. The opacity guarantees that no one person can ever be held responsible. Since the point of the complex social network is to prevent anyone from being accountable, it means no one can ever be in charge. It seems to be an evolved habit to protect society from tyrants, which works quite well, but results in a massively corrupt and inefficient state.

Another habit of the South Asian mind is to scrupulously follow the letter of the law to the point of contradicting the spirit of the law. This squares with the habit of avoiding personal responsibility. By narrowly focusing on the rules, the person can not be held responsible nor can they claim credit. In this way, each person disappears into the scenery, like pixels on a screen.

The "good government" we enjoy is the result of good government crusaders, who are willing to stand alone against what they claim is corruption or injustice. Our myths and legends are full of this character type, the lone crusader fighting society. Look at the last election. Every candidate promised to take on the system, the corrupt interests and culture that is Washington. That's completely alien to South Asia.

This avoiding blame is something I also recognise from my time working in East Asia. But I put it down more to the heavy bureaucratic institutions. As Alex has so well demonstrated with the FDA the bureaucratic calculation is that there is no upside to approving something, only downside as a bureaucrat, so whenever possible, don't approve something. This is the opposite to a capitalistic culture where firms benefit from upsides directly so try to encourage decision making behaviours. You will also note that companies that have protected monopolies generally don't behave this way.

"Every candidate promised to take on the system, the corrupt interests and culture that is Washington. That’s completely alien to South Asia."

That's a pretty silly generalization to make. See Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, for instance.

The fact that he is an exception and a failure has no impact on your thinking? That's surprising as most people would see that as an important bit of evidence.

What indication do you have that "corrupt interests and culture" in America are actually going to be kept in check? Your statement was that such a revolt is "completely alien to South Asia," not that India had successfully tackled the serious problems of corruption and criminality in its system. It has taken America over 200 years to wind up as a reasonably well-governed country that still places near the bottom on official corruption measures among developed countries.

I see. You would like to shift the focus now. No thanks. Enjoy your wrongness.

This (being an outsider taking on the tea party type corrupts in New Delhi) was also a selling point of Modi during the 2014 election.

That being said, however, I do agree with your general premise that people dont want to be individually responsible for anything here (India). This goes quite deep in Indian culture in the sense that people from the subcontinent are not individualistic at all! Maybe it even has something to do with their being millions of gods in Indian system. It is however, effective against China like one party, one man, one emperor systems. It also does lead to less tyranny in general. Maybe just cause the population has always been very diverse and tolerant.

The current Prime Minister won mainly by promising to take on the system that existed at the Centre. And whatever other criticisms that may exist of his governance , even his opponents concede personal integrity.

You are correct in labelling it "myths and legends" ; in 2020 it will still remaina myth.

"21% of the Members of Parliament have serious criminal cases against them": what do you mean? Are they currently subject to criminal cases (in the way that leading French politicians so often are) or have they been subject to such cases in the past? If in the past, how many of them were convicted?

P.S. I don't want to sound racist, but citizens of a country where nearly half of those who voted supported the gangster Hillary Clinton should perhaps go easy on sneering about Indian politicians.

Hillary for prison? Really dear? That's HILAR-ious. But not Halal-rious. Which reminds me, if Trump does a national register for Muslims, we should all register as Muslim like Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright says today in a headline I just read.

India = Philippines = Guatemala (where a convicted murderer became president around 2000). Yawn. Been there. Haven't done that (crimes that is).

They have serious ongoing cases against them, in many cases murder. They are allowed to run because of the theory that one should not be disqualified on the basis of allegations, only on the basis of evidence. Usually convictions take several years in India because the courts and the justice system are inefficient (e.g., a bollywood actor, Salman Khan, is alleged to have shot a black buck, an endangered animal, 18 years ago; the court case is still going on, and 18 years is longer than the lifespan of that animal).

'It is the foreign element that commits our crimes. There is no native criminal class except Congress."
- Mark Twain, More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

"Prosperum ac felix scelus/ Virtus vocatur" ("Successful and fortunate crime/ is called virtue")
- Seneca, Herc. Furens, ii. 250.

It's just Indian politicians haven't (yet) been successful at legalizing their criminal activities as American ones.

As someone who has an Indian driver's license, and has often had the unpleasant experience of driving in Indian cities, the problem is less that one cannot get a license without paying a bribe but that anyone can get a license by paying a bribe. And I mean literally anyone. So drivers are unaware and unconcerned about rules of the road, making it literally a jungle.

I have a simple theory/observation based on this: a sub-optimal, inefficient situation (like that described) is much more likely to become the fairly-stable equilibrium if it arises as a response to an equally or even more sub-optimal situation than if it arises as a corruption of a more-efficient situation.

In other words, if the described situation is a response to an ineffective state that cannot deliver these basic services to its citizens, once it establishes itself there is no one who is particularly worse off than they were previously, and many people who are better off. There is thus less clamor for change. If the described situation were instead a corruption of a previously effective state, there would be many people who are worse off, who might have a strong interest in fighting the corrupt situation to try to return to the more efficient situation, because they want to return to their own previous, higher state.

The immediate upshot being: in both cases, the current situation is equally sub-optimal/inefficient compared to the ideal. So there is just as much total gain to be realized from moving towards that ideal in both cases. However, in the former situation, most people feel the same or better off compared to the past, while in the latter there are people who are definitively worse off than in the past. In the former situation it is thus more likely that the corrupt state will become the fairly-stable equilibrium, while in the latter situation the corrupt state is not so stable.

This would suggest that some form of path dependency is more important of an explanatory factor than "culture" here, and that the path dependency is a result of endowment bias. Or perhaps that culture itself is sometimes a result of the happenstance of the initial path we start upon: if corruption becomes the fairly-stable equilibrium, the culture will come to accept and justify it.

Hello, please consider caste in your explanations for Indian politics. it is the #1 determinant of anything you observe.

American institutions aren't simply copied by other countries, they have evolved to deal with their own constraints.

I highly recommend Mani Ratnam's brilliant Tamil movie, Nayakan, to see how an immigrant underworld don in Mumbai dispenses justice and protection to folks without access to the court system or without favor from a corrupt police. Time Magazine put it on its list of Top 100 movies of all time.

+1, though I will also add that the film was to some extent inspired by Godfather (but far from a mindless copy of the film).

I believe the Hindi (Bollywood) movie "Dayavan" was a remake of Nayakan.

When a notoriously corrupt Mayor was elected initially to the council in Boston in 1904, he and a friend first sat a civil service exam for friends but they got caught. His winning campaign slogan among the Boston Irish in his constituency was "he did it for a friend".

In 1945, he was re-elected mayor while in federal prison for corruption. He was re-elected on the slogan of "curly gets things done".

Being corrupt is not automatic electoral death as long as you deliver

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