Munna Shukla, running in the state of Bihar, is facing 24 criminal charges

Meeting Munna Shukla can be an intimidating experience.

The alleged gangster-cum-politician grasps your hand in his powerful mitt and slowly begins to squeeze, stares impassively into your eyes, and refuses to avert his gaze or let go until you look away to hide the painful grimace on your face.

Without speaking a single word, Shukla lets you know he is the force to be reckoned with in this dusty corner of the impoverished state of Bihar, in eastern India.

Gangster politics

It was the final day for politicians to file their nomination papers, and we had travelled all morning over potholed roads from the state capital Patna to interview Shukla about his candidacy for the Janata Dal United (JDU) party in Muzzafarpur in north Bihar.

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We were also hoping to learn why he was a front-runner to become the next MP for the area, despite facing a number of criminal charges, including three counts of murder.

We had been waiting for over half-an-hour in an anteroom of his palatial home, squeezed together on sofas with a dozen or so of his political supporters, watched from above by giant photos of his unsmiling likeness, when Shukla strode in confidently.

We had been told by locals that he was widely-feared in this community, but as he led us outside for an interview on his front steps, an appreciative roar went up from the assembled crowd of his campaign faithful, who had been waiting patiently in the heat and now crushed around us to listen.
 
Shukla told us the area had long elected outsiders who played up caste divisions in the community, but now he predicted confidently that he would win by a landslide and unite the local people.

"I am the son of this soil, the blue-eyed boy of this area," said Shukla, punching into the air with his outstretched fist.

As if on cue, the crowd began shouting in agreement. When Shukla raised his hand again ever so slightly, they immediately fell silent and he continued.

"I have the support of the young, the love of the women. That's what makes me a baahubali."

Literally, baahubali translates from Hindi as muscle man, but in common parlance here in India it means gangster.

One in five

It is not how you might expect a politician to speak about himself, but Shukla is not your average candidate and politics in the world's largest democracy bears little resemblance to the relatively genteel campaigning I grew up with in Canada.

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Many Indian candidates face criminal charges

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One in five members of India's last parliament had criminal cases filed against them while they were in office.

The situation might not be much better this time around, according to numbers compiled by the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and based on the candidates' own disclosure statements.
 
Of the more than 1,400 candidates contesting in the first phase of these month-long elections, 16 per cent are facing charges. Many of those are for serious offences like murder, kidnapping and extortion.

Bihar is the worst state, with nearly 25 per cent of candidates having had a serious brush with the law.

Legal loopholes

Indian legislation prohibits a person convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for more than two years from contesting an election. But many politicians manage to postpone or avoid disqualification through legal delays or endless appeals. The country's judicial process is notorious for its glacial pace and the impartiality of judges is occasionally called into question.

There are times, too, when the courts might appear to be inconsistent in their handling of cases involving politicians.

India's Supreme Court refused recently to let Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt run in these elections because of his conviction for weapons offences.

However, the same court in 2007 stayed a guilty finding against former cricketer and sitting Bharatiya Janata Party MP Navjot Singh Sidhu for killing a man in a road rage incident, enabling him to contest and win a by-election.

Anil Bairwal, ADR's spokesman, has lobbied in vain for changes to the law that would tighten what he sees as loopholes that allow those who appeal their convictions to still run for office.

As an alternative, his group has run a website and toll-free telephone line since the last national elections in 2004, where voters can check the backgrounds of candidates.

"Voters have become a lot more informed," says Bairwal.

"As they ask more questions, we hope the number of candidates elected with criminal background will decline."

Local strongman

Back in Muzzafarpur, Shukla waves and smiles as he and his throng of supporters wind their way through the streets to the elections office where he will file his nomination papers.

If he is worried about his impending trial for the murder of the leader of a rival family, he is not showing it.

When asked whether his long list of charges should disqualify him from running, Shukla glares as he considers his response.

"I am not a petty criminal or a thug," he says.

"In my entire life, I've never even killed an ant."
 
The crowd begins to shout again and Shukla beams broadly. It seems the only verdict he need fear will come at the polls, and few here seem ready to question whether their faith in this local strongman is misplaced.

Source: Al Jazeera