Central & South Asia
Tainted MPs on the rise in India
Almost a third of newly elected MPs face criminal charges.
Last Modified: 24 May 2009 10:55 GMT

The number of MPs facing criminal charges has increased by 20 per cent [AFP]

While the speaker of the mother of all parliaments in London is forced to step down by the reaction of the British public over the MPs' expenses scandal, the story is very different in one of Westminster's more successful offshoots.

After having heaved a collective sigh of relief for not being saddled with a hung parliament, a study that found almost one-third of the newly elected MPs in India face criminal charges has hardly caused a ripple in the world's biggest democracy.

The election results saw a 20 per cent increase in the number of MPs facing charges, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) study said.

This comes despite highly visible campaigns by civil society groups to reform democracy and governance in India.

Trespassing to murder

The number of MPs facing charges ranging from trespassing to murder went up to 153 from 128 in the last Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament that has 543 elected seats.

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"However, the profile of the current crop has changed," said Anil Bairwal, the ADR national coordinator.

Bairwal said five MPs facing the most charges have been voted out of office and the number of members facing murder cases in the new house has come down by 50 per cent.

"It is not that people want to vote for candidates facing criminal charges. Several surveys have shown that they do not even want to consider them," said Bairwal.

"They are faced with the dilemma of whether to vote for them or forgo their important civic duty and earn ridicule for not voting."

The activist blames parties for their lack of self-regulation as Indian law bars only those convicted of a crime from running for public office.

"The situation is going to be the same until political parties show the will to change and stop giving tickets to people with criminal backgrounds," Bairwal said.

The ADR study found that in constituencies where there were more clean candidates to choose from, voters shunned those facing criminal charges.

Where those facing charges dominated the slate, however, voters had little choice but to pick among them.

Asset increase

A Congress-led coalition has support of well over half of parliament [AFP]
The same study also found that the new Lok Sabha has far richer MPs than the previous ones.

The average assets of MPs from most parties have increased in these elections.

While the average asset of a Congress party MP in 2004 was Rs.340m ($7.16m), it is now double at Rs.680m. In the case of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the figure tripled from Rs.120m to Rs.360m.

The issue of MPs with not so clean records and those with lots of money are the two faces of the same coin. The coin here is the power that comes with politics.

As in other federal democracies, the structure of political power in India is pyramidal.

However, what distinguishes the Indian case from other federations is the size of the electorate increases exponentially as a candidate moves higher up the ladder.

As the number of political constituencies and available offices shrink, the supply and demand mismatch tends to increase the scarcity value of such offices. 

Poor internal democracy

An important consequence of this is the emergence of leaders who enjoy a monopoly in the use and benefits of power.

 Final results

How the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha are divided:

 Congress-led UPA: 262 seats
 BJP-led NDA: 157 seats
 Third Front: 67 seats 
 Others: 57 seats 

"The virtual disappearance of inner-party democracy from the Indian political scene is a major factor behind candidates with questionable records getting nominated," said Bairwal.

With lower-level party workers having no say in the selection, coteries running the parties impose candidates on them.

Invariably, as a consequence of the high value attached to scarce political offices, persons with organisational clout and money are favoured by parties over more honest candidates. 

And those getting elected through the power of their wealth see it as money well spent.

This is because unlike other well-established democracies, ministers and other political leaders in India enjoy enormous commercial and economic powers at the state and central levels.

This is an attractive proposition by itself even if you discount the opportunities for corruption presented by such a dispensation.

Another reason for the attractiveness of politics as a career of choice by persons facing criminal charges is the enormous judicial delay in deciding such cases.

"In India, a person would rather be in politics than in jail," said Bairwal.

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