22 Feb 2017

In late December, Narendra Modi launched a fierce defence of his decision the previous month to scrap two of India's highest denomination rupee notes. The Indian prime minister's move had been staggeringly disruptive, forcing hundreds of millions of people to line up for hours outside banks. But Modi hailed it as a triumph in his battle to curtail the country's black economy. This is the beginning of the end of the corrupt, he told a crowd in Mumbai, the financial capital.

Economists begged to differ. Many criticised the measure's haphazard implementation and predicted it would needlessly dent growth. Others questioned its effectiveness as a means of targeting everyone from outright criminals to dodgy politicians, and the suitcases of illicit cash they were imagined to keep. Instead, demonetisation smacked of authoritarian populism: a dramatic but ineffective gesture designed to unite the angry masses against the wealthy.

If that was Modi's aim, he has been undeniably successful. Despite the mass inconvenience, by most accounts demonetisation remains popular, a fact that only serves to illustrate the depth of public unhappiness over India's endemic problems of graft and the political class that in many ways embodies them.

That same public anger sits somewhat oddly, however, next to the central finding of a fascinating new book by the political scientist Milan Vaishnav. In When Crime Pays, he examines a specific variant of the corruption that has grown within India's body politic over recent years, namely the intertwining of politics and criminality, and the fact that voters increasingly elect candidates with criminal records.

Here the statistics are shocking. Among parliamentarians elected in the 2004 general election, 12 per cent faced serious pending cases on charges ranging from kidnapping to murder. By 2014, the year in which Modi won his electoral landslide, the figure had rocketed up to 21 per cent. During India's three most recent national polls, a candidate facing criminal charges has been almost three times more likely to win a seat in parliament than one who was not.

This is clearly surprising. In most countries, political parties shun candidates tainted by criminality. In India, they embrace them. And while demonetisation shows that Indians are furious about corruption in general terms, they often pass up the chance to throw the rascals out and instead support its beneficiaries at the ballot box.

Voters are not necessarily blind to the predilections of the political class: many voters vote for politicians because, rather than in spite, of their criminal reputations, Vaishnav writes. Why? The author's explanation, at once persuasive and tragic, is that each has something to gain.

Historically, political parties came to rely on underworld figures to provide both cash and muscle to cajole voters. Now many of these have cut out the middleman. Politicians make use of us...But after the elections they earn the social status and power and we are treated as criminals, Vaishnav quotes one alleged gangster from the northern state of Bihar as saying. So I stopped helping the politicians and decided to contest the elections.

Facing rapid increases in election costs and a proliferation of rivals, mainstream parties have welcomed these criminal candidates, mostly because they are wealthy enough to fund their own campaigns and pay the copious bribes needed to win them. And in the absence of better choices, many voters have come to view a murder or extortion charge as a sign of strength within a broken political system a perverse signal that criminal politicians are more likely to offer protection to their community, or be able to use ill-gotten wealth to deliver services that the state should provide but often does not.

Modi has promised to reverse this criminalisation. But it is firmly on show this month in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most politically important state with a population of 200m, where voting is under way in elections that Modi hopes to win, and where plenty of criminal candidates are standing.

Vaishnav suggests there is no quick fix, although a clean-up of India's party funding system would make a start. Until then, just as Modi himself reflects a broader trend towards forceful nationalist leaders, so India's criminal politicians show similar undercurrents in miniature. As anxious voters rely reluctantly on crooked strongmen, so the anger at corruption in general grows stronger.

This piece was published in The FinancialTimes on 17 February 2017.