India is famed for being the world’s largest democracy. In light of increasing number of voters during each election phase – nearly 9 million voters for the recent one in 2019 – the entire process of ensuring free and fair elections, which is an integral part of democracy, becomes much more crucial. However, as per the latest annual Democracy Index report released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), India scored a total of 7.23 out of 10, and secured the 41st position on the list. It also fell under the category of ‘Flawed Democracy’ which is defined by the EIU as having “free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation”(1). When it comes to electoral politics, in particular, one of the biggest challenge that the country faces is a rising connection between muscle and money power in securing a position as a political front-runner.
Notably, according to ADR’s findings in the All India Survey on Governance Issues and Voting Behaviour 2018, 97.86% voters are of the opinion that candidates with criminal background should not be favoured for a political position, yet 35.89% are willing to vote for such candidates if they have done good work previously(2) . The results also reveal that 34.23% of those surveyed favour those candidates who make enormous expenditures during election time; and 35% can vote for strong candidates even if they have a criminal background. Voters’ decision to support powerful candidates despite having information about their criminal background has seen a significant jump since 2014, when only 22.82% were willing to do so. Similarly, their acceptance of candidates with non-serious criminal charges was 29.33% in 2014(3), which shows the ease with which candidates with a tainted background are allowed into the folds of national and state-level politics. Political scientist Milan Vaishnav, seems to be of the opinion that the appeal held by candidates with criminal background stems from the fact that they can utilise their “bad social image” to fill the gap brought in by a lack of governmental cooperation to ensure growth and development in different sectors – as a result of which the former come across as “Robin Hood-like figure(s)”(4). But once these candidates come to power, they misuse available resources for personal growth, and thus give rise to a never-ending cycle of poor governance and lack of development.(5)
At the same time, such a situation arises when political parties, more than voters, look at candidates’ winnability, based on a wide range of factors such as their public image and personal wealth. According to another report by ADR on 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 88% of 542 winners were crorepati winners, of which 43% had declared criminal charges against them (showing an increase of 44% from 2009 elections), wherein 29% were for serious cases (with an increase of 109% since 2009)(6) . There is a common supposition amongst political analysts and critics that money power equals muscle power, wherein those political contenders who have more assets as well as criminal charges against their names are chosen over many others who don’t. Neelanjan Sircar, a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, says that wealthy candidates with the ability to self-finance themselves are sought out by political parties primarily to “fill party coffers”(7). Dr. Vaishnav, in this regard, provides further insight, by outlining the pattern that leads to inclusion of candidates with tainted background, wherein “local goons working for the politicians…realise the benefits of being involved in politics…(and) thus move to the core of Indian politics” . (8)
And so we see a clear pattern forming out of an unscripted coordination between the public’s perception and that of the political parties’. At an individual level, one needs to examine the reasons that contribute to greater participation of candidates with such backgrounds and how it creates a breeding ground for further problems in the country’s electoral politics, as both voters and political parties continue to support such political contenders.
(7) Sircar, Neelanjan. “Money in Elections: The Role of Personal Wealth in Election Outcomes”. Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India. Oxford University Press, 2018. Pages 36-73.