Missing the real malaise of the body politic

Data suggests that criminalisation of politics is not the cause, but only a symptom, of dysfunctional democracy

In the current Lok Sabha, 162 of the 543 members have criminal records against them. Seventy-six MPs are facing charges for serious criminal offences under the Indian Penal Code such as murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, etc. This pattern is replicated in state assemblies and in local elected bodies, where supposedly one in five elected officials are charged with at least one case. Research has shown that during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, a candidate with criminal charges, all else being equal, had a far greater probability of winning elections in comparison to a candidate with no criminal record.

This overwhelming presence of elected representatives facing criminal charges in legislative bodies of India is at the centre of the overarching public sentiment against politicians and electoral politics. During the agitations over the Lokpal Bill, Arvind Kejriwal's remark about criminals in the House compelled Parliament to issue a privilege notice against him. A defiant Kejriwal, in a four-page reply to the House, asked, " [..] how can I respect Parliament of present times?" Recently, Jay Panda, an MP representing the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), has submitted three private members' bills in Lok Sabha to address the issue of criminal legislators. The current outrage against legislators with a criminal record is not new for Indian politics. Various government commissions in the past (especially the Vohra Commission in 1993) have recommended measures to deal with the criminal-politician nexus. Civil society organisations have been calling attention to the criminalisation of legislative bodies in India. The Supreme Court intervened in 2002 and since then, all candidates contesting for elections have to compulsorily declare their criminal record, if any, and their assets.

In the face of this loud and persistent noise around the criminalisation of Indian politics, we ask whether, once elected, do MPs with a criminal record behave differently from their peers who do not have a criminal record? To answer this question, we collected five disparate measures of the performance of MPs. We looked at their attendance in Lok Sabha, their participation in Lok Sabha debates and questions raised by them in Lok Sabha. These data were compiled by PRS Legislative Research. Second, we examined the utilisation of MPLADS funds that are allocated to MPs. This data came from the ministry of statistics website. Third, we collected data on the reported assets of MPs (the veracity of this information is questioned by many) and MPs' criminal records from the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). The data is drawn from affidavits filed by the MPs. ADR has meticulously collated and arranged the information to distinguish between two kinds of criminal records serious (with charges like kidnapping, murder, etc.) and those who are charged with less serious crimes.

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