- By Park MacDougaldPark MacDougald is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.
On Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling banning politicians who have been convicted of serious crimes from sitting in parliament, supplementing an earlier law banning convicts from running for office. But what really caught our eye was a statistic in the Financial Times‘ write-up of the news. An astounding 162 out of 543 members of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, have criminal cases against the, according to data collected after India’s last general election in 2009 by National Election Watch and the Association for Democracy Reforms. For those keeping score, that’s 30 percent of lawmakers.
In its coverage of the Supreme Court decision, the Press Trust of India, citing the findings of the same two organizations, adds that 1,258 out of 4,032 sitting lawmakers in state legislatures are facing criminal cases — also roughly 30 percent.
These cases, the Financial Times notes, "include serious charges such as rape, murder and kidnapping, though the paper adds that some politicians are now complaining that they will "face frivolous or malicious cases designed to keep them out of parliament."
India, of course, doesn’t have a monopoly on ministerial misbehavior. Italy, which passed a law in late 2012 banning certain classes of criminals from serving in government, also has a less-than-stellar record. You might be familiar with Italy’s philandering former prime minister, but he’s not the only Italian politico to find himself on the wrong side of the law. While many of these incidents involve corruption, there’s also the case of Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament from the anti-immigrant Northern League Party who was fined 750,000 lira in 1993 for beating a Moroccan child and convicted of arson in 2005 for burning the possessions of immigrants.
Other far-right parties in Europe, like Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, harbor some alleged criminals — like Ilias Kasidiaris, who not only attacked a fellow MP on live television, but has faced charges of being an "accessory to robbery, bodily harm, and gun possession." But perhaps the most colorful criminal parliamentarian was former British Labour MP John Stonehouse — who, in an effort to dodge charges of fraud, theft, and forgery, faked his own death in 1974 by leaving his clothes on a beach in Miami, before fleeing to Australia to begin a new life under the assumed identity of a dead constituent. Stonehouse was eventually found out and brought back to Britain, where he continued to serve as a lawmaker from behind bars.
But India’s problem is particularly pervasive — and not exactly new, either. In 1997 the Economist noted that one in 10 candidates in the previous year’s general election were facing criminal charges, and in 2009 Reuters reported that one in five national candidates found themselves in similar circumstances.
So what gives? Back in June, Berkeley researchers Rahul Verma and Pradeep Chhibber crunched the numbers and found that once in office, Indian politicians facing criminal charges behave no differently than lawmakers with no criminal charges against them.
"The criminalisation of politics is not the cause of the dysfunctional democracy in India, but a symptom of greater malaise in our democracy," Verma and Chhibber concluded. "In the National Election Study (NES 2009), voters were asked whether they would prefer a candidate with a criminal record who gets work done or a clean politician who cannot get their work done. The rural poor said that they would not mind voting for a candidate with a criminal record if the candidate can get their work done. They also preferred an approachable politician to an honest politician. The poor’s preference for a politician who can get things done ‘no matter what’ is, in our opinion, because of the daily actions of a state that either treats the poor shabbily all year round, intimidates them, or is simply absent. That needs to be addressed."