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The black heart of Indian politics

TWO DAYS before polling begins in the world's biggest election, there is little doubt about the most important issue - and it is nothing to do with policies. It is the infestation of Indian politics by criminals.

It is not a party issue, because no party, except arguably the Communists, is untainted. To speak of sleaze would be to indulge in quaint understatement. India's problems are not free nights at the Ritz or cash for questions, nor are they limited to kickbacks from government contracts. India's nightmare is the likely election to parliament of dozens of mainstream candidates who are hardened, violent criminals, often gang leaders, several of them with multiple murders to their name.

On Thursday a panel consisting of a retired Supreme Court judge and three other upstanding citizens, sponsored by the weekly magazine Outlook, presented the findings of their research into the criminalisation of Indian politics. More than 4,000 candidates are contesting this election. The panel had the resources to examine 500 of those in the mainstream parties. Of those, more than 70, in the panel's judgement, deserve to be barred from standing.

"To have true democracy in this country," said Justice Kuldip Singh, a former Supreme Court judge, "... there must be stringent laws barring those who have criminal records from participating in the elections."

It may come as a surprise that India has no such law. At present any citizen can stand for election in India unless they have had a criminal conviction upheld by the Supreme Court. In theory this ought to be enough to keep the criminals out but so long-drawn-out is the judicial process, and so susceptible to political pressure, that many confirmed, indeed outrageous criminals, are strolling the corridors of power.

Phoolan Devi, the "bandit queen" from the ravines of Madhya Pradesh, is only the most infamous example. After shooting to death 22 upper-caste villagers in revenge for being raped and abused years earlier, the female gang leader was held in prison for 11 years without being brought to trial. When members of her own caste came to power in the state she was released, and is now running for a second term as the Samajwadi Party's candidate for Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.

It is the "Hindi belt" of impoverished North Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, which provide the most flagrant examples of the criminalisation of politics.

Uttar Pradesh is the biggest state in the Union: with a population of 140 million, if it were a sovereign country it would be the eighth biggest in the world, bigger than Japan. Last October the state was the scene of a power struggle between two chief ministers. The victorious minister, Kalyan Singh, clinched his triumph by luring dozens of representatives to his side of the chamber with promises of ministerial posts. The result was the biggest cabinet in Indian history, 93 members, of which at least 17 had criminal backgrounds. The new ministers included Hari Shankar Tiwari, a gang leader with nine murder cases pending against him, and Prem Prakash Singh, the "Terror of Terai", accused of two cases of murder and three of attempted murder.

What made Kalyan Singh's coup all the more perturbing was that he is a prominent member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu Nationalist Party which has long asserted that it is the only party of principle left in the country. By this cynical manoeuvre Kalyan Singh indicated that the BJP is just opportunistic as its rivals. The BJP was briefly in power at the centre last year, and may well win the coming election.

The political rise of the "Goondas" or Mafiosi reflects the fact that much of the Indian hinterland is still in the grip of feudalistic overlords who control their communities through menace and terror. The rapid succession of expensive elections, and the absence of real policy issues, has brought a frightening symbiosis into being: between the political parties on the one hand, strapped for cash and eager for winnable candidates; and cash-happy Goondas, glad of a way to launder their funds and legitimise their power.

"Most political parties are prepared to embrace them for the power they can exercise over their caste or community with their ferocious image, " wrote Alok Sharma recently in The Pioneer.

The ultimate blame for this state of affairs is laid at the door of Indira Gandhi, who, while prime minister in the Seventies, removed the ceiling on election expenditure, thus practically inviting gangsters to parley their black money into political power through the election process. The consequence is seen in the benighted condition of huge tracts of Northern India, which look exactly as desperate and lawless as you would expect of places ruled by outlaws.