Book Review: When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. By Milan Vaishnav. Yale University Press; 410 pages; $40. To be published in Britain in March;

ALL politicians are crooks. At least, that is what a lot of people
think in a lot of countries. One assumes it is a reproach. But not in
India. Indian politicians who have been charged with or convicted of
serious misdeeds are three times as likely to win parliamentary
elections as those who have not. In “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle
in Indian Politics” Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace meticulously tracks the remarkable political
success of India’s accused murderers, blackmailers, thieves and
kidnappers. Having been a symptom of India’s dysfunctional politics,
the felons are metastasising into its cause.

Sadly, this is not a book about some small, shady corner of Indian
politics: 34% of the members of parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha
(lower house) have criminal charges filed against them; and the figure
is rising (see chart). Some of the raps are peccadillos, such as
rioting or unlawful assembly—par for the course in India’s raucous
local politics. But over a fifth of MPs are in the dock for serious
crimes, often facing reams of charges for anything from theft to
intimidation and worse. (Because the Indian judicial system has a
backlog of 31m cases, even serious crimes can take a decade or more to
try, so few politicians have been convicted.) One can walk just about
the whole way from Mumbai to Kolkata without stepping foot outside a
constituency whose MP isn’t facing a charge.

Mr Vaishnav dissects both the reasons why the goons want to get
elected and why the electorate seems to be so fond of them. Their
desire for office is relatively new. After independence in 1947 thugs
used to bribe politicians to stay out of trouble and to secure
lucrative state concessions such as mining rights. It helped that
candidates from the dominant Congress party were sure to win a seat
and then stay there. From the 1980s, as Congress started to fade as a
political force, bribing its local representative became less of a
sure thing for local crooks. So in the same way that a carmaker might
start manufacturing its own tyres if it finds that outside suppliers
are unreliable, Mr Vaishnav argues that the dons promoted themselves
into holding office, thus providing their own political cover.

What is more surprising is that the supply of willing
criminals-cum-politicians was met with eager demand from voters. Over
the past three general elections, a candidate with a rap sheet of
serious charges has had an 18% chance of winning his or her race,
compared with 6% for a “clean” rival. Mr Vaishnav dispels the
conventional wisdom that crooks win because they can get voters to
focus on caste or some other sectarian allegiance, thus overlooking
their criminality. If anything, the more serious the charge, the
bigger the electoral boost, as politicians well know.

As so often happens in India, poverty plays a part. India is almost
unique in having adopted universal suffrage while it was still very
poor. The upshot has been that underdeveloped institutions fail to
deliver what citizens vote for. Getting the state to perform its most
basic functions—building a school, disbursing a subsidy, repaving a
road—is a job that can require banging a few heads together. Sometimes
literally. Who better to represent needy constituents in these tricky
situations than someone who “knows how to get things done”? If the
system doesn’t work for you, a thuggish MP can be a powerful ally.

Political parties, along with woefully inadequate campaign-finance
rules, have helped the rise of the thug-candidate. Campaigns are
hugely expensive. Voters need to be wooed with goodies—anything from
hooch to jewels, bikes, bricks and straight-up cash will do. Criminals
fill party coffers rather than drain them, and so are tolerated.

“When Crime Pays” can be grimly amusing. In 2008 government whips
desperate to avoid parliamentary defeat sprung six MPs out of prison
for a few days to get them to cast their votes, never mind the 100-odd
cases of kidnapping, arson, murder and so on that the MPs faced
between them. Some of the gangster-statesmen are straight out of
Bollywood films. A fan of a local politician at one point explains
that his man “is not a murderer. He merely manages murder.” Spare a
thought for the libel lawyers at Yale University Press, Mr Vaishnav’s
brave publisher.

If his book has a defect, it is that the author seeks only to answer
the questions for which he has data. This academic diligence is
laudable, but it narrows the scope of his survey to just one corner of
India’s political moral depths: there is precious little about
corruption in office, for example, beyond pointing out that MPs leave
office vastly richer than when they came in. Perhaps inevitably in a
case where the problems are so deeply entrenched, the book offers few
solutions.

But Mr Vaishnav does spell out the perils of India’s elevation of
lawbreakers to lawmakers. Constituencies represented by crooks suffer
economically. A bigger cost is in the legitimacy of the public sphere
as a whole when even MPs can flout the rule of law so brazenly. The
prime minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged to clean up the system, for
example by recently scrapping large-denomination bank notes, which he
thinks contribute to corruption. One presumes that the 13 alleged
lawbreaking MPs he appointed to his first cabinet (eight of them
facing serious criminal charges) all supported the move.

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