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Will UP politicians with criminal records allure voters?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-02-2017 Nikita Doval

New Delhi: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Krishnanand Rai was killed in broad daylight in 2005, in what can best be described as a gangster-style murder involving machine guns and motorcycle-borne men. Twelve years later his death is not even a footnote in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh elections, though at least five people connected to Rai are contesting elections.

Prominent among these is Mukhtar Ansari, the main accused in Rai’s murder. Ansari has been behind bars since 2005, but that hasn’t stopped him from winning elections in his home constituency of Mau. In fact, Ansari was an MLA, albeit an independent one, when Rai was murdered.

Also read: Will Mukhtar Ansari play a spoiler for Akhilesh Yadav in UP elections?

Then there is Sanjeev Maheshwari, another accused in the same case who is in prison, but his wife Payal is contesting from Muzaffarnagar on a Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) ticket. Prem Prakash Singh, alias Munna Bajrangi, too is in jail and is accused of the same murder. His wife, Sima, is contesting on an Apna Dal ticket from Madiyahun in Jaunpur.

Amanmani Tripathi, son of former UP minister Amarmani Tripathi, is another example. The father has been behind bars for more than a decade now on charges of murdering his lover, Madhumita Shukla, and now the son, too, has been arrested on charges of murdering his wife Sara. Tripathi junior was supposed to contest on a Samajwadi Party (SP) ticket but it was cancelled following his arrest. He is now contesting as an independent candidate from Maharajganj, Nautanwa. With everyone in the family behind bars, it is now up to the sister, Tanushree Tripathi, to campaign for her brother, who, she insists, has been framed.

All this while, Raja Bhaiya, the MLA from Kunda in Pratapgarh district, continues to enjoy the support of not just the people but also political parties. He was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or Pota in 2002 but the SP dropped all the charges against him after coming to power in 2003. He is a cabinet minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government.

Last month, Delhi-based Association of Democratic Reforms released figures of how many contestants in the ongoing elections have criminal cases against them. According to a piece in Mint, the figures this time represent a drop in the number of candidates with criminal cases. As against 2012, when 32% of candidates had criminal cases against them, this time around, the figure is 20%—168 out of 836 aspirants to political office. The charges range from murder, rape and kidnapping.

Though it seems commonplace today, the winning of elections even while the candidate is in jail is actually a very recent phenomenon.

Hari Shankar Tiwari, a rumoured gangster from Gorakhpur, was the first person to be elected to a legislature while still in jail in 1985. He subsequently served as a cabinet minister in different governments. His son, Bhishshankar Tiwari, was a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP from the Sant Nagar constituency.

“The criminal-politics nexus in India developed in three phases. The first was the criminalization of politics, when politicians approached local strongmen for help. This could be in order to reach out to voters or financially. Then the second phase was the politicization of criminals, when criminals actually started getting into politics. In fact, veteran Congressman Kamalapati Tripathi was the first to raise the issue of criminals entering into politics and declare it disturbing. The third, of course, is the manifestation of this nexus that we are seeing right now,” explained A.K. Verma of the Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur.

Also read: The nawab, the political heir and the commoner lock horns in UP polls

No amount of outrage against the antics of criminals-turned-politicians affects their fortunes because their constituency stays loyal to them. And because they command such loyalty, no political party is willing to alienate them. In fact, they find several takers. In the case of Mukhtar Ansari, no sooner had the SP decided to nullify the merger of his party with theirs, he went over to the BSP, from which, he had been removed in 2010 for “indulging in criminal activities”. It also helps that most of them have incredibly deep pockets and this helps the parties during elections.

There are several reasons for their enduring appeal amid voters. A 2014 paper by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai, on the same subject had paraphrased from a paper written by Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and stated, “…candidates who are suspected of engaging in criminal activity tend to draw support from parties and voters when they represent castes or communities that are vying for local dominance in contexts where ethnic cleavages are highly salient.”

Add to this is the ‘Robin Hood’ image which most have cultivated, making themselves very accessible to voters and enabling them to access the system. “The success of criminals in politics really reflects on the inability of the administration to provide what is promised to the people. Due to reasons ranging from corruption and political biases, goods promised by the state to the citizens, be it law and order or amenities, do not reach them. When the moral and legal authority of the state starts whittling away, we see an emergence of privatized violence,” said P.K. Datta, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Ground reports from constituencies of candidates like that of Ansari reveal that he is thought of highly there because of the help he extends, financial as well as otherwise, to anyone in need.

Akhilesh Yadav has been trying hard to rebuild the image of his party as that of a clean one, where there is no room for goondaraj. Hence, the decision to drop Ansari and Tripathi.

Identity politics is still prominent in Indian elections but slowly it is taking a backseat as development becomes the main agenda, especially among the youth. “And unless you control law and order, development will be a casualty. But it will be some time before we see a complete reversal in the fortunes of the local strongmen,” said Verma.

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