UP Election 2017: As long as structural weaknesses exist, criminals will continue to rule politics

"Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin... namumkin hai," Amitabh Bachchan had warned us in 1978. Nearly 40 years later, the underlying message of the dialogue — that law-flouters still lord it over law-abiders — is a truism that defines every sphere of Indian polity and politics. If anything, it has grown stronger.

The latest round of familiar (and futile) outrage on the nexus between crime and politics has been triggered by Mayawati's move to welcome gangster-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari and his clan into the Bahujan Samaj Party and to give them tickets for the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Announcing the merger of Mukhtar's Quami Ekta Dal with BSP, Mayawati has said the Purvanchal MLA — who has been named in over 40 criminal cases including multiple murders, extortion, kidnapping, rioting and is now in jail — is a lesser goon because there are "bigger goondas in other parties".

Tough logic to repudiate.

For good measure, Mayawati has spun the re-induction of 'Don Mukhtar' — accused of killing BJP MLA Krishnanand Rai in 2005 — into the BSP fold as a 'reformative' step. Talking to reporters at her Lucknow residence on Thursday while announcing the recruitment of Ansari and his brothers Sigbatullah and Afzal, and son Abbas, Mayawati claimed that if someone had "lost his way", it is only fair that the "repentant" soul gets another "chance" to "improve". In any case, declared the Dalit icon referring to BJP MLA Rai's murder, this is a grand political conspiracy because Mukhtar was "framed" by the SP.

File image of Mukhtar Ansari (centre). PTI

File image of Mukhtar Ansari (centre). PTI

It is another matter that Alka Rai, the widow of Krishnanand — who was gunned down in broad daylight in Allahabad — told The Economic Times that "Mukhtar and his brother Afzal killed my husband, an MLA, and Mayawati now says the cases against Mukhtar are false! Does Mayawati know that the ongoing court trial against them is nearing completion? Now just for vote bank politics, Mayawati has done this. How will she ensure safety for anyone?" Rai is contesting on a BJP ticket and will take on Ansari's brother Sigbatullah.

Interestingly, in 2010, Mayawati had expelled Mukhtar and his brother Afzal (both of whom were then in jail in connection with Rai's murder) from BSP for their "involvement in criminal activities" and for failing "to live up to the expectations of the BSP where he (Mukhtar) was given entry on the promise that he would mend his ways".

Mayawati's latest move, therefore, lends itself to two explanations.

One, she is steeped in the milk of human kindness and is determined to 'reform' the characters of even hard core criminals by allowing them several chances at atonement.

Or two, Ansari wields influence over a community that the BSP supremo is anxious to woo.

The tickets to Ansari, his brother Sigbatullah and son Abbas takes to 100 her nomination of Muslim candidates and gives an indication of the extent of her desperation to engineer a Dalit-Muslim combination. No mainstream political party in the history of Uttar Pradesh politics has given so many tickets to Muslim candidates. The BSP chief's maths is simple enough. Although the Samajwadi Party seems to have brightened its prospects of retaining its core Muslim vote bank after retaining the 'cycle' under Akhilesh Yadav and stitching an alliance with the Congress, Mayawati hopes to succeed if she is able to wean away a sizable chunk of the minority votes along with her own base of Dalits who account for 21 percent of the population. As The Times of India points out, the Ansari brothers wield considerable clout in eastern Uttar Pradesh districts of Mau, Ghazipur, Ballia and Varanasi.

Amid all these permutations and combinations, the question that hangs heavy is the one pertaining to criminalisation of Indian politics. On this count, none are clean.

Having rejected Ansari's overtures to join the Samajwadi Party, if Akhilesh now positions himself (as he surely would) as the 'harbinger' of clean politics, one needs only to remind him of his party's illustrious past even under his watch. His tenure as chief minister has been dogged by numerous charges of abject law-and-order breakdowns and Samajwadi Party rule came to be synonymous with "goonda raj".

To recall, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Atiq Ahmed was fielded by the Samajwadi Party from the Sultanpur seat. Ahmed, who had 43 criminal cases against his name, twirled his moustache and boasted that he has "more criminal cases than Varun Gandhi's age" when NDTV had asked him about his likely duel with the BJP leader.

During last year's West Bengal Assembly elections, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had shared the stage with a convicted Trinamool Congress leader and sympathised with him by calling him "bechara" (poor soul). Mohammad Sohrab Ali, who had won from Bengal's Raniganj in 2011 on a TMC ticket, was convicted by a lower court in a railway scrap theft case. Mamata stood beside him during a rally and gave the party ticket to his wife, proclaiming that the CPM had wrongly blamed and framed him.

Beneath the underlying caste and community mathematics that govern such decisions from political parties, the problem is structural. There is no real incentive for politicians and parties to deny tickets to history-sheeters. On the other hand, criminals very often enjoy huge amount of influence by way of money and power over other candidates.

If there is a perversion of morality, it doesn't matter because voters place greater premium on candidates who will be able to work a corrupt system better instead of candidates who may be clean but won't be as effective.

According to Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, the criminal-politics nexus in India is an inevitable result of a structural fault that came about because democracy and suffrage were introduced much before Indian institutions could be strengthened. The resultant weakness, he says, in a Reuters interview, is easily exploited by criminals.

Vaishnav, whose forthcoming book When Crime Pays tackles the question of money and muscle in Indian politics, says criminals have filled the gap left by ineptitude of governments.

"Governance has simply not been able to keep up with the pace of rapid economic, political, and social change. This has opened up a gap between what citizens demand of the state and what the state is able to deliver. Whereas the West built institutions before democratising, India embarked on both journeys simultaneously. Layered on top of this, India boasts tremendous ethnic and religious diversity, which politicians can skillfully manipulate to slice and dice the electorate", he explains.

Although law may play a part and the judiciary has shown increasing activism to cleanse politics, legal censure cannot be a foolproof method. Even if the law prevents a tainted candidate from contesting elections, politicians are smart enough to circumvent the 'problem' by distributing tickets to next of kin. Therefore, there is a greater need to improve the capabilities of institutions and ensure that governments perform efficiently, which will ultimately reduce the need for voters to back tainted candidates.

That is, however, easier said than done.

Published Date: Jan 27, 2017 15:12 PM | Updated Date: Jan 27, 2017 15:17 PM

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