Mukhtar Ansari has been in jail since 2005, charged with ordering a rival’s murder by hit men who pumped 400 bullets into the victim’s car. He doesn’t expect that or more than 30 other charges to bounce him out of his day job as a state legislator.
From behind bars, Ansari predicted he would be re-elected with a majority in monthlong polls whose results were to be announced on Tuesday in Uttar Pradesh, a 900-kilometer swath of northern India stretching southeast from New Delhi.
He has reason to be confident given his three consecutive elections to the region’s legislature since 1996, twice from prison.
“Anyone I killed got what they deserved but it’s not like I have killed a busload of people,” Ansari, 51, said as he sat in his Agra cell on Jan. 30. “The poor need my protection. I only fight against the powerful.”
Ansari is an extreme embodiment of the growing criminality among politicians across the world’s largest democracy.
More than a quarter of federal and state legislators face charges that also include rape, kidnapping and fraud, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which has campaigned for better governance since 1999.
Their presence in office drives out business and hinders improvement in the potholed roads and failing education and health services that weigh on Asia’s second-fastest-growing major economy, according to S.Y. Quraishi, the head of India’s Election Commission.
“Criminal politicians are a deep and growing cancer in our democracy,” Quraishi said in a Feb. 17 interview. “How can our economy reach its potential when politicians rob the country rather than invest in it?”
Politicians on trial or facing charges are free to run for office in India, where the Ministry of Law and Justice says criminal cases last for an average of 15 years.
India’s Law Ministry and the election commission are considering proposals to bar candidates if a court has charged them with offenses that carry a sentence of five years or more.
Ansari’s murder trial has been on hiatus since 2008 after the Supreme Court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the case. Charges of kidnapping and firing an AK-47 at a police commissioner have been dismissed by courts, and he has never been convicted of a crime.
Ansari said he had a band of 18,000 supporters to carry out orders he sends from jail using mobile phones and scribbled notes, in contravention of prison rules. Each week, 30 messengers arrive with news from his constituency, 570 kilometers to the east of Agra, he said.
In a sign of his clout, Ansari has been transferred among a dozen jails over the last six years amid authorities’ concerns he will take over the prisons, he said. In Ghazipur jail, where he was held in 2008, he had a volleyball court built and was allowed to slaughter goats to liven up prison meals, he said.
An official reached by phone at Ghazipur jail who declined to give his name said a volleyball court did exist while Ansari served time there and that it has since been removed.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with about 200 million people, supplies a seventh of all lawmakers in the lower house of the national parliament.
The state’s assembly is also the most crime-ridden of the five holding elections this year: 143 of 403 existing members have been formally charged by a court, the ADR says. Ten judges, including a former Indian chief justice, sit on the ADR’s advisory committee, along with two former chief election commissioners.
H.S. Gandhi, a former director at now-defunct Rajinder Steels in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, saw his company ruined by the police and government failure to tackle organized crime.
“The mafia would ask for a 50 percent cut from each contract and the government would want 20 percent, which made it impossible for us to invest money,” he said on Jan. 17. “What was once a promising young steel company was sacrificed to sustain a culture of greed and corruption.”
Gandhi said he didn’t go to the police for help because they were involved in the racket.
Ansari, meanwhile, has his sights set on winning a seat in the national parliament in elections scheduled for 2014. “I will be out of jail by then, which guarantees that I am going to win,” he said. “This is just the start of my political career.”