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Prime Minister Narendra Modi is eternally in election mode. He cannot resist the temptation of attacking the domestic opposition in speeches even when he is travelling abroad.

With the Modi magic, which is given credit for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 success, waning and the next elections only 10 months away, he has raised the campaign pitch and sharpened his barbs.

Addressing a meeting last weekend, Modi described the Congress, the main opposition party, as an “out-on-bail club”, an allusion to the fact that several of its leaders are on bail in various court cases.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his mother and former party president Sonia Gandhi are on bail in a case relating to alleged irregularities in the transfer of shares of a newspaper company controlled by the family. The case was instituted by Subramanian Swamy, a BJP MP.

Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram is awaiting the court’s decision on his application for anticipatory bail in a case of alleged money laundering. His son, Karti, is already on bail after being arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation last February. Chidambaram told the court that the Modi government was carrying on politically motivated vendetta against him and his son.

Last week former Minister Shashi Tharoor obtained anticipatory bail from a Delhi court after the police charged him with abetting the suicide of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar. She had died under mysterious circumstances four and a half years ago.

There is nothing in Indian parliamentary history to suggest that criminal cases and court proceedings harm a candidate’s electoral prospects. On the contrary, a study conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEP), two civil society groups, in 2013, indicated that candidates with a criminal past are more likely to win.

At the time of the 2014 elections BJP President Amit Shah was out on bail in two alleged fake encounter cases dating back to the time when he was a minister in Modi’s Gujarat Cabinet. Modi’s own name was cleared only two years earlier by the Special Investigation Team which had gone into the anti-Muslim riots of 2002, saying “no offence has been established”.

It was on a petition filed by ADR that the Supreme Court made it mandatory for every candidate to file, along with the nomination papers, a sworn affidavit giving particulars about his assets and criminal cases against him, if any.

After analysing the affidavits filed by those who contested three Lok Sabha elections, ADR reported a rise in the number of MPs with criminal records from 24 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2009 and 34 per cent on 2014. The number of candidates facing serious crimes, such as murder, attempted murder, banditry and crimes against women, went up from 11 per cent in 2004 to 15 per cent in 2009 and 21 per cent in 2014. 

Modi was obviously relying on the notoriously short public memory when he alluded to the cases in which Congress leaders are involved. Of the 186 MPs with criminal records elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014, as many as 98 belonged to the BJP. Congress MPs facing criminal charges numbered only eight.

The BJP MPs involved in criminal cases included Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya from Uttar Pradesh. Both resigned later to become the state’s Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively.

An ADR analysis showed that 45 per cent of Adityanath’s Cabinet colleagues were facing criminal cases. One of the Cabinet’s first acts was to withdraw about 20,000 cases, including those against the Chief Minister, the Deputy Chief Minister and the ministers, saying they were politically motivated cases.

The argument about political motivation cannot be dismissed out of hand. State governments routinely slap cases on Opposition leaders in connection with agitations. The worst sufferers of this practice, however, are not those belonging to the mainline parties but social activists spearheading popular agitations.

The case of SP Udayakumar, who was Aam Admi Party’s candidate in Kanyakumari in the 2014 elections is a classic example. Leader of the largely peaceful agitation against the Koodamkulam nuclear project, he topped the list of candidates facing criminal charges with 382 cases, including 19 of attempted murder and 16 of sedition.

However, the political motivation argument cannot cloud the BJP’s links with criminal elements. One of Modi’s ministerial colleagues, Giriraj Singh, visited a Bihar jail last week to commiserate with the accused in a case of communal rioting. Another, Jayant Sinha, was photographed garlanding eight men convicted in a lynching case in Jharkhand, when they visited him after getting bail from the High Court pending a decision on their appeals.

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