stephanie nolen

He is an accused murderer, kidnapper and extortionist. Brijesh Singh’s résumé is a long and checkered one. He hopes on Tuesday to add another title to the list: member of the legislature.

Mr. Singh, known for more than his political aspirations in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, spent 20 years on the run from police before they finally tracked him down in 2008. He is accused in 39 different criminal cases, and faces 47 charges related to murder alone. But he has assured voters of Saiyadraja constituency from the hustings that none of those pesky charges will keep him from representing them in the state assembly. 

In other democracies the sheer number, not to mention the breadth, of charges against Mr. Singh might serve to undermine his perceived fitness for public office. But in the intensely watched Uttar Pradesh elections, he is no aberration. A statewide study by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a civic watchdog group, has found that 35 per cent of the 2,195 candidates standing for office in the state have declared pending criminal cases.

“If you look at other democracies, you don’t have to be convicted – people like this are shunned. An allegation is enough,” said Anil Bairwal, the association’s national co-ordinator.

The citizens of Uttar Pradesh have been voting in a phased poll for more than a month and results are expected on March 6.

While pervasive corruption and poor governance have been the dominant political issue in India for a year now, this does not appear to have altered the view of UP political parties on whom they should stand for office. The number of candidates accused of criminal activity has increased by 5 per cent in this election compared with the last state vote five years ago.

Every party has people facing criminal charges on its ticket. Fully half of the candidates of the Samajawadi Party, which has a clear lead in exit polls, have criminal charges pending against them. But every party has fielded some. In the current ruling BSP’s list, 35 per cent are facing charges. The Indian National Congress, which rules nationally, has 34 per cent, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the national opposition, has 36 per cent.

While this is a state election and not a national one, it is nevertheless critically important. If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the world’s fifth most populous, with about 170 million citizens. It would also be one of the poorest: It continues to have some of India’s highest rates of malnutrition, infant mortality and other ancient social plagues.

A person who has been convicted of a crime with a sentence of more than two years cannot run for public office in India. But political candidates game the system, said Mr. Bairwal. They appeal their convictions all the way to the Supreme Court, which can take 20 years in the glacial pace of judicial process in India. “In the meantime these guys go on doing on their thing,” he said.

Holding public office officially offers no immunity, but has the effect of further stalling prosecutions, since few police officers or prosecutors see much career benefit in going after a powerful political figure.

In the national elections in 2009, three quarters of all constituencies had at least one candidate running who faced criminal charges. This vote in Uttar Pradesh has riveted national attention because the Congress and its leader-in-waiting – Gandhi family scion Rahul – have staked their fortunes on it. Mr. Gandhi is not running, as he already represents a rural riding in Uttar Pradesh in the national parliament.

Nevertheless, he has campaigned relentlessly. His party hasn’t been able to win many seats there in years, and he is using the state as a proving ground to show he can lead Congress to victory as its next prime ministerial candidate. If Congress can carry UP this time, it will be a huge boon on the national level at a time when the coalition government is foundering.

Mr. Gandhi has put himself forward as a clean leader, contrasting himself with the ruling chief minister, Mayawati. She is one of the most intriguing figures in Indian politics, a woman from the Dalit community, once known as “untouchables,” who has deftly played caste politics to three times win the chief minister’s job. Her own administration faces a raft of corruption charges, but her stalwart support base, happy to see one of their own do so well, appears not to mind.

The Association also closely tracks the reported wealth of candidates, who are obliged to declare their cash and durable assets when they file their nomination papers. While UP is one of India’s poorest states, 48 per cent of candidates are “crorepatis,” or people worth more than a crore, or 10 million rupees.

Sanjay Singh, an activist who works with the Uttar Pradesh Election Watch, another civic group, pointed out that that’s nearly double the number of crorepatis in the last poll. “Politics is in people’s service, but in the Indian context politics is basically a business,” he said.

Many candidates are incumbents. And these show an average of 194 per cent growth in their assets while sitting as MPs for the last four years.

While there are candidates with huge asset increases and criminal cases pending in every election, UP is far and away the worst, he added – because law and order is weak and creates a space where this is acceptable, and because a long tradition of dirty politics has nurtured a culture of “musclemen.” The critical problem is that the political parties are themselves highly undemocratic, with no transparent process of choosing candidates. “The party heads think the musclemen or rich people will win – or they buy their seats,” Mr. Bairwal said. “The people don’t want them to contest or to re-elect them – but people vote on party lines.”

Sanjay Singh, however, sees a small cause for optimism. “The positive thing in this election is an increase in the voting percentage of youth: Youth don’t like criminal record candidates,” he said. “They vote for honest people.”

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