Yamini Lohia
New Delhi

The brouhaha over the Bharatiya Janata Party’s cynical and transparent attempt to cash in on a corrupt, criminal politician’s vote bank shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. The BJP accepted into its fold Babu Singh Kushwaha, an Uttar Pradesh minister under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for his links to a scam connected to the National Rural Health Mission, which resulted in the murders of two medical officers. Even the Bahujan Samaj Party found reason to sack him.

The surprise isn’t that the BJP should take on a politician so tainted; rather, what’s odd is that this choice has been the subject of such derision. Political parties field candidates with serious criminal records with such depressing regularity that the volume of dissent the BJP had to deal with regarding Kushwaha is surely an aberration, no doubt a result of the party’s vociferous support of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement and the infamous culmination of the Jan Lokpal bill debate in the Rajya Sabha. But while Team Anna’s protests led to this one politician being subject to great scrutiny, corruption and criminality in political life in India is endemic, as a recent Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) report suggests.

ADR, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to create accountability and transparency in the political process in India, collaborated with National Election Watch (a nationwide campaign comprising of more than 1200 NGOs and other citizen-led organizations working on electoral reforms) to publish a list of the candidates running for the 2012 UP Assembly elections. From the 600+ candidates announced by the major political parties so far – with the notable omission of the BSP – the election watch found 77 candidates to have criminal records. It is worth noting that the election watch was only able to find affidavits for 248 of the candidates, meaning that a third of the candidates contesting the UP elections have criminal records. According to the report, almost half of the candidates with criminal records are facing serious criminal charges.

What this implies is that despite the anti-corruption mood sweeping across the country manifesting in intense citizen antipathy to politics and politicians and the pressure put on the government to introduce some measure of transparency in politics, political parties remain impervious. There is no change forthcoming, because ultimately these parties have little incentive to field candidates who are interested in public office as more than a way to get rich quick and exercise power. As long as candidates, criminal or otherwise, deliver the votes, party leadership is not motivated to act to field better, less thuggish candidates. We need more than a Jan Lokpal to right this perverse set of circumstances. We need voters who will punish representatives for performing badly, or for being criminals. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely, for more reasons than just irrational voter behavior or a lack of proper voter information.

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