New Delhi
India elections
Campaign bunting hangs outside a shop for in Bangalore, India. Some charges against candidates may be unfounded, as judicial process is often used to smear political opponents. Photograph: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

Almost a fifth of candidates in India's upcoming elections are facing criminal charges including rape, murder and extortion, according to research published on Wednesday.

The analysis of the records of 1,492 candidates contesting more than 120 seats in the country's 545-seat lower house will provoke further concern about the"criminalisation" of politics in the world's biggest democracy.

The first of 815 million eligible voters will go to the polls on Monday. The election – phased over six weeks to allow successive redeployment of security personnel – has been described by analysts as the most important for decades.

It pits the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), against Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of the country's most famous political dynasty and the face of the Congress party, which is seeking a third term in power. A series of polls have put Modi and the BJP ahead.

The charges study was released by the thinktank the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADF), and were based on electoral declarations filed by the candidates.

"You can't have lawbreakers making laws for society. Earlier we only had anecdotal evidence. Now we have hard facts and that makes doing something about it easier," said Prof Jaydeep Chhokar of the ADR.

Some charges may be unfounded, as judicial process is often used to smear political opponents, and police in many states are highly corrupt.

"Heinous crimes are one thing, but a lot of the other charges are made just to defame someone. There should at least be a conviction in a higher court before ending someone's career," said one government minister on Wednesday night.

But Chhokar said he expected the proportion of candidates facing charges to rise as the declarations of thousands more were examined. "We expect between 20 to 30% of candidates to have charges against them. I hope it isn't so high but realistically it probably will be," he said.

Of the candidates analysed so far, 269 (18%) have declared criminal cases against them. The highest proportion came from the BJP, the study found, but 17% were from the newly formed Aam Admi party, which is campaigning on an anti-corruption and transparency platform.

The study covered about half of India's 35 states and union territories. Of these, Kerala – the southern state known for relatively high levels of development – had the highest proportion of candidates facing charges – though generally most are accused of less serious offensives than politicians elsewhere.

In Delhi, 23 candidates campaigning for seven seats face charges. Thirteen are accused of serious crimes that carry a jail sentence of more than five years.

Almost a third of members of the last parliament have criminal cases pending – more than in the one elected in 2004 when the proportion was 24%.

According to Milan Vaishnav, a specialist in Indian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, voters often support politicians with criminal records, rather than shunning them.

"There are a lot of issues of corruption but that is distinct from criminality. Criminals may be broadly negative in terms of general social welfare but for one section of society can be very positive," he said.

Last year a rift developed within the Congress party when the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, issued an ordinance contradicting a supreme court order banning many convicted politicians from public office. Gandhi publicly spoke against the order which was quietly withdrawn.

Shortly after the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012, the ADR released data showing that hundreds of men accused of sexual violence towards women had been allowed to stand in Indian elections in the previous five years, including more than 30 charged with rape.

Although most were contesting state elections, the thinktank found dozens male candidates facing criminal investigations for assault, "outraging the modesty of a woman" and other charges had been selected by main parties to campaign for seats in the national assembly.

Many of the politicians facing rape allegations came from impoverished northern states with poor records for law and order, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

In 2010 Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, said more needed to be done to combat "the influence of money and muscle power.. ... [and] to prevent individuals with a criminal record from contesting elections".

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