The New York Times
New Delhi

On the campaign trail earlier this year, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, appealed to voters by promising to combat corruption and clean up politics. He was rewarded with a huge national electoral victory as well as success in state elections last month.

Yet on Monday, Mr. Modi substantially reneged on these commitments when he named 21 new members to his cabinet. According to Reuters, the appointees include at least five people charged with such serious offenses as rape and rioting; a total of seven are facing prosecution. Ram Shankar Katheria, who was named junior education minister, has been accused of more than 20 criminal offenses including attempted murder and the promotion of religious or racial hostility.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley dismissed suggestions that there are criminals in the cabinet as “completely baseless.” He drew an odd distinction, telling reporters “these are cases arising out of criminal accusations, not cases of a crime.” Meanwhile, a spokesman for Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said it was up to the courts to decide such cases and attributed many of the charges to political rivalries.

He’s right that the courts should decide guilt or innocence. And it may not be unusual for political rivals to make accusations against one another. It is also true that the over-taxed Indian system often drags prosecutions out for years, delaying justice.

But none of the above means that allegations of criminal wrongdoing should be ignored. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms in India, about one third of federal and state legislators face charges, and — amazingly — politicians facing criminal charges are twice as likely to win election as those who are not.

At a minimum, Mr. Modi’s decision to bring such tainted individuals into his government creates a bad impression and raises legitimate questions among voters who have demanded a government that respects the rule of law.

In a country where many people have lost faith in democratic governance, Mr. Modi also pledged to lead a “small yet effective government.”, Yet his 21 new appointees bring the cabinet to 66, not so very different from that of his last two predecessors. Some argue that since Mr. Modi has effectively centralized power in his office, the cabinet appointees are not that important.

But he told Indians he was a different kind of leader. Is he or is he not?

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