Crime, intimidation and politicsWhen does crime pay? In an ideal world, the reply might have been “never.” But we do not live in an ideal world.
When does crime pay? In an ideal world, the reply might have been “never.” But we do not live in an ideal world. In our world, not only does crime pay bountifully, but as the political scientist Rajni Kothari puts it, we today have a culture where there is a “politicisation of criminals.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in India, the world’s largest democracy, where the deep and oftentimes casual interplay between politics and crime fails to raise eyebrows anymore.
The politicisation of crime, however, is not just an Indian problem. Post-1990 Nepal has borrowed heavily from the best and the worst attributes of the Indian democracy, and here too, it is not surprising that ‘crime’ pays well for politicians, even as the aspirations of the masses keep falling by the wayside. A multi-party democracy, be it India or Nepal, has to accept the wisdom of the electorates who make or break the fortunes of the democratic processes. Now, author Milan Vaishnav’s new book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics seeks to delve into how crime and politics became so seamlessly entwined and to understand the factors that make voters forgive politicians. In the book, the author is not seeking to make the moral question of whether criminality is an automatic disqualifier for anyone aspiring to public office, but rather how such a history primes them to maintain a certain edge over competition, helping them thrive in mainstream politics.
The seasoned researcher that he is, Vaishnav relies on case studies while decoding the thriving nexus of politics, money and muscle. Making use of the database of candidates’ self-disclosures, which India’s Election Commission has maintained since 2003, the author has crunched together data from 60,000 candidates spread across 35 State elections and two Parliamentary elections. Interviews and intensive outreach studies further enable the author to present a book that is extraordinary and purposeful—which despite being centred on Indian politics is universal in its application. In Nepal, for instance, the grim picture painted by the author is just as true, the only difference being the size of the electorate and the scale of the crime’s economy.
The book’s primary merit lies in the fact that it lays bare the claims of free and fair elections in India. Not only are elections not fair or free, the book proposes, but the processes is so steeped in a culture of violence, intimidation and crime that they are a mockery of the democratic system. At the heart of this heaving beast of a problem, according to Vaishnav, is the lack of transparency when it comes to electoral funding. The expensive nature of elections also pushes politicians into extreme competition—but this is not a competition of ideas and action plans, but rather of money and muscles—which results in the hollowing out of the very core of a democracy.
While well-researched and presented, When Crime Pays is not without its faults. One drawback is that the book does not delve into a territory as crucial as the misuse of media or of public relations during elections. Never in the history of parliamentary democracy has conventional and new media been misappropriated as it is now. In a world ruled by opportunists, truth continues to be distorted beyond recognition, influencing voters with an avalanche of non-issues instead. These antics, to a large extent, shape voting patterns in favour of political parties and actors that have better channels that feed it to starving media outlets under pressure from the 27/7 news cycle.
Another aspect the book should have explored is the “mass anger” that gives traction to the criminalisation of politics, and the rise and condoning of local “Robin Hoods”, who hide their criminality under the guise of “taking from the rich and giving to the poor.” For the case studies, Vaishanav using a few criminals turned politicians from Bihar make sense but a discussion into the changing nature of crime—where old-timer criminals are being outpaced by new sophisticated entrants—might have served the overall narrative.
In fact, there is merit to the argument that the definition of “crime” in itself needs to be revisited, as modern-day crime is so well-organised and thoroughly proofed that merely classifying it as “money and muscle” only paints half the picture. It is perhaps a great irony that the “most sinful crimes” easily pass as regular over-the-counter dealings, begging the question of if there needs to be not just an overhaul of the system, but also a new way of approaching crime and politics.
This book is helpful in unearthing such trends, and while its contents might not be a great revelation to politicians or their electorate alike, it will make for an interesting read as Nepal begins to catch the election-fever three times over this year.
Thakur is a New Delhi based journalist; he can be reached at email@example.com.