INDIA’S last parliament was a flop. It failed to pass many laws, press for needed reforms or even to sit for long. It did little to hold the government to account for corruption. It left the public so fed up with their politicians that many preferred to protest in the street.
It failed for various reasons. Parliamentarians are cowed by their parties. Defections are forbidden. Strict hierarchy, especially within regional outfits that are vehicles for satraps, closes down independent thought. Politicians, too, are prone to India’s unhealthy culture of deference to the powerful. Unhelpfully India’s prime minister of ten years, Manmohan Singh, was never elected to the lower house, only being nominated to the upper one. As shoddy, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blocked debate and frequently boycotted or disrupted the house.
April 24th marked the last day for nominations in the current general election to form the next parliament. At least, this time, the prime minister is likely to get a spot in the lower house. Among the last to submit papers was the frontrunner Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP, as candidate for Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh (he is also standing for a constituency in his home state of Gujarat, just in case). The same day saw the sixth of nine rounds of voting, with polls in a dozen states. The election, protracted beyond reason, nears its final phase.
One question is whether candidates this time are turning out to be any more attractive than last time. Sadly too many, as before, turn out to be dynasts, crooks, celebrities or time-wasters. Thanks to a civil-activist outfit, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), much is made public about them. It won two Supreme Court rulings just over a decade ago, forcing would-be parliamentarians to give details of their education, wealth and criminal past. The hope was for transparency as a disinfectant, that voters who knew of shady details would switch to better candidates. So far they have not.
Information abounds. For example, of 6,672 aspiring MPs whose details have so far been assessed by ADR, 90 declared themselves illiterate. It is also revealing how much money entwines with politics. Over a quarter of all candidates say they are crorepatis, with 10,000,000 rupees to their name or more ($164,000), quite a lot in a country still mostly poor. The richest of the lot is Nandan Nilekani, with assets of $1.5 billion, who contests for Congress in Bangalore. He at least prospered before politics, as co-founder of Infosys, a successful tech firm.
More troubling are those whose riches soared after election. The courts have spent the past 18 years hearing a case against Jayaram Jayalalitha, the once and current chief minister of Tamil Nadu (pictured, larger than life in the maroon sari), over her having amassed some 67 crore rupees ($11m) between 1991 and 1996. The prosecutors want to know how she did it. In any case Miss Jayalalitha is hardly alone in striking it rich while in office. The assets of Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (not a candidate herself this time) rose tenfold in the past decade, to a declared $22m.
Yet voters do not disapprove of get-rich-quick politicians—probably the reverse. Trilochan Sastry, a founder of ADR, says candidates with lots of money, even those accused of criminality, fare well. “We started putting out data on criminals, but parties continued to put them up as candidates and they kept winning”, he says. Though the Supreme Court has banned convicts from parliament, “the system in India doesn’t allow talented people to rise to the top”, he says.
Voters may be acting rationally in backing crooks when the state functions badly, argues Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment. Voters “pick them not in spite of criminality, but because of it” he says. This time some 17% of assessed candidates face criminal charges, a slight increase on 2009. For many these include serious cases, including murder and rape. But voters know and are not put off, seeing candidates’ rule-breaking as a signal of competence or strength, “an ability to get things done”, concludes Mr Vaishnav.
Some parties make it a virtue. The Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party has fielded two activist-candidates in Tamil Nadu, with over 760 criminal charges between them, a record. Among other things S.P. Udayakumar and M. Pushparayan are accused of “waging war” against India, sedition, and obstructing the work of bureaucrats. These cases were at least earned for a principle, in a campaign against a nuclear power plant in the southern state.
More commonly, it is suspected gangsters who take first to local politics, then national, while seeking legal protection and social status. In Varanasi Congress’s bald-headed candidate, Ajai Rai, sits among supporters and calls himself “a son of the soil”. The strongman faces nine pending criminal cases, including two filed under a special “gangster act”. A rival, now withdrawn, was to have been Mukhtar Ansari. He had planned to contest from Agra prison, where he awaits trial for allegedly murdering another politician and also for connections to organised crime.
Elsewhere luvvies get the crowds, and not just the film-star-turned-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Miss Jayalalitha. Celebrity is an increasingly worn path to politics because such candidates draw big rallies in ways most traditional politicians struggle to do. In West Bengal the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is fielding several actors and models, including Moon Moon Sen, a Bengali actress and the daughter of another generation’s superstar, for whom long stretches of rural roads are watered before she drives them, to avoid getting dust in her eyes. Rakhi Sawant, a Bollywood “item girl” whose main role in films is to pose with little on, is contesting as an independent in Mumbai. Voters seem keen to get a glimpse of them.
Not all are lightweights. A well-known soap-opera actress, Smriti Irani, is the BJP candidate against Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s scion, in Amethi constituency. Her fame draws interest but she also has pedigree as a senior party worker. Another candidate there, the AAP’s Kumar Vishwas, is a romantic poet and anti-corruption campaigner. Hema Malini is an actress who starred in “Sholay”, arguably the biggest blockbuster in Bollywood history. Though she converted to Islam in 1980, these days she raises a sabre at rallies for the Hindu-nationalist BJP. In Chandigarh a former Miss India, Gul Panag, is contesting for the AAP. Just possibly voters are as attracted to her anti-corruption views as to her past as a model.
Yet the collective impact of celebrity on politics, assuming more actually get elected, is almost certain to mean a weaker legislature. An analysis in Mint newspaper finds that as a group “artists”, meaning actors, musicians and writers, have the poorest attendance record in parliament. In Phulpur, the constituency of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a lawyer and hero of the independence movement, Congress now puts forward a former batsman of the national cricket team, Mohammad Kaif. Other sportsmen include a rare Olympic medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore (in Rajasthan for the BJP) and one of India’s best footballers, Baichung Bhutia (in Darjeeling, for Ms Banerjee’s party).
Sportsmen are not necessarily less able than, for example, children of existing politicians. But celebrity candidates are chosen first to whip up crowds and stir excitement in the campaign, not because of any particular qualification to do the job well. Nonetheless, something similar can be said of dynasts. The trend of politicians trying to get sons and other relations elected continues unabated.
Two-fifths of Congress’s candidates in Rajasthan, for example, are close family members of political figures. In Uttar Pradesh Mr Gandhi—among the most silent and inactive of all MPs in his first decade in parliament—is just one of four candidates from the Gandhi dynasty (two Congress, two BJP) in the state. The president, Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, and the agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, all have children contesting parliamentary seats. Bloodlines in democracy may be no worse than celebrity, criminality or ill-explained wealth. If only merit were a bigger consideration too.
(Picture credit: AFP)