The more things change, the more they stay the same. Is that what has befallen India's politics and the political class? A few weeks ago, there was considerable excitement over the proposed ordinance that was to nullify the Supreme Court order disqualifying legislators once they were convicted of criminal charges with a punishment of more than two years. It seemed then that all political parties understood the popular mood against corruption and the need for all politicians and legislators to maintain probity in public life. The idea of the ordinance was dropped and it soon became clear that no political party would revive it in that form.
Yet, the list of candidates contesting elections in the current round of Assembly polls shows that not much has changed with regard to political parties' approach to candidates with a criminal track record. In the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections alone, 113 of 983 candidates, or a little over 11 per cent, are said to have criminal cases pending against them. Data compiled and made available by the Association for Democratic Reforms also show that 66 of these candidates are involved in serious cases such as murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women.
Note that it is not just the candidates who are indifferent towards the law and its possible consequences. Even the major political parties do not seem to believe that fielding candidates with pending criminal cases might be politically risky. You might argue that the 113 candidates in Chhattisgarh who are contesting the elections are hopeful that none of the charges levelled against them will withstand the scrutiny of the courts and that they would be eventually acquitted. Even if one may understand the logic of that argument, what about the political parties? Did they have an option to look for candidates with no such political risks of disqualification? Or are candidates without criminal charges in short supply?
Consider the following data: almost 15 per cent of the candidates fielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in Chhattisgarh, have criminal cases against them; the share of such candidates fielded by the Congress in the state is even higher, at 20 per cent. Remember that the overall share of candidates with criminal cases for Chhattisgarh is only 11 per cent. Of course, the BJP and the Congress might argue that the charges against their candidates are flimsy or motivated by their opponents to destroy their political career. But the trend this indicates is obvious. Major political parties in India do not yet want to distance themselves completely from candidates with criminal charges against them. Isn't this strange when the same political parties raised a hue and cry over the proposed ordinance to nullify the Supreme Court order and supported the idea of dropping it for good?
Take a look at the disclosure of assets made by the candidates as required by the Election Commission. Most of the sitting candidates have seen a huge increase in their assets in the last five years. The increase is much higher than inflation and the growth in per capita income of an average Indian in this period. Clearly, legislators seem to be growing their wealth at a healthy pace, much faster than the rate at which ordinary Indians can. One example should give an indication. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh had declared in 2008 that his total assets were valued at Rs 1.04 crore. In 2013, just five years later, Mr Singh's declared assets are valued at Rs 5.61 crore - higher by 440 per cent.
The Election Commission had insisted on assets disclosure by candidates contesting elections in the hope that this would deter politicians or legislators from misusing their position to amass wealth. Such data are now regularly available, but no corrective action seems to be on the cards so far. It is almost a re-run of the way the political class behaved in the wake of the Supreme Court order on disqualifying legislators after conviction in a serious criminal case. Let there be the law or the disclosure requirement, but why should a politician behave differently?
It is this callous approach that, among other things, has given rise to anti-corruption movements like the one led by Kisan Baburao Hazare or the birth of a political outfit such as Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Mr Kejriwal has ensured that the candidates he nominates to contest the polls are free from any criminal charges. If the AAP succeeds in winning a decent number of seats in the forthcoming Delhi Assembly polls, its ability to be different in offering candidates with a clean reputation would certainly be a major factor.
The irony, however, is that in spite of that head start the AAP is likely to get from this move, its promises are disappointing and not much different from those that the traditional political parties have been making for years. Free water, reduction in power tariffs by half and regularisation of unauthorised colonies in the Capital are promises that remind you of the mainstream political parties. Such promises can get some votes, but they are intrinsically bad policies. Fortunately for the country, most of them remain unfulfilled, but those that get implemented cause several problems for sustainable governance. It would be a pity if the AAP also fell prey to the pressures of electoral politics to win votes.