Dr. Milan Vaishnav Visits the Academy


Crime and criminals have always been an integral part of Indian politics. Dr. Milan Vaishnav spoke about his book, “When Crime Pays – Money and Muscle in Indian Politics” at the academy. The book reveals a telling tale about the intersection of crime, politics, money, caste and democracy in India. There are tons of examples of criminals making their way up the electoral ladder in Indian politics and Dr Vaishnav started by giving Pappu Yadav’s example and went on to give many more throughout his presentation. He said that democratic politics should ideally bring in more accountability and should weed out the “bad” guys from the system but this has not been the case with Indian democracy. The number of winning candidates who also face serious criminal charges is on the rise. Dr Vaishnav explained the demand and supply sides of this problem.

On the supply side, he explained the factors that make political parties choose candidates with criminal history He said that money is a major reason and elections in India are costly. During the early years of Indian democracy, criminals were working for mainstream politicians and helping them to mobilise crowds, get funding and capture booths.

However, post the breakdown of the Congress party and the Emergency, many criminals decided to enter the mainstream and become full-time politicians themselves. But, criminals entering the mainstream is just the first step in the supply chain, he said. Political parties field them as candidates for elections because of their winnability. Candidates with serious criminal charges have a 22 percent chance of winning compared to 7 percent for those without such cases.

On the demand side, he explained why voters elect candidates who face serious criminal charges. He said that this is not an information problem. Voters elect criminals despite their criminal pasts because crime translates to credibility. In a country like India where governance is essentially flawed, voters think that criminals can get things done for them. This is where social divisions based on caste and class come in. Voters think that candidates who belong to their community will favour them while allocating resources, act as a medium of social insurance during emergencies, use their coercive powers to get things done and solve disputes. There is a strong relationship between co-ethnic bias and support for candidates with serious criminal charges.


Dr Vaishnav talked about the solutions to this problem in the short and the long runs. Party funding, he said needs to be cleaned up and that India’s election commission is not strong enough to deal with illicit funding. It needs more powers. However, this can only help in the short run. The Indian state is highly bureaucratic in procedural terms and highly unmanned in personnel terms. India has the lowest per capita civil servants in G20 economies. This needs to change.

There are lessons that one can take away from the experience so far. He said that voters shouldn’t be underestimated. Voters are smart enough and know what they are voting for. Hence, transparency is good but not a solution. Providing more information about a candidate’s past doesn’t affect the voter’s propensity to turn out or the choice of candidate.

The money primary can’t be ignored. It means that those who can’t raise enough money are more likely to lose in an electoral race. Money gets you a seat at the table. He concluded his presentation by saying that criminals in politics should be considered a by-product of Indian democracy and not the anti-thesis of it. His presentation was followed by a question and answer session where he answered questions on his book, the methodology followed, his thoughts on the rise of parties like the Aam Aadmi Party and effectiveness of the Indian state.


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Date(s) - 18/02/2017
4:00 pm

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