What makes criminals tick in politics

Written by Bhaskar Dutta | Poonam Gupta | Updated: Jan 29 2013, 06:03am hrs
It is now well-known that the nexus between Indian politicians and criminals has assumed alarming proportions. Roughly a fourth of the members of the current Lok Sabha (the lower house of the national Parliament) face pending criminal charges.

A similar situation prevails in the various state assemblies. Many of the members of the national Parliament or state assemblies have been indicted with serious charges, including murder. Not surprisingly, this has attracted increasing attention in both the media as well as in academic research. It has also attracted official attention with the appointment of an independent commission to analyse the phenomenon and suggest remedial measures.

The only legal measure designed to prevent the influx of criminals into Parliament and the state assemblies is the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. This Act specifies that candidates will be barred from contesting an election on conviction by a court of law. The period of disqualification is for six years from the date of conviction, or from the date of release from prison, depending on the severity of the charge. Unfortunately, this law hardly has any bite because of the well-known infirmities in the Indian judicial system. In particular, governments typically drag their feet when it comes to prosecuting local elites. Even when cases are registered, inordinate judicial delay implies that these cases drag on, seemingly indefinitely.

This is why the Election Commission had proposed in 2004 that the Representation of the People Act, 1951 should be amended to disqualify candidates accused of offences which carry sentences of five years or more as soon as a court deems that charges can be framed against the person. However, the Lok Sabha itself would be required to pass appropriate legislation to implement the Election Commissions suggestion. Obviously, such legislation is against the interests of a large number of politicians, and so it is not surprising that the Election Commissions proposal has not been implemented.

A landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in 2002 required every candidate contesting state and national elections to submit a legal affidavit disclosing his or her personal, educational qualifications, as well as information about personal wealth and importantly their criminal record. The court also stipulated that wide publicity should be given to the contents of the affidavits so that the electorate can take an informed decision about who to elect to the assemblies and Parliaments. Unfortunately, the Supreme Courts order does not seem to have had much impact in so far as the influx of legislators with criminal indictment is concerned.

The continuing entry of large numbers of candidates with criminal records into Indian legislatures raises several questions. First, why do parties nominate such candidates Given the huge demand for party tickets, the nomination of candidates with criminal records suggests that such candidates must possess some electoral advantage. We discuss some hypotheses which have been suggested to explain this electoral advantage. Second, what is the economic effect of electing candidates with a criminal record Third, what is the response of voters to candidates who have reported that they have criminal charges against them

A somewhat cursory look at the data by simply looking at the ratio of winning candidates to number of contesting candidates amongst the criminal and non-criminal groups suggests that criminal candidates have a higher probability of winning. Perhaps, this has given rise to the feeling that criminals have an electoral advantage. The following from Aidt et al (2011) is representative of the prevailing view: Criminals, we show, boast an extraordinary electoral advantage in India.

We examine this issue within the framework of an analytical model which assumes that criminal charges do give rise to some stigma amongst the electorate. This stigma has a negative effect on vote shares since voters are less likely to vote for candidates who have criminal charges levied against them. Campaigning, the cost of which is borne from candidates wealth, helps a candidate to increase his or her expected vote share by winning over the marginal voter. A criminal candidate gets an additional benefit since he can use the campaigning to convince voters of his innocence, and so reduce the negative effects of the stigma associated with criminal charges. This is plausible since the candidates have not been convicted, but only charged with some criminal offence.

We look at a Nash equilibrium of a game in which the only strategic variable is the amount of campaign expenditure. We test the implications of this simple model using data for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. We find that the data supports all the implications of the model. We briefly describe the principal results. First, voters do penalise candidates with criminal charges. That is, all else being equal, the vote share of a candidate with criminal charges is lower than that of the one who does not have any such blemish. However, this negative effect is reduced if there are other candidates in the constituency with criminal charges. Notice that the negative effect of criminal charges on vote shares seems to contradict the prevalent view that candidates with criminal charges have an electoral advantage.

We do not have data on campaign expenditure of candidates. However, our model predicts that (i) the higher the wealth of a candidate, the greater will be his campaign expenditure, (ii) campaign expenditure has a positive effect on expected vote share, the marginal effect possibly differing across the two categories of candidatesthose with criminal charges, and those with an unblemished record. Putting these together, the models prediction is that expected vote shares should be positively related to candidate wealth, with the marginal effect perhaps being different across the two categories of candidates.

Since voters penalise candidates with criminal charges, why do political parties still nominate them when so many candidates without criminal charges fight to get their partys nomination A plausible explanation starts from the premise that candidates facing the threat of criminal convictions are more keen to contest the elections. Their enthusiasm is easily explained. Apart from the usual benefits which accrue to all successful candidates, candidates with criminal indictments look forward to an additional benefit. In particular, successful candidates (particularly those belonging to parties in the government) can with high probability either use coercion or influence to ensure that the local administration does not pursue the case(s) against them with any vigour. Moreover, the data suggest that criminal candidates are significantly wealthier than those without criminal charges.

Also, they are perhaps willing to contribute a higher fraction of their wealth to the party, or they ask for less resources from the party. This simply reflects the higher price or value that they place on a party ticket. So, criminal candidates generate positive externalities to candidates of their own party since their additional contributions release party funds which can be used in other constituencies.

Several recent papers offer explanations of why parties choose candidates with a dubious background. Banerjee and Pande (2009) start with the observation that voters may have a preference for candidates belonging to their own ethnic group. This implies that a politician belonging to the ethnically dominant group in a constituency may win even if he is of lower quality. Banerjee and Pande (2009) assume that parties do want to select candidates of the best quality.

Of course, the Banerjee-Pande hypothesis does not explain why so many candidates with a criminal background contest elections. But, it does provide at least a partial explanation of why there is an increasing number of successful legislators in state assemblies as well as the Lok Sabha with criminal background. Vaishnav (2011) studies elections to 28 state assemblies between 2003 and 2009.

He finds that personal wealth of candidates is positively associated with criminal status where a candidate is defined to be a criminal if he has been charged with a serious crime. The basic result is subjected to a variety of robustness checks. This leads him to offer the same explanation that we have mentioned earlierparties nominate criminal candidates simply because they contribute larger sums to the party coffers.

Aidt. et al (2011) develop an interesting theoretical model where they assume that criminal candidates have some electoral advantage, although parties also incur some reputational cost in nominating them. They are agnostic about the sources of this advantage, but speculate that the electoral advantage of criminals could arise because they can intimidate prospective voters of rival parties into staying away from the polls. Notice that this would imply voting turnout should be negatively correlated with number of criminals in a constituency. We show that this is not true in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

So, parties face a trade-off between the reputational cost of nominating candidates with criminal charges and their electoral advantage. This trade-off implies that parties would be more willing to incur the reputational cost in constituencies which are likely to witness close contests since the electoral advantage is more attractive in these constituencies. Conversely, a party would be unlikely to field a tainted candidate in a constituency where the party is very likely to win. Similarly, candidates with criminal indictments are more likely to be fielded in constituencies where the cost is lowerfor instance, in constituencies where voters are poorly informed about the characteristics of the contesting candidates.

Our empirical results, along with this body of evidence suggests that it is important for voters to be better informed about candidate characteristics. The mere requirement that candidates file affidavits with the Election Commission about their characteristics is of limited use if voters do not have access to this information. Perhaps, the Election Commission needs to play a more active role in disseminating this information. The Commission must also think seriously about enhancing the existing ceilings on campaign expenditure since practically no candidate or party adheres to the current limits on expenditure. However, the Commission must ensure that all candidates adhere to the enhanced (but realistic) ceiling. This will then at least reduce the wealth advantage enjoyed by tainted politicians.

Extracted from the NIPFP paper How Indian Voters Respond to Candidates with Criminal Charges: Evidence from the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections