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India: Taking a bite out of politics

A host of new nonprofit election watchdogs and citizens' groups are starting to make a dent in middle class apathy.

Voters show their voter identity cards as they wait for their turn to cast their ballots at a polling booth in Bhopal Nov. 27, 2008. (Raj Patidar/Reuters)

DELHI — When Anil Bairwal boots up his computer and scours the newspapers each morning, he may be doing more for the pursuit of justice than any Indian cop.

By training, he's a software engineer, not a police officer. But he and the other members of his team — a network of activists and organizations known as the National Election Watch — have dedicated themselves to making sure criminals don't end up in charge of the government.

Bairwal is at the forefront of a new, and surprising, trend that could have significant implications for the world's largest democracy.

India's middle class — which is still too small to be a decisive voice at the polls — is famous for political apathy.

Campaigns don't come down to issues, but instead often rely on mobilizing party workers to pass out free booze to voters in the slums. In some states, criminal gangs intimidate poor farmers into voting for their leader, while in others party cadres allegedly harass and threaten non-sympathizers, sometimes confiscating their voter registration cards. Money and muscle has become so important that every major party relies on candidates charged in criminal cases to deliver the vote.

The situation has become so dismal that nearly a quarter of the legislators in India's recently dissolved parliament had criminal cases pending against them — and not just for white-collar crimes. The charges included 84 cases of murder, along with other violent offenses.

But just as Indian democracy seems to be hitting its lowest ebb, educated Indians are beginning to strike back. Crime and corruption — it turns out — is a strong catalyst.

It all started in 1999 when Trilochan Sastry, then a professor at the respected Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, approached some of his colleagues with a half-baked idea for a guerrilla hit on the nation's unresponsive political parties. Everybody knows that Indian politics is teeming with crooks, he said. But nobody does anything about it.

Sastry suggested filing a lawsuit demanding that candidates divulge their financial assets and criminal records when the parties file their nominations. His friends and fellow professors tried to talk him out of it. After all, they were academics — politics was beneath them. But Sastry recalls that he “didn't see any other way out, any other way to bring about change in the system."

About a year later a Delhi court ruled in their favor. And Sastry and several colleagues — now calling themselves the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) — received the first sign that, despite all evidence to the contrary, common sense might sometimes prevail in Indian politics.

But the feeling was short-lived. Political parties tried to squash the bill, forcing ADR all the way to the Supreme Court before the new rules went into effect in 2003.

Along the way, Sastry's partner in the fight, another business school professor named Jagdeep Chhokar, found time to earn a law degree so they'd be better equipped for the battle. “What shocked us the most was the way the whole process was rationalized by seemingly very decent, upright, law-abiding people in the political establishment,” Chhokar says.