India: Taking a bite out of politics

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.

Not surprisingly, therefore, litigation wasn't enough. Even after they were required to disclose their criminal records, all the major parties fielded a host of candidates with pending criminal cases in 2004, with the result that 128 out of 543 members of the last legislature faced ongoing criminal cases while they were in office. At least two were serving life sentences for murder.

“The sole criterion for a candidate has become what they call 'winnability.' Not his character, not his performance, not his competence, not his ability to assess national issues.” explains Arun Shourie, a former journalist who is now a leading member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “In this way, people you would not give a job to — in fact you'd make sure that they don't come near your organization — have become part of the legislature.”

That's where footsoldiers like Bairwal, who gave up a top-level job with a multinational software company to become ADR's national coordinator, come in.

Because requiring politicians to divulge the most dubious facts about themselves didn't stop them from running for office — or winning — ADR set up the National Election Watch to make sure that the press and the voters know exactly how many robberies, kidnappings and murders their honorable member of parliament is alleged to have committed.

The group has mobilized 1,200 organizations and thousands of volunteers to track the activities of dozens of political parties in the run-up to elections, allowing them to spring into action as soon as a candidate is announced. Researchers comb through past affidavits to see whether the candidate has declared criminal cases in the past, and whether there has been any major change in his or her financial assets. Then they name names.

This year they are not only lobbying the press and holding public rallies. Soon they will begin sending weekly text messages with details of politicians' criminal records to voters. “You would think that political parties would do proper background checking of the candidates and then field somebody who would be good for the people, who would be good for the society,” says Bairwal, who over the past two weeks has traveled to nine states and met with more than 100 partner organizations. “But as you can see from the records, that's not the case.”

So far, results have been mixed.

In the last state election that ADR tracked, the number of candidates with alleged criminal pasts dropped to about 12 percent from 25 percent, but the number of alleged criminals who actually won seats remained flat.

The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government named Shibu Soren coal minister, even though he was on trial for multiple murders (he was later convicted, then acquitted on appeal). And neither of the two party heavyweights have managed to purge alleged (or even convicted) criminals from their ranks. “[BJP leader] L.K. Advani made a statement on the 18th of October that they will not give tickets to people with criminal backgrounds, even if they are winning candidates,” says Chhokar. “And then in the four or five state [subsequent] assembly elections, there were criminals galore.”

But the man who started it all remains optimistic. “The parties have publicly announced that they're not going to put up candidates with criminal records,” Sastry says. “They have not kept that promise, no doubt. But at least they have started reacting.”

The real tipping point will come when voters do the same.

More Dispatches by Jason Overdorf:

Under an Indian sun

The Bhopal disaster 25 years later

The real slumdogs