India’s main opposition party, the BJP, landed itself in an embarrassing pickle this week after it inducted a new politician into its ranks ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections who is suspected of involvement in a multi-million dollar healthcare scam, the murder of two chief medical officers, and who was booted out of his previous party for being massively corrupt. (Read my article in The National here).
What were the BJP thinking? Well, the man in question, Bapu Singh Kushwaha, has a lot of influence among lower castes known as ‘Other Backward Classes’, and the BJP’s state organisation ultimately decided that this was more important than any graft allegations, regardless of all the hoo-ha about corruption and Lokpals and Anna Hazare that has dominated the news in Delhi in recent months. As a BJP spokesman tells me in the story: “…the reality of Indian politics is that you have to address different audiences. All the media chatter among English-speaking middle classes in Delhi has no impact on real politics in places like UP where Kushwaha’s influence works.”
One depressing conclusion is that, for all the debate and protest about corruption in the past year, little has really changed on the ground. A year ago, when I went to one of the first major rallies in Delhi organised by the anti-corruption movement (before Anna Hazare was wheeled in as the figurehead), it didn’t feel like a sentiment that would really catch on. A year later, the surprising torrent of support for Hazare’s campaign that occurred over the summer has once again died down – attendance at his last rally in Mumbai in December was poor – and just a few days into the new year, the second largest party in the country feels confident enough that corruption is so irrelevant to voters that they can induct a politician as tainted as Mr Kushwaha.
On a related note, Rupa Subramanya, over at WSJ, discusses a recent academic paper on why parties field criminal candidates in elections. In the last general election, a whopping 75% of seats involved a candidate with a criminal background. The paper argues that intense competition in Indian politics encourages the use of criminal candidates who can use violence and intimidation to pressure voters. As Rupa says, this explains low turn-outs and voter cynicism as much as it does India’s famous anti-incumbency.
I would argue that cases like that of Mr Kushwaha are a reminder that criminality, violence and corruption are an entrenched and accepted part of governance and power in rural, undeveloped areas. Voters are no more likely to reject a candidate on the basis of their criminal record than Republican voters in the US would turn against a candidate because he was a racist, homophobic idiot. It’s just par for the course.
Over the weekend, the BJP suspended Mr Kushwaha until he can “prove his innocence [sic].” But they only did so because it was embarrassing the party’s top brass in Delhi who had been banging on about their disgust with corruption. The truth is that the party in UP – and many within the top leadership – would gladly have held on to him, knowing that he would perform very well for them in next month’s elections.
PS> I also have a short article in The National today on UP Chief Minister being ordered to cover up all the statues of herself and of elephants. Not of Gandhi, though – he’s not running, apparently.
ALTERATION NOTE: The original version of this article referred to Mr Kushwaha as a potential candidate in the election. In fact, he is already a member of the upper house (the Legislative Council) and is therefore not taking part in next month’s election (which is for the Legislative Council). He would have campaigned for the BJP, but not actually contested a seat. The title of this post probably needs changing too, but I think that messes with the URL.
Thanks to @vikasbsingh for the correction.