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Milan Vaishnav

In the summer of 2008, the Congress-led government of India released five members of Parliament from jail to support the government in fending off a close no-confidence vote. The five politicians – all indicted for or convicted of murder – cleaned up, cast their votes, and returned to jail the next day.

The preponderance of suspected criminals among Indian politicians is no secret. In a country where one-of-four members of Parliament is under criminal indictment, anecdotes such as this are not uncommon. My guest on this week’s Wonkcast, CGD post-doctoral fellow Milan Vaishnav, was inspired by this story to study criminality among Indian politicians for his forthcoming Ph.D. dissertation. He reached some surprising conclusions.

I start by asking Milan to describe the conventional wisdom on why Indian voters so often select criminals to represent them. Most of the academic literature, he says, blames a lack of accessible information on candidate’s criminal histories.

“The literature says that this is really an issue of information and a story about how information relates to democratic accountability,” says Milan. Observers assume “if only the voters knew these people had criminal records, they wouldn’t elect them.”

Milan says this theory seems plausible, since hundreds of millions of Indians are illiterate and media penetration is uneven. But in his interviews with voters, local leaders, politicians and others he discovered that the criminal history of candidates and politicians was widely known. Indeed, often a candidate with a criminal record is more likely to be elected than a candidate with a clean record, says Milan.

“These candidates were getting traction not in spite of their criminality, but because of it,” Milan says. “These candidates are able to project themselves as a type of Robin Hood -- people who are willing to do whatever it takes to protect and do the bidding of their constituents. People say, ‘he’s a bastard but he’s our bastard.’” Politicians who campaign on a pledge of looking out for voters’ parochial interests often appeal to voters along caste and ethnic lines, he says. So efforts to root out criminality by providing more information—as some clean government NGOs have tried to do—are unlikely to make much difference.

“Rather than just telling voters, ‘so-and-so has this many criminal cases against them’ a better approach is to try to get at the root of governance failure and to try to get people to not vote on the basis of identity or caste,” explains Milan.

To illustrate the point, he relates the findings of two randomized experiments carried out by MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee and colleagues.  In the first experiment, voters in a random set of rural villages in Uttar Pradesh were encouraged to vote on substantive policy issues rather than ethnic identity. “This resulted in a huge reduction in ethnic voting [in the treatment group] and the candidates who were hurt the most were those who faced heinous charges” Milan says.  In a second experiment, this time set in the slums of New Delhi, a local NGO provided a “report card” on local politicians’ backgrounds to a randomly selected group of slum dwellers.  While some aspects of the report card did have an effect, informing voters about their politicians’ criminal backgrounds had no impact on their votes.

We end the Wonkcast by discussing implications for other countries, including rich democracies like the United States.  Voting for criminals is not confined to India or developing countries, Milan says.

“There is an interesting case involving the politician Edwin Edwards in Louisiana. He was a four-term governor who was convicted and sentenced on corruption charges. Once he got out, people had parades in his honor, and they said ‘the great thing about Edwin Edwards was, he stole from us, he was a crook, but he told us he was going to do it.’”

For more information, see Milan’s article in The Hindu’s Business Line.

I’d like to thank Alexandra Gordon for serving as producer and recording engineer, and for helping to draft this post.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.