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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
India's love affair with 'tainted' politicians
By Seema Chishti
BBC Hindi service

Indian coal minister Shibu Soren
Shibu Soren is accused of inciting a mob
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said the country needed a law to define the meaning of "criminal" - and who should or should not be a minister.

Now a member of his new government has resigned and been remanded in custody in connection with killings which took place nearly 30 years ago.

Shibu Soren's example has been pounced on by opposition parties who demand that other "tainted" ministers be sacked, even though he maintains he is innocent.

But why do India's politicians have such frequent brushes with the law, and why do voters not seem put off?

MPs in jail

Indian law assumes innocence until guilt is established, and a politician is barred from office only if actually convicted for a crime.

The law has been flouted deliberately to secure popularity
Political scientist CP Bhambri

In 1996, the country's Election Commission found that over 70 parliamentarians and more than 100 elected representatives in state assemblies had an alleged "criminal background".

In recent years, the number of elected representatives facing charges, reprimands from courts and convictions has only increased.

Three parliamentarians are already in jail.

In the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, there were three ministers who continued in office despite having charges and court proceedings brought against them.

At least six ministers in the new Congress party-led government are in a similar position.

Darling of the poor?

One jailed parliamentarian says his only crime is helping the poor.

Bihar MP Mohammad Shahabuddin
Mohammad Shahabuddin says the poor support him
Mohammad Shahabuddin, an MP from Bihar, is facing charges of murder, bank robbery and kidnapping.

He says he is not a criminal, and that he has been targeted for trying to better the lot of the poor in his area.

"I have the biggest advantage in electoral politics, I have the poor vote on my side," he says.

Why do politicians who appear to have broken laws or have been charged with crimes become popular?

One reason is that the state has pretty much collapsed in the areas where these politicians dominate.

There is no social network or support system accessible to those without any money.

Politicians step in to fill in the vacuum.

"People like these... appear to solve day-to-day problems of poor people in their areas," says sociologist Anand Kumar.

"They deal with doctors, the police, the district officials. But they have two faces."

'Musclemen'

So why is it that the popularity of some of India's leading politicians remains untouched by court reprimands?

One reason could be that the citizens do not have a happy experience with India's complex and time-consuming legal system.

So there is not much respect for how the legal system defines these leaders.

But political scientist CP Bhambri says the reasons run deeper.

He says that ever since the 1970s, when popular movements to protest at former prime minister Indira Gandhi's rule surfaced, law breakers acquired a certain glamour and respectability.

"The law has been flouted deliberately in order to secure popularity."

More importantly, says Mr Bhambri, over the past 30 years, as voting percentages grew, democracy developed firm roots.

"Groups excluded from high places fought for their share. Groups who were already in power did not hesitate to use musclemen to try and retain their hold on power."

The result: "Musclemen became increasingly important during elections."

They were initially on the sidelines, but gradually "staked a claim directly to power - as MPs, even ministers".


SEE ALSO:
Jail no bar for Bihar candidates
21 Apr 04  |  South Asia
Court to rule on jailed candidates
04 May 04  |  South Asia
BJP drops MP over criminal links
24 Feb 04  |  South Asia
Analysis: India's criminal politicians
12 Oct 00  |  South Asia


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