An examination of the key characteristics of those contesting elections and those winning them, a subject of our current research, reveals fascinating facts about our leaders. Potentially, they can also have important implications for policies.
Following a Supreme Court ruling, the Election Commission has required since 2002 that all candidates contesting election to either House of Parliament or state legislature file an affidavit open for examination by the voters. The affidavit must furnish full information on the candidate’s educational qualifications, assets, liabilities, past convictions or acquittals in criminal cases and any pending charges stemming from offences punishable with imprisonment for two or more years. The information so generated offers an unusual peek into the qualifications of those governing us.
We begin with the good news. Contrary to the general impression, today, Lok Sabha members enjoy a remarkably high level of intellectual accomplishment. Out of 543 members, 260 have post-graduate, higher or technical degrees. An additional 157 have undergraduate degrees. Thus, four in five members now have an undergraduate or higher degree. There is also a strong pattern of a larger proportion of candidates scoring victory as we move from less educated to more educated groups of candidates.
To the credit of Indian democracy, education is not a barrier to entering politics. There were as many as 134 candidates with no formal education whatsoever who contested the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Though none won the election, five managed to score enough votes to be among the top four candidates in their respective constituencies. Furthermore, the current Lok Sabha does include 15 members with formal education not exceeding 5th grade.
The news here on is mixed to negative. Members of the current Lok Sabha are a wealthy lot. Based on officially acknowledged wealth, one in five members is a dollar millionaire (Rs 5 crore or more). Almost another two in five are rupee crorepati. The silver lining, however, is that those with minimal wealth do participate in elections in large numbers even though their success rate is low. Two out of every five candidates in the 2009 election had wealth below Rs 5 lakh. Of these, 14 won the election.
The most disconcerting feature of Parliament, however, is the presence of a large number of members with criminal cases pending against them. The picture here is more nuanced, however, than often painted in the media. The proportion of those with one or more criminal cases registered against them is 14% among candidates but 30% among the elected members. Thus, the victory rate is higher among the accused than among “clean” candidates. Indeed, detailed data show a steadily rising trend of victory rate as we move from groups of candidates with no accusations to those with a larger and larger number of cases registered against them.
Of course, not all registered cases involve serious crimes: it is hardly unusual for politicians to be charged with participation in an unlawful assembly. Once we drop the members with registered cases for minor crimes, the proportion of members charged with serious crimes in the Lok Sabha drops to 14%. In absolute terms, this still translates into as many as 75 members. Moreover, the victory rate for candidates facing charges of serious crimes remains twice that for the remainder of the candidates.
Why did so many candidates with serious criminal cases pending against them win the election? One possibility is that in the constituencies they contested, all major candidates had such cases pending against them, thus, leaving the voters little choice. Our preliminary investigation rules this out as a likely explanation: with rare exceptions, candidates with serious charges faced candidates with no charges whatsoever against them. A more promising explanation is that candidates facing serious criminal cases also happen to be wealthy. This allows them to “buy” both social status and a ticket from a major party. In addition, some of these candidates may be incumbents and therefore enjoy the associated benefits of name recognition, patronage and access to the official machinery.
The key policy question we must ask with respect to the preponderance of the wealthy in Parliament is whether it leads to the adoption of policies detrimental to the national interest. While we have seen no evidence of a shift in this direction so far, there is clear need for the media and NGOs to be watchful of the members trying to tilt legislation in their favour to the detriment of the national interest.
Candidates and members with serious criminal charges create a serious dilemma. To the extent that these individuals have committed the crimes, they must be barred from contesting elections. At the same time, the incredibly slow pace of our courts means that many among the charged who did not commit the crimes could be barred from contesting elections for a long time if the charges of serious crime are made a basis for exclusion from elections.
As India moves towards global power status, it must undertake judicial, legal and electoral reforms that would resolve this key dilemma and pave the way for the emergence of a parliament with integrity that would command the respect of people at home and make us proud abroad.
(Gupta is with ICRIER, New Delhi; Panagariya is professor, Columbia University, New York.)