Indian politicians deny criminal charges in world’s largest democracy

If we believe the 32 criminal cases against him, then Yogesh Verma is a formidable opponent. They range from riots and assaults to attempted murders, extreme homicides and dacoity, or gang robbery, with murder. He was jailed twice but was never convicted.

Notoriety did not end Verma’s two-decade political career. The 53-year-old is sure to run for elections this month in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with 200 million people, according to the backing of the main opposition Samajwadi party.

Verma’s younger brother Rajan dismissed the incidents as “politically motivated” but also acknowledged his brother’s “naughty” reputation. Yogesh was “very aggressive from an early age,” he says. “If someone fights for their community and you bring legal cases against them, it’s not a crime.”

Verma is one of a growing number of Indian politicians and candidates accused of serious crimes, with three rival candidates in the Hastinapur seat he is running for also facing cases. The phenomenon has alarmed observers in the world’s largest democracy.

Yogesh Verma
Yogesh Verma, who is running for the opposition Samajwadi party, has 32 criminal cases against him. These have been dismissed as ‘politically motivated’ © Benjamin Parkin / FT

In the lower house of parliament, the proportion of MPs facing criminal cases has increased from 24% in 2004 to 43% in 2019, according to the Association for Democratic Reform, an NGO. The proportion of those with serious crimes more than doubled to 29%. “This is unmistakably a growing trend,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of ADR.

In all five state elections being held in the country, including those in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa, the proportion of candidates with alleged criminal backgrounds has increased since the election. 2017 election, according to ADR.

In the first round of voting for Uttar Pradesh’s multi-stage elections, 75% of Samajwadi Party candidates revealed that they face criminal cases, ADR said. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the share is just over half.

Percentage bar chart showing the percentage of MPs with criminal cases in the Indian parliament has increased

The presence of alleged criminals in politics is not unique to India. But Milan Vaishnav, who has the book When criminals pay examines criminality in Indian politics, says a number of factors have encouraged their rise.

At the grassroots level, political parties depend on powerful people for physical support, often according to castes or religious lines, and their funds help fund campaigns. Over time, these individuals became stronger and more prevalent, especially in poorer communities with dysfunctional state and judicial services.

“They have a reputation for ‘getting the job done,’” says Vaishnav. “They don’t care about long-term fixes. . . They are interested in special offers. ”

Sanjay Kumar at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi said the parties wanted someone to be “a little scared”.

“People think, ‘This is the man who does justice right away,’ he said.

Mukhtar Ansari, who was described in Indian media as a “mafia politician” who has won five elections in the Uttar Pradesh parliament, is in jail and awaiting trial while his son Abbas runs for his seat. Raghuraj Pratap Singh, known as “Brother Raja”, has been on the council since 1993 despite allegations of conspiracy to murder and kidnap.

Ansari’s brother Afzal called all the charges against him a “conspiracy” and a “pack of lies”. Singh could not be reached for comment but has denied all allegations.

Mukhtar Ansari, described by Indian media as a 'mafia-turned politician', appears in court in Punjab in March 2021

Mukhtar Ansari, described by Indian media as a ‘politician who doesn’t turn his back on the mafia’, appears in court in Punjab in March 2021, in a case involving blackmail and criminal intimidation © Keshav Singh / Hindustan Times / Getty

In 2019, a court in Uttar Pradesh dismissed a 20-year-old murder case against Yogi Adityanath, the state’s BJP chief minister and a close ally of Modi, who has denied wrongdoing.

Verma, a member of the country’s Dalit community, thrives on her image as an advocate for the oppressed. At a recent protest, wearing a white coat and wreath, he was carried over the shoulders of a chanting crowd. inquilab zindabador “long live the revolution”.

Ashish Kumar, 20, said Verma once helped his family evict a tenant who refused to leave the local store they were renting. “Yogesh Verma has compassion and is a friend of the poor,” says Kumar. “You can’t understand what it means to have a man as influential and powerful as him.”

A Samajwadi party activist, Monu Pawar, said Verma’s supposedly glorified past is a source of strength. “If you are politically active and fighting for your community and your people, then you will go to jail,” Pawar said. “Legal basis [are] jewels they have to wear. ”

Rajan Verma said his brother was too busy to comment.

The success of alleged criminals in Indian politics has resulted in limited reform efforts. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court ruled that convicted officials would be barred from executing their sentences for six years. But very few cases go that far.

The top court in 2020 ordered political parties to report candidates’ cases on their websites and justify their choices. But given the practical and financial advantages such candidates offer, ADR’s Chhokar said there is little incentive for parties to purge their ranks.

“While India is a vibrant democracy, political parties are not democratic at all,” he said. “This is the most fundamental problem in India’s democracy and elections.”

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