Empowering Voters

Many skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboards of election bonds and many more will, highlighting the unholy nexus between political parties and businesses.

Empowering Voters

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Many skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboards of election bonds and many more will, highlighting the unholy nexus between political parties and businesses. The petitioners in this Supreme Court (SC) case, Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Common Cause, deserve our highest appreciation. Of course, parties will innovate to find other opaque avenues to extort funds from businesses in return for quid-pro-quo, which is a problem every democracy is struggling with.

The vicious power of money is what makes politics so dirty that common people stay away from its arena, leaving it free for the criminals and their ill-gotten wealth to rule the roost, a reason why politics is not a preferred option for ordinary people, especially the educated youth, who abhor the presence of criminals in their proximity. That politics breeds and nurtures rascals and scoundrels may be an overused cliché but not untrue. Our Parliament and State Assemblies are packed with criminals patronised equally by all parties. Some of them sometimes go to jail to spend a few pleasant weeks or months away from the hullaballoo of daily politics, but rarely does anybody get convicted. Some fight elections from behind bars and still manage to win, some are released on bail to change sides and re-enter the legislature with an implicit assurance of protection by the powers that be. ADR data disclosed that in the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, 309 out of the 689 MLAs (45 per cent) have criminal cases registered against them.

ADR analysed over 200,000 records of candidates and winners since 2004 to find that the proportion of winning candidates without any criminal charge was only 12 per cent, while those with serious criminal cases constituted 23 per cent. As per ADR data of 2023, of the 4,001 legislators in 28 states and 2 UTs across India, 44 per cent are facing criminal charges, almost a mirror-image at the Centre where 43 per cent of the Lok Sabha MPs elected in 2019 have criminal charges against them, as against 34 per cent in 2014, of committing serious crimes like murder, attempt to murder, rape, kidnapping etc.


The role of money in politics becomes even more apparent from the fact that the assets of 71 MPs re-elected to the Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2019 have increased threefold. As per the Supreme Court (SC) ruling in Lily Thomas & Others vs. Union of India (2013), any legislator who is convicted of a criminal offence and given a minimum two-year sentence would cease to be a legislator, reversing the earlier position in which convicted members could retain their seats before exhausting all judicial remedies. In 2014, in Manoj Narula vs. Union of India & Others, the SC had observed that the entry of criminals into politics must be restricted, making it incumbent on the PM and CMs not to appoint a legislator as minister against whom charges had been framed by a criminal court.

To introduce transparency and accountability in the political system, in 2013, the Central Information Commission had declared six national parties as public authorities, thereby bringing them under the purview of the RTI Act, but it has not prevented the lawbreakers from becoming lawmakers. In 2018 and 2020, the SC had issued directives to political parties to disclose criminal histories of their electoral candidates, besides requiring them to provide reasons for nominating such candidates regardless of their perceived chances of winning. The Election Commission (EC) has further issued directives to ensure the implementation of the court’s orders regarding the declaration of candidates’ criminal backgrounds and has all such data in its possession. But parties often fail to comply and persistently neglect their public disclosure obligations, while the EC takes no serious exception.

The question that baffles us is why voters vote for such tainted candidates and Bahubalis with serious criminal charges? Studies point out the obvious causal relationship between criminals-packed legislatures and subsequent lower economic growth and poor provision of public services. But somehow, voters seem to be indifferent to or even prefer criminality in elected officials. Voters may prefer criminals because of the expectation that they are better equipped to use legal or extralegal means to fulfil their election promises. Or, maybe, voters don’t have information about the precise nature of criminal charges, in the absence of which they dismiss the issue as mere political vendetta. Poorly informed voters lack the ability to effectively screen candidates, relying instead on the candidates’ distributive policy preferences as implied by their ethnicity or religion.

A 2011 study found that low information availability to voters is an important factor, but a 2020 study on Bihar elections found no dependence on voters’ preferences for criminal candidates with their castes, pointing to institutional and governance factors being responsible for the behaviour. ADR conducted an ”All India Survey on Governance Issues and Voting Behaviour” in 2018, in which 36 per cent of respondents were willing to vote for such candidates if they had done good work in the past, though 98 per cent were against sending candidates with criminal background to the legislatures.

The ADR Report “Analysis of Sitting MPs from Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha of India 2023” (September 2023) gives details about the assets and criminal charges of the sitting MPs of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha individually. Though the information is available in the public domain and can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection, most voters would be unaware of this, and even when aware, may not be inclined to download and study the data before voting for a particular candidate, especially because the probability of an individual’s vote determining an election’s outcome is vanishingly small. For the same reason, voters may not be particularly interested in navigating to the EC website to access information about criminality and assets of candidates, which are freely available.

I came across a study, “Coordinating Voters against Criminal Politicians: Evidence from a Mobile Experiment in India” (2018), conducted by Siddharth George, Sarika Gupta and Yusuf Neggers from the Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, during the 2017 assembly elections in UP. The study attempted to find if a different approach to information provision like mobile text or voice messaging can help address the information gap and then influence downstream voting behaviour, given the deep mobile penetration in India. UP has a large voter base; though 80 per cent of it is rural, more than 85 per cent households possessed at least one mobile phone.

The Assembly elections were spread across seven different phases, and researches took place during phase 4, in which 53 of the total 403 constituencies were covered, involving 116 candidates. They chose 38 constituencies in which 35 per cent of candidates were facing criminal charges, of which 40 per cent faced serious criminal charges. All parties had fielded criminal candidates. BJP won a landslide victory with 312 seats, in which 107 or 27 per cent of the winners had serious criminal charges against them. Two days before election day, researchers started sending voice and text messages to mobile phone subscribers in Hindi.

A typical message would be like: “This message is from an unbiased, non-political NGO, Centre for Governance and Development. Get to know your candidates correctly, and on Election Day, give your vote only after thinking carefully! In your area: 1. Mr. XXX from BSP (elephant party) has 1 criminal case, with attempt to murder charges. 2. Mr. YYY from BJP (lotus party) has no criminal cases. 3. Mr. ZZZ from Congress (hand party) has 3 criminal cases, but has no violent charges.” There were 3,800 villages in these 38 constituencies and 5,000 polling stations, with each village having around 1,200 voters on average. Villages were divided into two groups, two-thirds belonging to the Control Group to whom no message was sent, and one-third to the Treatment Group that received the messages. Villages were randomly assigned to these groups to ensure internal validity.

The researchers sent messages to more than 450,000 individuals in the Treatment Villages. Data for subscribers and their locations were collated from the Census, Election Commission, mobile companies and ML Infomap company. From the election results, compared to the control villages, it was seen that voters responded positively to the information provided ~ votes for candidates with severe criminal charges dropped by 7.7 per cent and votes for candidates with no charges increased by 6.7 per cent.

Overall turnout also increased by 1.6 per cent. The effects were seen to be strongest when the information was coupled with a coordination treatment, in which individuals were informed that many other voters were also receiving the message. It was estimated from regression analysis that without the intervention, criminal candidates would have received 6 per cent higher vote share than non-criminal candidates. Several lessons can be drawn from this study. First, it is not enough to have information in the public domain, especially in a large country lagging in internet literacy. It is equally important to inform voters and it is very much possible for the Election Commission which has the necessary wherewithal to inform each voter about their candidates’ criminality, assets, liabilities and education.

Informing voters through mobile messages is an efficient, quick and inexpensive exercise; all Indians were receiving Viksit Bharat messages till the EC stopped those. In addition, such information must be displayed at every election booth, as was done in local body elections in 2017 in Maharashtra, MP and Haryana as an experiment. Knowledge is power, and empowering voters with knowledge about candidates has the potential to cleanse our political system of the twin evils of money and criminality

(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)