Mukhtar Ansari has been in jail since 2005, charged with ordering a rival’s murder by hit men who pumped 400 bullets into the victim’s car. He doesn’t expect that or more than 30 other charges to bounce him out of his day job as a state legislator.
From behind bars, Ansari predicted he will be re-elected with a majority in monthlong polls whose results will be announced tomorrow in Uttar Pradesh, a 560-mile swath of northern India stretching southeast from New Delhi. He has reason to be confident given his three consecutive elections to the region’s legislature since 1996, twice from prison.
“Anyone I killed got what they deserved but it’s not like I have killed a busload of people,” the six-foot-five Ansari, 51, said as he sat in his Agra cell Jan. 30. “The poor need my protection. I only fight against the powerful.”
Ansari is an extreme embodiment of the growing criminality among politicians across the world’s largest democracy. More than a quarter of federal and state legislators face charges that also include rape, kidnapping and fraud, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, which has campaigned for better governance since 1999.
Their presence in office drives out business and hinders improvement in the potholed roads and failing education and health services that weigh on Asia’s second-fastest-growing major economy, according to S.Y. Quraishi, the head of India’s Election Commission.
“Criminal politicians are a deep and growing cancer in our democracy,” Quraishi said in a Feb. 17 interview. “How can our economy reach its potential when politicians rob the country rather than invest in it?”
Politicians on trial or facing charges are free to run for office in India, where the Ministry of Law and Justice says criminal cases last for an average of 15 years. In the U.S., the median interval of a federal criminal case in district court from charges to disposition is 6.3 months, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
India’s law ministry and the election commission are considering proposals to bar candidates if a court has charged them with offenses that carry a sentence of five years or more.
Ansari’s murder trial has been on hiatus since 2008 after the Supreme Court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the case. Charges of kidnapping and firing an AK-47 at a police commissioner have been dismissed by courts, and he has never been convicted of a crime.
Ansari, wearing cream trousers and a black overcoat as mice scurried under his wooden bed, said he has a band of 18,000 supporters to carry out orders he sends from jail using mobile phones and scribbled notes, in contravention of prison rules. Each week, 30 messengers arrive with news from his constituency of Mau, 355 miles (572 kilometers) to the east of Agra, he said.
In a sign of his clout, Ansari has been transferred among a dozen jails over the last six years amid authorities’ concerns he will take over the prisons, he said. In Ghazipur jail, where the 220-pound Ansari was held in 2008, he had a volleyball court built and was allowed to slaughter goats to liven up prison meals, he said.
An official reached by phone at Ghazipur jail who declined to give his name said a volleyball court did exist while Ansari served time there and that it has since been removed. He hung up the phone when asked about the goats.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous province with about 200 million people, is the country’s biggest political prize, supplying a seventh of all lawmakers in the lower house of the national parliament.
The state’s assembly is also the most crime-ridden of the five holding elections this year: 143 of 403 existing members have been formally charged by a court, the ADR says. Ten judges, including a former Indian chief justice, sit on the ADR’s advisory committee, along with two former chief election commissioners.
At least 35 percent of the 6,850 candidates running for the Uttar Pradesh legislature have criminal charges against them, a 25 percent increase from the state election in 2007, the advocacy group says, citing its study of candidate disclosures.
Nationwide, the number of lawmakers charged with offenses has doubled over 14 years to 1,328 out of a total of 4,915, according to the study. In state assemblies and the national parliament politicians also are accused of lesser crimes, such as lying under oath, defamation and electoral fraud.
“Investors will shy away from a culture where crime and politics overlap, especially foreign investors who aren’t familiar with how it fits into local business practices,” said R.K. Gupta, Mumbai-based managing director at Taurus Asset Management, which oversees $900 million.
H.S. Gandhi, a former director at now-defunct Rajinder Steels Ltd. in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, saw his company ruined by police and government failure to tackle organized crime.
“The mafia would ask for a 50 percent cut from each contract and the government would want 20 percent, which made it impossible for us to invest money,” he said Jan. 17 by phone. “What was once a promising young steel company was sacrificed to sustain a culture of greed and corruption.”
Gandhi said he didn’t go to the police for help because they were involved in the racket.
S.P. Kumar, an official in the Ministry of Corporate Affairs in Uttar Pradesh, said he was not aware of the Rajinder case. In general, he said, police protect companies from intimidation or extortion demands by local gangs.
Battle for Control
Among at least seven others joining Ansari in seeking a seat in the new Uttar Pradesh legislature from jail is Brijesh Singh. He and Ansari have waged a two-decade battle for control of eastern districts of the state, according to police reports and interviews with two law-enforcement officials, who asked not to be identified because they feared reprisals.
In the interview, Ansari agitatedly described how three of his gang died in an ambush by Singh’s gunmen in 2001. In retaliation, Ansari ordered six men carrying AK-47 assault rifles to kill a Singh associate, regional lawmaker Krishnanand Rai, said state prosecutor Awadesh Rai, who is not related to the victim. Six other people in Rai’s vehicle also died in the hail of bullets.
Ansari, who was in jail on charges of inciting rioting at the time of Rai’s killing, denied ordering the murder. Ansari has been charged in eight murder cases, as well as with extortion, gangsterism and forgery. He has been acquitted of murder once and homicide charges were dropped in five other cases, according to his lawyer, Gopal Swarup Chaturvedi.
Singh, who has 25 murders among the 161 criminal charges he faces, has not been convicted of a crime. Aamir Bai, an official at Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad where Singh is being held, ruled out a phone interview with him.
While the list of alleged offenders running for election in Uttar Pradesh has lengthened over two decades, the region’s $87 billion economy has lagged behind. State gross domestic product expanded an average of 4.7 percent since 1991 compared to 6.6 percent nationally, according to government figures.
That gap is apparent in Mau, Ansari’s constituency.
“No company sets up here, because they are afraid of getting mixed up with these thugs,” said Muhammad Taiyab, a businessman whose firm employs 250 people making saris in Mau, where votes were cast Feb. 11. “The government is meant to help business. Instead it is our biggest problem.”
Home to a sixth of India’s 1.2 billion people, Uttar Pradesh captured only 1 percent of foreign investment into India in the six months ending September 2010, according to the New Delhi-based Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, the nation’s third-biggest trade body.
Criminals enter politics as an easy way to make money, while in office they skim off funds intended for development projects, said ADR founder Jagdeep Chhokar, a former professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.
“They bring muscle and money, which can be important ingredients in winning elections,” said Chhokar, 67. “Criminals find entering politics alluring. They can enrich themselves by controlling government projects and taking bribes.”
Ansari justified violence as a legitimate response in a part of India historically fractured by enmities over caste or religion. In parts of Uttar Pradesh, where the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative says 39 percent of people live in “severe poverty,” communities turn to gangs for protection, some shielded by political leaders and others led by them.
The violent behavior Ansari exhibits is at odds with his privileged background. His grandfather was a president of the Indian National Congress, now the federal ruling party, as it campaigned against British colonial rule in the 1920s, and his family holds large areas of farmland.
Raping and Burning
“When we were growing up, higher-caste men came and attacked my village, raping the women and burning down homes,” said Ansari, a Muslim father of two children who ran as an independent in 2007 and has since founded the Quami Ekta Dal, or One Voice for All party. “Ever since that day, I have been fighting. If anyone troubles the poor, I will murder them.”
Ansari’s self-portrayal as a defender of the under-privileged ignores a grimmer reality. Criminal politicians use their connections and the fear they inspire to win contracts for road building and the transport of coal, and run the illegal liquor trade in eastern Uttar Pradesh, according to a 2008 police survey of crime in parts of the state.
Decades ago, Uttar Pradesh was run by Congress and produced national leaders. Congress’s current president, Sonia Gandhi, and its heir-apparent, her son Rahul Gandhi, both represent the state in parliament, as did Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi. In 1985, the party won 269 of 425 seats in a then-larger legislature.
Congress’s fortunes went into decline five years later when the federal government extended job quotas for groups at the lower end of the caste system. The 1992 destruction of a mosque in Uttar Pradesh by Hindus also helped fuel the rise of parties that sought power through appeals to voters’ identity. Congress won just 22 seats in 2007.
The Bahujan Samaj Party of Chief Minister Mayawati, which draws the majority of its support from those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, and the Samajwadi Party of her main opponent, Mulayam Singh Yadav, now dominate the state’s politics.
The SP leads in exit polls published after voting ended March 3 in the state. Three separate post-vote polls by the CNN-IBN television channel with The Week magazine, Headlines Today and India TV also showed the BSP coming second, the Bharatiya Janata Party third and Congress fourth.
The BSP and SP parties fielded 330 candidates facing criminal charges this year, according to the ADR. Congress, whose state campaign was led by Rahul Gandhi in a key test of his leadership, put up 120 such candidates. Its leading rival on the national stage, the BJP, has 144 Uttar Pradesh candidates facing charges.
BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a spokesman for Congress, both said in interviews that candidates should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Voters support candidates such as Ansari because they think they will protect them in the event of caste or religious confrontations, Prakash Singh, a retired Uttar Pradesh police chief, said in January. “The idea is, ‘Who cares if he is a gangster? He is our gangster.’”
A railway line divides poorer Muslims living in Mau’s old town with more prosperous Hindus. It’s a combustible mix of religion and poverty that has triggered six riots in the last three decades. It’s also fertile ground for Ansari, who was arrested for inciting violence in Mau that killed at least nine people in 2005. Television footage showed him driving through the town in an open-top jeep in defiance of a curfew.
Denying he was provoking rioters, Ansari, who survived a 1996 assassination attempt thanks to body armor that stopped seven shots fired at his chest, said he acted as a peacemaker, telling people to stop looting and go home.
“Ansari is not perfect but he is one of the few politicians in India willing to stick up for Muslims,” Mohammad Ansari, a doctor not related to Mukhtar Ansari, said in his Mau clinic. “I’ll vote for him again even if he’s in jail.”
Ansari’s constituency suffers from the failing governance that afflicts much of Uttar Pradesh. At the Yusufpura primary school in Mau’s Muslim district, children took exams outside in weak winter sun in January because there weren’t enough desks. The government-run hospital was running out of painkillers.
“Real change in India will only come when we get the right kind of state and local leadership, a progressive and compassionate leadership,” said Taiyab, the Mau sari maker. “Ansari has barely laid a brick in this town. He has left the people to rot.”
Ansari has his sights set on winning a seat in the national parliament in elections scheduled for 2014. “I will be out of jail by then, which guarantees that I am going to win,” he said. “This is just the start of my political career.”