India's Jailbirds Win Elections
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. Neither that charge nor any of the more than 30 others against him cost him his day job as a state legislator.
From behind bars, Ansari—who has yet to be convicted of anything—was just reelected by almost 6,000 votes after polling results were announced on March 6 in Uttar Pradesh, a 560-mile swath of India stretching southeast from New Delhi. This is Ansari’s fourth consecutive election to the state legislature since 1996, three times 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 says as he sits in his cell in Agra. “The poor need my protection. I only fight against the powerful.”
Ansari is an extreme embodiment of the growing criminality among Indian politicians. More than a quarter of India’s federal and state legislators face charges that include rape, kidnapping, and fraud, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which campaigns for better governance. The presence in government of jailed lawmakers deters business from operating in the most corrupt states and hinders improvement in everything from potholed roads to school systems, according to S.Y. Quraishi, head of India’s Election Commission. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, gangster politicians use their connections and the fear they inspire to win contracts for building roads and transporting coal. They also run the illegal liquor trade in eastern Uttar Pradesh, according to a 2008 police survey of crime in parts of the state. “How can our economy reach its potential when politicians rob the country rather than invest in it?” asks Quraishi.
Politicians on trial or facing charges are free to run for office in India, where according to the Ministry of Law and Justice criminal cases last an average of 15 years. 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 against Ansari of kidnapping and firing an AK-47 at a police commissioner have been dismissed. Wearing cream trousers and a black overcoat as mice scurry under his wooden bed, Ansari says 30 messengers arrive with news each week from his constituency of Mau, 355 miles east of Agra.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, with about 200 million people, is India’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 that held elections this year: 143 of 403 members in the outgoing assembly have been formally charged by a criminal court, the ADR says. At least 35 percent of the 6,850 candidates who just ran for the state legislature had criminal charges pending against them, a 25 percent increase from the election in 2007, the advocacy group says.
H.S. Gandhi, a former director at now-defunct Rajinder Steels in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, says his company was ruined by the 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 says. Gandhi says 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, says he’s not aware of the Rajinder case. In general, he says, police protect companies from intimidation or extortion demands by gangs.
Also campaigning from jail in the recent election for Uttar Pradesh’s legislature was Brijesh Singh. He and Ansari have battled over two decades—outside of politics—for control of the state’s eastern districts, according to police reports and interviews with two law-enforcement officials who asked not to be identified because they feared reprisals. Ansari describes how three members of his gang died in an ambush by Singh’s gunmen in 2001. State prosecutor Awadesh Rai says that in retaliation Ansari ordered six men carrying AK-47s to kill a Singh associate, regional lawmaker Krishnanand Rai (no relation to the prosecutor). Six other people in Rai’s vehicle died in the hail of bullets. As for Singh, he lost his bid for a seat in the legislature by 2,000 votes. Aamir Bai, an official at Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad, where Singh is held, ruled out a phone interview with him.
Ansari, who was already in jail on charges of inciting a riot at the time of Rai’s killing, denies ordering the murder. He’s been charged in eight murder cases, as well as with extortion, gangsterism, and forgery. He’s been acquitted of murder once and had homicide charges dropped against him in five other cases, according to his lawyer, Gopal Swarup Chaturvedi.
While the list of alleged offenders running for election in Uttar Pradesh has lengthened, the state’s economy has expanded an average of 4.7 percent since 1991, compared with 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,” says Muhammad Taiyab, a businessman whose company employs 250 people making saris in Mau.
Ansari justifies violence as a legitimate response to the cruelties inspired by caste and religion. In parts of Uttar Pradesh, where the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative says 39 percent of the people live in “severe poverty,” communities turn to gangs for protection. “When we were growing up, higher-caste men came and attacked my village, raping the women and burning down homes,” says Ansari, a Muslim father of two. “Ever since that day, I have been fighting. If anyone troubles the poor, I will murder them.” Voters support candidates such as Ansari because they think they will protect them in the event of caste or religious confrontations, says Prakash Singh, a retired Uttar Pradesh police chief. “The idea is, ‘Who cares if he is a gangster? He is our gangster.’ ”