Why Do Corrupt Politicians Win Elections?

Corruption in India is like oxygen – it is integral to our lives. From the local traffic police to spectrum allocation at the cabinet level, corruption is as rampant as potholes on Indian roads. You can move your file faster in a government office if you accompany it with a bit of “chai paani”, a word we have coined to convince ourselves we are not all that dishonest because it’s not quite “rishwat”.
Corruption is a major election plank for our political parties. One party says, “Mera PM chor hai”, the other says “Tera pura khandan chor hai” and the average person on the street believes, “Saale sab chor hai”. This defeatism pervaded our Supreme Court recently, when it took the hands-off position by allowing politicians with criminal backgrounds to contest elections — so long as they were loud and clear about their criminal antecedents. This, presumably, would help the voter make an informed choice, and possibly avoid the worst among equals.
But is our political system devoid of good and honest people? Many politicians vying for seats in every election at every level are squeaky clean, but not only do they fail to win, they even end up losing their security deposits. “Jab sab corrupt hai, akele koi system change nahi kar sakta,” is a common refrain. Think of an honest politician like a Rajkummar Rao film. No matter how good he is, how lauded in the media, he’ll never be able to make hundreds of crores the way Salman Khan is bound to by singing “Swag Se Swagat” and jumping out of flying helicopters. Take our most famous aam aadmi for instance. When Arvind Kejriwal was elected chief minister of Delhi in 2o13, the entire nation celebrated like we’d won the UNESCO award for the Most Honest Nation Ever. We were filled with renewed hope, even though it was crushed faster than the CM could cure his cough.
Every election result presents a bleak statistic about the percentage of elected MLAs that have criminal charges against them, and the number keeps escalating much like pollution levels in Delhi. If we all want honest and good people to represent us instead of crooks and thugs, how are the results otherwise? Why do honest people keep losing elections? Why do corrupt, criminal politicians keep winning? Why does Lalu Prasad still have clout in Bihar? And who enables someone like murderer Shambhu Lal Regar to join politics?
The lazy way to analyse this phenomenon is to blame the population. It is the people’s fault that Salman Khan movies are a hit. It is the people’s fault that IPL is so popular despite constant accusations of irregularities and match fixing. It is the people who are irresponsible and apathetic, else why would they vote for corrupt and dishonest candidates?
And actually, you’d be right — it is the people who bring such men to power, but not for the reasons we might believe. To borrow a quote from the 23rd Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, “The tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access. This may be why he survives.”
If you’re from the lower-middle-class or poorer sections of society, you struggle with gaining access to public service. You may get your children admitted to a government school, but the teachers don’t show up. You have a medical prescription, but government dispensaries are perpetually out of stock. You may have a ration card, but the shop has no ration. You are entitled to a house as part of a government housing scheme, but the construction is on hold for years. You have a right to all these public services, but because the system is broken, you don’t get access to what is yours. This is where the corrupt make inroads.
In 2006, IIT alumni formed a party in Tamil Nadu and declared “Reality is a continuum. Knowledge system, in shortest, is fragmentation imposed upon the continuum of reality.” Karunanidhi offered voters a free colour TV and won the election. The corrupt politician is aware of the fallacies in our public service delivery system and what makes the voter tick. Before every election he goes into an overdrive, doling out freebies – everything from pressure cookers, to rice, to mangalsutras. The corrupt neta helps the underprivileged navigate a broken system, by helping secure an admission in a private school or work at a government job. He finds a way to get medicines, helps file an FIR at the police station, or use his connections to get a file moving in a government office – in exchange for the voter’s trust.
I remember my house help telling me that she’d vote for a certain MLA in the last election because she promised to get her son admission in college. I told her he is corrupt, she remained unaffected. “Bhaiya, doosra party saree de raha hai. Uska kya kaam,” she told me. Sarees that are obviously funded by business interests that have cosied up to the politician.
The cycle, comprises the voter, the politician, and the businessman, goes on. Our collective failure to break the cycle, is why corrupt politicians keep winning.
But how do we fix this problem? An essay in The Atlantic titled “Honest Politicians Won’t Fix Corruption” points out, “Worldwide, candidates for elected offices are running on highly personalised anti-corruption platforms, offering themselves as the solution. What countries really need, though, are smart laws that reduce the incentives and opportunities for corruption. They also need strong institutions that enforce those laws and deprive corrupt officials, and their private-sector accomplices, of impunity in their efforts to get rich at the public’s expense.”
All of which seems so basic, it’s a wonder that it needs to be said at all. But often, the fundamentals are the hardest to change. Until then, politicians will keep offering colour TVs, maybe even Jio connections to adapt with the changing times. And the public will keep pretending it is chai paani if it gets the work done — whether it is cash under the table or digital cashless money through PayTM.

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