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Why do Indians Vote the way They Do?

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The President, Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil addressing at the function to mark the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of the Parliament of India, in Central Hall of Parliament House, in New Delhi on May 13, 2012.

SAN FRANCISCO (Diya TV) — Why are a large portion of India’s elected officials convicted criminals? And why does India’s voting populous prefer these candidates despite their tainted pasts?

Political scientist Milan Vaishnav has been studying the links between crime and democracy in India for several years, his upcoming book, When Crime Pays, offers an in-depth look at the disturbing reality that is the India electorate.

It’s not all negatives. Election turnout in India has hit an all-time high, more than 500 million voters stood in lines at more than 900,000 polling stations to cast their ballots in the country’s 2014 general election. The election had more than 8,000 candidates representing 464 different political parties, a figure far higher than that of the 55 parties that ran in the country’s first election in 1952.

The scaring statistic from that election came in the aftermath — 34 percent of the Members of Parliament elected were currently facing criminal charges. That’s a 30 percent increase from the 2009 election, and 24 percent higher than 2004.

The average margin of victory during the 2009 election was 9.7 percent, the thinnest margin since the 1952 election. In 2014, it skyrocketed to 15 percent.

The charges against the officials ranged from minor civilian offenses, to those alleging political corruption. But more than 20 percent of the new Members of Parliament faced more serious charges, such as attempted murder, assaulting public officials and theft. Nearly all of India’s political parties, including the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress, are populated with tainted members and candidates.

Why is that?

Vaishnav said “a key factor motivating parties to select candidates with serious criminal records comes down to cold, hard cash.”

American isn’t the only country where the cost of professional politics is shattering records election after election. There are three million positions in India’s three-tier democracy, election to any require considerable economic resources.

“Wealthy, self financing candidates are not only attractive to parties but they are also likely to be more electorally competitive. Contesting elections is an expensive proposition in most parts of the world, a candidate’s wealth is a good proxy for his or her electoral vitality,” Vaishnav, who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.

Parties have also taken to running candidates with criminal backgrounds because, simply put, they win.

Vaishnav studied every candidate that ran in each of the last three elections and split them into two categories — those with clean records and those with criminal backgrounds. His studies found the dirty candidates stood an 18 percent chance of winning election, while those with no record at all had just a six percent chance of election.

Professional politics also serve as a lucrative career for citizens — a 2013 study revealed the average wealth of the country’s legislators increased 222 percent during their first term in office. The officially declared average wealth of re-contesting candidates — including losers and winners — was $264,000 in 2004 and $618,000 in 2013, an increase of 134 percent.

Candidates with criminal records have never gone to great lengths to mask their identities, either. Earlier this month, a a candidate belonging to the ruling party in northern Uttar Pradesh state reportedly boasted to a party worker that he was the “biggest criminal.”

It’s Vaishnav’s belief these officials are elected because reasonably well-informed voters support them in constituencies where social divisions driven by caste and/or religion are sharp and the government is failing to carry out its functions — delivering services, dispensing justice, or providing security — in an impartial manner.

“There is space here for a criminal candidate to present himself as a Robin Hood-like figure,” Vaishnav said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested state funding of polling stations to help sanitize the country’s campaign finance. This month, Modi said India’s citizens had a right to know where his party, the BJP, gets its funds from. Some 14 percent of the BJP candidates during the 2014 election had faced serious criminal charges at some point in their lives.

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Sukhpal Singh arrested in Tusli Mandir hate crime case

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