Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 27 March 2024

Empowering Voters

Relevance: GS Paper II

Why in News?

The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Common Cause, petitioners in the Electoral Bonds case in the Supreme Court, deserve the highest appreciation for their efforts to expose the unethical relationship between political parties and businesses.

Role of money in politics:

  • Parties often innovate opaque avenues to extort funds from businesses in return for quid-pro-quo, a problem every democracy struggles 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.
  • The role of money in politics becomes even more apparent when one considers that the assets of 71 MPs re-elected to the Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2019 have increased threefold.

Criminalisation of politics:

  • Parliament and State Assemblies are filled with criminals, supported by all parties. Some go to jail for a few weeks or months but rarely get convicted. Some fight elections from behind bars and win, while others are released on bail to change sides and re-enter the legislature with implicit assurance of protection.
    • As per ADR data of 2023, of the 4,001 legislators in 28 states and 2 UTs across India, 44% are facing criminal charges, almost a mirror-image at the Centre where 43% of the Lok Sabha MPs elected in 2019 have criminal charges against them, as against 34% in 2014, of committing serious crimes like murder, attempt to murder, rape, kidnapping etc.
    • ADR data disclosed that in the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Goa, 309 out of the 689 MLAs (45%) registered criminal cases against them.
  • The question that amuses, is why voters vote for such tainted candidates and Bahubalis with serious criminal charges?
    • 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%, while those with serious criminal cases constituted 23%.
    • Studies point out the obvious causal relationship between criminal-packed legislatures and subsequent lower economic growth and poor provision of public services.
  • Voters may prefer criminals because they expect them to be better equipped to use legal or extralegal means to fulfil their election promises. Or maybe voters lack information about the precise nature of criminal charges, in which case they dismiss the issue as a 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.
    • Still, 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.

Voting behaviour and governance issues:

  • ADR conducted an ”All India Survey on Governance Issues and Voting Behaviour” in 2018, in which 36% of respondents were willing to vote for criminal candidates if they had done good work in the past.
    • However, 98% were against sending candidates with criminal backgrounds to the legislatures.
  • The ADR Report “Analysis of Sitting MPs from Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha of India 2023” (September 2023) details 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 are unaware of this.
    • Even when aware, they 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 freely available information about candidates' criminality and assets.

Reforms taken:

  • 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.
    • This reverses 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 a criminal court had framed charges.
  • In 2013, the Central Information Commission declared six national parties as public authorities, thereby bringing them under the purview of the RTI Act.
    • Still, it has not prevented the lawbreakers from becoming lawmakers.
  • In 2018 and 2020, the SC issued directives to political parties to disclose the criminal histories of their electoral candidates and required 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.
    • However, parties often fail to comply and persistently neglect their public disclosure obligations, while the EC takes no serious exception.

Effectiveness of information provision - a study:

  • “Coordinating Voters against Criminal Politicians: Evidence from a Mobile Experiment in India” (2018), a study conducted by the Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, during the 2017 assembly elections in UP 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% of it is rural, more than 85% of households possess at least one mobile phone.
  • 38 constituencies were chosen, of which 35% of candidates faced criminal charges, and 40% faced serious criminal charges. All parties had fielded criminal candidates.
    • The BJP won a landslide victory with 312 seats, in which 107, or 27%, 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:
    • Mr XXX from BSP (elephant party) has 1 criminal case, with an attempt to murder charges.
    • Mr YYY from BJP (lotus party) has no criminal cases.
    • Mr ZZZ from Congress (hand party) has 3 criminal cases but has no violent charges.”
  • Villages were divided into two groups:
    • Two-thirds belonged to the Control Group to whom no message was sent and
    • One-third of the people who received the messages belong to the Treatment Group.
  • 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%, and votes for candidates with no charges increased by 6.7%.
  • Overall turnout also increased by 1.6%. 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.
  • Regression analysis estimated that criminal candidates would have received a 6% higher vote share than non-criminal candidates without the intervention.

Way forward - Lessons drawn from the study:

  • Having information in the public domain is not enough, especially in a large country that is lagging in internet literacy. It is equally important to inform voters, and it is very much possible for the Election Commission to have 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.


A comprehensive analysis of the intertwining issues regarding money, criminal activity, and politics is provided, along with practical solutions to empower voters with knowledge. 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.