In India's Politics, Jail Time Is a Badge of Honor

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DALTENGANJ, India -- When he decided to run for a parliamentary seat from this impoverished, and mainly low-caste constituency in northeast India, Kameshwar Baitha made no effort to sugarcoat his criminal record.

Obediently, he cataloged the serious charges pending against him, all of which he says are false. There were 17 for murder, 22 for attempted murder, 6 for assault with a dangerous weapon, 5 for theft, 2 for extortion, and so on, a legacy from Mr. Baitha's previous career as a leader of the local Maoist insurgency. On top of that was the fact that he was in jail.

But this did not hurt him with voters here, noted his son, Babban Kumar, who hopes to follow his father into politics. With people in this area, who look to elected leaders as Robin Hood figures, it may have helped.

"You have to fight against something, how else can you get into politics?" Mr. Kumar said. "Without going to jail, you cannot be a big politician."

New impulses are rippling through Indian politics this year, as a growing, urbanized middle class demands that hundreds of tainted politicians be driven from the system.

In Delhi, crowds driven by Internet campaigns have rallied around an anticorruption platform, holding brooms to symbolize the coming cleansing. The Supreme Court, sensing the public mood, ruled in July that it was illegal for politicians who had been convicted of crimes to continue holding office by simply filing an appeal against their convictions. The ruling would disqualify politicians sentenced to more than two years in prison by a lower court. This change, which could uproot formidable political forces, was endorsed this month by the governing coalition's crown prince, Rahul Gandhi.

The effort will meet its greatest challenge in another India -- the old one, where voting is still largely driven by caste. In the tribal region that Mr. Baitha represents, the vast majority of elected officials face criminal charges, most related to corruption, but many for violent crimes. Voters typically dismiss such charges as trumped-up, one more attempt by elites to crush the champions of the poor.

These are some of the things that allowed Mr. Baitha to discuss the subject comfortably in the red-velvet seating area of a government guesthouse, as a ceiling fan turned slowly overhead. He urged his guest to imagine if everyone convicted of a crime were barred from politics.

"The whole Parliament will be empty," he said. "It will become a joke."

A big test of the new measures' effect will come in the case of Lalu Prasad, the longtime leader of the neighboring state of Bihar, who was disqualified from holding office and running in coming elections this month after being sentenced on corruption charges. The case against him had proceeded at a snail's pace for 17 years, as Mr. Prasad had thumbed his nose at prosecutors.

A master of populist showmanship who came from a caste of cow herders, he transformed his court dates into political theater. He arrived for one session in the back of a bicycle rickshaw, surrounded by throngs of adoring supporters, and once left jail on the back of a small elephant.

The dance seemed to end with his sentencing. But last week, sitting inside the Birsa Munda jail in Ranchi, it seemed he was perfectly capable of managing his still-formidable political empire. Scores of aides and supporters were clustered outside the jail's iron gate, bearing coconuts and handwritten letters. Prison guards let visitors in and out at regular intervals, as if they were operating a reception center. The Telegraph, Ranchi's main English-language daily newspaper, reported that he had summoned a tailor to his cell.

When a local anticorruption activist filed a complaint, charging that the visits were a major violation of prison regulations, Mr. Prasad decided to keep a "low profile" by receiving visitors only after 3 p.m., the newspaper reported. His visitors all said the charges were false. "People in Delhi don't want the poor people to rise," said one of them, Kumar Lakshman, 28. "Lalu is causing the poor people to rise."

Nationwide, the number of Indian officeholders facing criminal charges is extraordinary: 30 percent of winners in national and regional elections since 2008, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a research group based in New Delhi. The reasons are manifold; as India's democratic system evolved, candidates depended heavily on thuggish "muscle men," and later "money men," to influence voters and sweep them into office. Corruption is widespread.

But it is also true that spending limits are so low that virtually any candidate bent on winning would have to be willing to break the law. The penalty for filing false charges is negligible. And India's independence movement was founded on civil disobedience, so lawbreaking is enmeshed in the political culture.

It is not yet clear whether this will change now, said Neerja Chowdhury, a journalist and political commentator. Major parties may steer clear of candidates facing criminal charges, fearful of losing a seat in case of disqualification. But they may also consider the outpouring of popular support extended to Mr. Prasad or Jaganmohan Reddy, another regional leader facing corruption charges. "It is a strange paradox, there is huge sympathy for him, and by all accounts he is gaining ground," Ms. Chowdhury said of Mr. Reddy. Corruption, she added, "is more of an urban middle-class issue rather than for groups who are in ascendance."

A similar dynamic drove the improbable rise of Mr. Baitha, 60, a former revolutionary who received visitors in a snow-white tunic and pajamas, discreetly accepting a packet of chewing tobacco from an aide.

Mr. Baitha's region erupted in a peasant rebellion in the 1970s, as Maoist fighters clashed with private armies fielded by high-caste landlords. The authorities have identified Mr. Baitha as an expert in explosives who masterminded many attacks. He denies this, saying he served strictly as an ideological leader after his organization was banned by the Indian government in 1986 and never took up arms.

Mr. Baitha decided to enter politics after he was jailed pending trial in 2005. With time on his hands, he reread the writings of Mao and Lenin, considered the effects of economic growth and technology on Indian society and began to question the Maoists' confidence that an armed struggle would sweep away the government in New Delhi.

"It was a difficult period for me, but I decided," he said. "I changed my ideology."

He had such high name recognition in Jharkhand, he said, that he easily won the seat without leaving the jail to campaign. There was, however, the somewhat delicate matter of the criminal charges pending against him; of all 4,807 candidates elected since 2008, he had the longest record, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms. Voters made it clear, however, that the charges did not matter, and he said most of the cases were dropped after he was elected to Parliament.

People approached in Jharkhand's capital said the accusations were false, advanced by Mr. Baitha's political opponents. Others conceded that there was truth in the charges, but said it had in no way damaged Mr. Baitha's image. Santosh Kumar Dube, who holds a municipal office in Ranchi, said he believed that Mr. Baitha "fought with arms, and participated in some massacres" during his time as a Maoist. But he added: "All these charges against him were made in the process of fighting for poor people. People are not afraid of him."

For his part, Mr. Baitha admitted some anxiety about the changes in Indian politics, which he acknowledged could have prevented him from running in the first place. The new rigor over leaders' criminal convictions, he said, has put a powerful new weapon in the hands of political opposition and has called into question the judgment of voters, who are, he said, perfectly aware who they are voting into office.

"I have this concern, that my political career ends because of these charges," he said, but then he collected himself.

"I have full faith it will not happen to me," he said. "I have faith in the judicial system."

Hari Kumar and Malavika Vyawahare contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 14, 2013 2:01 PM


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