How do Indian voters respond to candidates with criminal charges: Evidence from Lok Sabha elections

  • Blog Post Date 30 July, 2012
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An alarming number of India's politicians have criminal records or some charges against them. This column asks how they manage to get away with it. It looks at evidence from parliamentary elections in 2009 and suggests that while voters dislike crooked politicians, the amount these politicians spend on their campaigns does a good job of hiding the truth.

The nexus between Indian politicians and criminals has assumed alarming proportions. A disturbingly large number of members of the national parliament and states assemblies have been indicted with serious charges including murder. This is despite The Representation of People’s Act, 1951, under which convicted candidates are barred from contesting elections for a specified period. Unfortunately, this law hardly has any bite because of the well-known infirmities in the Indian judicial system. In particular, governments typically drag their feet when it comes to prosecuting “local elites”. Even when cases are registered, inordinate judicial delay implies that these cases drag on, seemingly indefinitely.

A landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in 2002 required every candidate contesting state and national elections to submit a legal affidavit disclosing his or her personal educational, financial, and criminal records and whether the candidate had ever been convicted. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's order has not curbed the entry of tainted candidates –those with criminal charges against them.In fact, the win-ratio ratio – the number of successful candidates to the number of contesting candidates – is substantially higher for tainted candidates. Possible explanations for the higher win-ratio are that tainted candidates have significantly greater wealth and that typically are nominated by national and recognized state parties.

Evidence from other countries suggests that electorates do punish corrupt politicians by voting them out of office. At first sight, the fact that tainted candidates in India have a higher win-ratio suggests that Indian voters deviate from this behaviour since they do not seem to penalise such candidates.

In our research, we examine Indian voters' response to tainted candidates using data from the affidavits filed by candidates contesting the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. We do this within the framework of a simple analytical model which assumes that criminal charges do give rise to some stigma amongst the electorate. This stigma has a negative effect on vote shares since voters are less likely to vote for candidates who have criminal charges levied against them. Campaigning, the cost of which is borne from candidates’ wealth, helps a candidate to increase his or her expected vote share by winning over the ‘marginal’ voter. A tainted candidate gets an additional benefit since he can use the campaigning to convince voters of his innocence. This is plausible since the candidates have not been convicted, but only charged with some criminal offence.

We assume that every candidate in the constituency has a fixed policy or electoral platform. Given the policies of all other candidates, a candidate decides how much to spend on campaigning. The main focus of the theoretical model is on how candidates decide on the amount of campaign expenditure, and how this affects expected vote shares. Voters take into account the different policies offered by the candidates as well as other relevant candidate characteristics. Knowing this, candidates choose the amount of campaign expenditure taking into account their expected vote share and its cost.

We do not have data on campaign expenditure of candidates. However, our model predicts that:

  • The higher the wealth of a candidate, the greater will be his campaign expenditure,
  • Campaign expenditure has a positive effect on expected vote share, with the marginal effect possibly differing across the two categories of candidates – those with criminal charges, and those with an unblemished record.

Putting these together, the model prediction is that expected vote shares should be positively related to candidate wealth, with the marginal effect perhaps being different across the two categories of candidates.

Main findings

Our main empirical finding is that voters do penalise candidates with criminal charges. All else being equal, the vote share of a candidate with criminal charges is lower than that of the one who does not have any such blemish. However, these tainted candidates are able to overcome this electoral disadvantage because they have greater wealth, and wealth plays a significant role in increasing vote shares. The most plausible channel through which wealth affects vote shares is of course through campaign expenditures, which are likely to be positively related to wealth. We also find that the stigma attached to being a tainted candidate declines if there are other tainted candidates in the constituency. There is also some evidence that the stigma attached to criminal charges increases as the crime reported in the state increases. This suggests that voters in crime-prone states tend to punish tainted candidates.

Since voters penalise candidates with criminal charges, why do political parties still nominate them? Given the huge demand for party tickets, the nomination of candidates with criminal records suggests that such candidates must possess some electoral advantage. A plausible explanation starts from the premise that candidates facing the threat of criminal convictions are more keen to contest the elections. Apart from the usual benefits which accrue to all successful candidates, candidates with criminal indictments look forward to an additional benefit. In particular, successful candidates can with high probability either use coercion or influence to ensure that the local administration does not pursue the case(s) against them with any vigour.

Moreover, the data suggest that tainted candidates are wealthier than those without criminal charges. Also, they are probably willing to contribute a higher fraction of their wealth to the party. This simply reflects the higher price or value that they place on a party ticket. So, tainted candidates generate positive externalities to candidates of their own party since their additional contributions release party funds which can be used in other constituencies.

What does this mean for policy?

Our empirical results have some simple policy conclusions. First, it is important for voters to be better informed about candidate characteristics. Perhaps, the Election Commission needs to play a more active role in disseminating the information contained in the candidates’ affidavits since all voters may not be aware of candidate characteristics. Second, the Commission must also think seriously about enhancing the existing ceilings on campaign expenditure since practically no candidate or party adheres to the current limits on expenditure, and ensure that all candidates adhere to the enhanced (but realistic) ceiling. This will then at least reduce the ‘wealth advantage’ enjoyed by tainted politicians.

Further Reading

  • Dutta, B and P Gupta (2012), 'How Do Indian Voters Respond to Candidates with Criminal Charges: Evidence from the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections', Mimeo.
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