As the 15th Lok Sabha nears its end, a detailed study of its members and all contestants of the 2009 general election reveals fascinating and intriguing facts about our leaders. To a large extent, they have had an impact on policy formation in the Lower House over the last forty eight months.
We shall start with some good news. Contrary to general public awareness, Lok Sabha members today enjoy a remarkably high level of intellectual and academic accomplishment. Out of the 543 members sitting in the House, a total of 260 have post graduate, higher or technical degrees. 157 members today have atleast an undergraduate degree to their name. Thus, over 80% of the members sitting in the Lower House today hold a bachelors degree or higher. It is also heartening to note that in a country where so many are unable to receive even a basic education for no fault of theirs, education is not a barrier to entering politics. To the credit of Indian democracy, the current Lok Sabha comprises of 15 members with no formal education exceeding class five and 55 members with education not exceeding class ten.
The news now gets murkier. Members of the current Lok Sabha are a fabulously wealthy lot. Based on officially acknowledged wealth, one in five members is a dollar millionaire. Another forty percent are rupee crorepatis. However, deeper analysis shows that people with smaller bank balances too contested the 2009 general election in large numbers- it’s just that their success rate is very low. Two out of every five candidates at the last general election had wealth below Rs. 5 Lakh. Of these, 14 have won a seat in the House.
The most worrying feature of Indian Parliament is the presence of criminals. A large number of members in the 15th Lok Sabha have extremely colourful past’s. The proportion of those with one or more criminal cases pending against them is 14% amongst candidates but a shocking 32% for elected members. It is disheartening to note that the victory rate at the 2009 general elections was higher for accused than for clean candidates. Indeed, detailed data shows a steadily rising trend of victory rate as we move from candidates with no cases against them to those with large number of cases pending against them. Even if we were to not consider members facing trial for petty cases, the proportion of members charged with serious offenses is still 14%. This corresponds to 75 members in a House of 543! People may not be surprised to note that the victory rate for a candidate facing serious charges is a minimum twice that for the remaining.
What makes criminals so successful at winning elections in India? Why did 75 candidates with serious charges against them manage to win a seat in the House at the 15th general election? One major factor is that in the constituencies in which they contested, all candidates had criminal cases pending against them, thus leaving voters with little choice. This is especially true in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. Another explanation could be these candidates also happened to be extremely wealthy. This allows them to buy off support from labour unions and village sarpanches, both of whose support can be crucial in ensuring maximum voter turnout on election day. Political parties are more interested in finding candidates with greater chances of winning and thereby adding to seat share in parliament, rather than candidates having high moral standards. Thus, criminals are always in large demand. Also, we need to keep in mind that many of these candidates were incumbents from the 14th Lok Sabha and hence enjoyed access to official machinery and enjoyed the benefit of familiarity with voters and name recognition.
The big question that we must ask ourselves with respect to the preponderance of the wealthy and criminally influential in parliament is whether it has lead to policies detrimental to national interest and if so to what extent. It is clear that candidates and members with criminal cases create a big dilemma. The 15th Lok Sabha, like many of the fourteen before it is filled with some extremely shady characters. While it would be naive to expect any serious changes in the 16th Lok Sabha (with elections being barely a few months away), it is vital to ensure that candidates with serious charges are barred from contesting the 17th general election. A country seeking economic and political clout in a rapidly changing world needs a parliament which is truly reflective of its people and their ambitions. Hence, urgent legal and political reforms are required to resolve this problem and establish a parliament which commands respect of its people, both at home and abroad. Only then can India truly unleash its enormous potential and move towards social and economic prosperity in a harmonious manner.