The India Ink staff caught up with Milan Vaishnav prior to the launch of his book, "When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Politics", at Georgetown University. 


India Ink: Congratulations on the launch of your book, "When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics". Any observer of Indian politics would say that your book-launch was very timely as it came around the same time as the government’s introduction of electoral funding reform, demonetisation, mass note circulation in UP and Punjab, as well as the political fracas in the AIADMK. You’ve been in India for the past 2 weeks and have travelled extensively promoting your book. How do you think the book was received from your varied interactions on this recent tour?

Milan Vaishnav:  I think the book was very well received. And that was because people took it in the spirit that was intended, not as a way to criticize India or to point out flaws in India’s democracy, but to say that democracy everywhere is a work in progress and it is in India as well. And it is in a particular stage of its development where the underlying conditions are such that they give way to this particular equilibrium of crime and politics and so it’s a subject that almost every single citizen of India knows. Some know it better than others but they’ve all experienced it, they’ve all watched cinema, they’ve all read stories or heard stories about famous criminal positions or Godfather like figures, but overall  I think people were really appreciative that someone had taken out the time to try to break down the constituent pieces of this marketplace that exists for this sort of crime and politics and unpack it in a dispassionate way. I was very focused on a clinical approach, not to insert my own normative judgements about how crime is bad, or democracy should look a certain way and so I think that was something that was well received because it was presented in a comparative framework — there are other democracies today or historically that have seen similar types of episodes, so I think putting India in that kind of a broader context was appreciated.

India Ink: “Those whose feet we used to touch, are now touching our feet. We captured booths. We captured booths for them, now we are in power.” This sentence captures well the transition in criminals taking over from politicians who used to employ them in the past. While this was a process that took place in the 80s and into the early 90s - do we continue to see new criminals or their offspring coming into the political system? Or is the choice of candidate changing as politicians albeit bound by the old strictures of patronage appeal beyond caste and community lines to a new generation of young voters?

Milan Vaishnav: I don’t think we’re at a place yet where the nature of the candidate pool is showing a significant sign of change. There were a class of well known dons — The Shahabuddhins, The Abdul Latifs, who are now no longer active. But what we sometimes lose sight of is that there are now lesser known individuals that have come up and are becoming the new dons and the new dadas (bosses). So, there is a reproduction of this type of politics and what’s interesting is that this is something that spans political parties, it spans geographies, and I think there is a small change that is happening. Originally there were these people who went through a transformation, from criminals to politicians. There is another strain of people who come into politics completely clean (have no criminal records), but in order to survive in the political context they start engaging in illegal activity. I recount in the book a character whose name I hid, who was standing for office in Andhra Pradesh, who said that even if he was lucky enough to win, it’s going to be pretty hard to stay honest and upright because of the shortcuts one needs to go through to survive financially and politically. So I’m afraid that we do still have these things continuing today.


India Ink: In the opening chapters of the book you explain the institutional decline of the Congress system a la Rajni Kothari - that left a vacuum for the vertical integration process for criminals to turn politicians. And that’s a system we read on and know to have persisted. However, with elections from 2014 onwards appealing  across caste lines, the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party on the back of an anti-corruption movement, Akhilesh Yadav making a marked appeal to appeal to young voters, not giving Mukhtar Ansari a ticket - do you see this new kind of politics making a dent in such crime continuing to be perennial in Indian politics?

Milan Vaishnav: I think there is a sense in which we should become more optimistic. Whether it’s Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi, Akhilesh Yadav, the discourse of campaigns is changing entirely. This whole idea of campaigning on social justice ends, now the talk is that social justice matters but it matters to the end of better development (vikas). The shift that we’ve from Lalu to Nitish is emblematic of a trend taking place across the country. However at the end of the day, people/voters are very pragmatic, they realize it’s going to take time that this type of governance is going to take time to seep down to the local level. And so, in a first best world we’ll have mini Nitish Kumars and mini Akhilesh Yadavs but we’re only at the beginning of that transition. We’ve started on a journey towards a cleaner politics, but I believe it will be a long transition period. If we look at all the new age CEO type chief ministers who are governing, if we analyze the people who they’ve given election tickets to we’ll realize that they’re still making the same compromises with money and muscle.


India Ink: On Vikram Chandra’s show, The Big Fight, in the context of electoral finance you said - "Politicians have asked the entire country to go digital - it’s now time for them to do so." What are your views on the intent shown by the government with the inclusion of reforms in electoral finance in this budget?

Milan Vaishnav: I start out with the positive premise that we should give credit to any politician who is willing to use his/her platform to raise awareness and create a platform to discuss and debate these issues of money and politics. Which for decades have been swept under the rug. Everybody knows it exists but nobody wants to talk about it. So, on that, I give the Modi government high marks. I do not give them high marks on the reform proposals that they’ve had in the budget because if you look at them collectively, basically they result in small reforms which aren’t going to have much of an impact on the ground. So they’ll get support from other politicians but they are not going to fundamentally change the realities. So, I fear that this was a missed opportunity to do something bold, but the good news is that there is really a robust debate happening in India on whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing. So I take some solace in the fact that these issues are not front and center and not in the closet.

India Ink: It is well known that the budget’s reforms were recommendations from the Election Commission (EC). This is a rare time in which the government has recognized these recommendations. In your understanding, can the EC play a role in regulating electoral funds through the new electoral bonds pass?

Milan Vaishnav: I think the Election Commission is hamstrung a little bit by its powers given to it by the parliament. I think that it does have to use its bully pulpit in a stronger, more direct fashion, including by changing public opinion. If you look at whatever polls have been done on the faith in Indian institutions, the EC, along with the army are two of the highest rated. So they have a unique position that they could exploit. However, that hasn't always been it's highlight. For instance, one of the proposals they submitted was that you need to give cash donations lower than Rs. 20,000, otherwise you have to give it by cheque. Now, that’s such a piecemeal reform because before people would give Rs. 19,999 and package it up. So the only way to fix this is complete transparency for every rupee that is given in political donations. So I think the EC also needs to push the envelope a little bit of these things, because it’s not necessarily their job to think about what’s politically feasible. They need to point out what needs to be done and start pointing the flag there and making the compromises and not limiting the space for maneuver.

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics


Milan Vaishnav: Power and Pelf

By Siddharth Singh - Open Magazine

Freedom With Defects

By Ramachandra Guha - The Telegraph

The Dark Side of Indian Politics

The Economist