A penchant for criminality is an electoral asset in India, the world’s biggest democracy

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. By Milan Vaishnav. Yale University Press; 410 pages; $40. To be published in Britain in March; £25.

ALL politicians are crooks. At least, that is what a lot of people think in a lot of countries. One assumes it is a reproach. But not in India. Indian politicians who have been charged with or convicted of serious misdeeds are three times as likely to win parliamentary elections as those who have not. In “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics” Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace meticulously tracks the remarkable political success of India’s accused murderers, blackmailers, thieves and kidnappers. Having been a symptom of India’s dysfunctional politics, the felons are metastasising into its cause.

Sadly, this is not a book about some small, shady corner of Indian politics: 34% of the members of parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (lower house) have criminal charges filed against them; and the figure is rising (see chart). Some of the raps are peccadillos, such as rioting or unlawful assembly—par for the course in India’s raucous local politics. But over a fifth of MPs are in the dock for serious crimes, often facing reams of charges for anything from theft to intimidation and worse. (Because the Indian judicial system has a backlog of 31m cases, even serious crimes can take a decade or more to try, so few politicians have been convicted.) One can walk just about the whole way from Mumbai to Kolkata without stepping foot outside a constituency whose MP isn’t facing a charge.

Mr Vaishnav dissects both the reasons why the goons want to get elected and why the electorate seems to be so fond of them. Their desire for office is relatively new. After independence in 1947 thugs used to bribe politicians to stay out of trouble and to secure lucrative state concessions such as mining rights. It helped that candidates from the dominant Congress party were sure to win a seat and then stay there. From the 1980s, as Congress started to fade as a political force, bribing its local representative became less of a sure thing for local crooks. So in the same way that a carmaker might start manufacturing its own tyres if it finds that outside suppliers are unreliable, Mr Vaishnav argues that the dons promoted themselves into holding office, thus providing their own political cover.

What is more surprising is that the supply of willing criminals-cum-politicians was met with eager demand from voters. Over the past three general elections, a candidate with a rap sheet of serious charges has had an 18% chance of winning his or her race, compared with 6% for a “clean” rival. Mr Vaishnav dispels the conventional wisdom that crooks win because they can get voters to focus on caste or some other sectarian allegiance, thus overlooking their criminality. If anything, the more serious the charge, the bigger the electoral boost, as politicians well know

As so often happens in India, poverty plays a part. India is almost unique in having adopted universal suffrage while it was still very poor. The upshot has been that underdeveloped institutions fail to deliver what citizens vote for. Getting the state to perform its most basic functions—building a school, disbursing a subsidy, repaving a road—is a job that can require banging a few heads together. Sometimes literally. Who better to represent needy constituents in these tricky situations than someone who “knows how to get things done”? If the system doesn’t work for you, a thuggish MP can be a powerful ally.

Political parties, along with woefully inadequate campaign-finance rules, have helped the rise of the thug-candidate. Campaigns are hugely expensive. Voters need to be wooed with goodies—anything from hooch to jewels, bikes, bricks and straight-up cash will do. Criminals fill party coffers rather than drain them, and so are tolerated.

“When Crime Pays” can be grimly amusing. In 2008 government whips desperate to avoid parliamentary defeat sprung six MPs out of prison for a few days to get them to cast their votes, never mind the 100-odd cases of kidnapping, arson, murder and so on that the MPs faced between them. Some of the gangster-statesmen are straight out of Bollywood films. A fan of a local politician at one point explains that his man “is not a murderer. He merely manages murder.” Spare a thought for the libel lawyers at Yale University Press, Mr Vaishnav’s brave publisher.

If his book has a defect, it is that the author seeks only to answer the questions for which he has data. This academic diligence is laudable, but it narrows the scope of his survey to just one corner of India’s political moral depths: there is precious little about corruption in office, for example, beyond pointing out that MPs leave office vastly richer than when they came in. Perhaps inevitably in a case where the problems are so deeply entrenched, the book offers few solutions.

But Mr Vaishnav does spell out the perils of India’s elevation of lawbreakers to lawmakers. Constituencies represented by crooks suffer economically. A bigger cost is in the legitimacy of the public sphere as a whole when even MPs can flout the rule of law so brazenly. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged to clean up the system, for example by recently scrapping large-denomination bank notes, which he thinks contribute to corruption. One presumes that the 13 alleged lawbreaking MPs he appointed to his first cabinet (eight of them facing serious criminal charges) all supported the move.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “Conviction politicians”