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New Study Shows 25 Percent of Indian Lawmakers Face Criminal Charges

In India a new independent study shows nearly a quarter of the elected members of parliament face criminal charges. The study has put the spotlight on what analysts say is a growing link between crime and politics in the world's largest democracy.

In national elections six months ago, India's Election Commission asked all candidates to reveal their criminal past, if any. The initiative was part of an effort to put politicians under closer public scrutiny.

Sifting through that data, the Bangalore-based independent Public Affairs Center has come up with what it describes a wake-up call to Indian democracy.

The groups' report says nearly one in every four members elected to parliament has been charged with crimes that range from destruction of property to rape, kidnapping, murder and extortion.

The head of the Public Affairs Center, Samuel Paul, says at least half of the 25 percent are accused of the most serious crimes.

"Nearly 50 percent of these people…nearly half have the most serious cases against them, that is cases which could potentially lead to an imprisonment of five years or more. In the penal code this is the highest," Mr. Paul said.

Political analysts say the link that exists between crime and politics in a handful of Indian states - Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand - was well-known. But few expected that the problem was so pervasive, and had impacted national politics on this scale.

The Public Affairs Center says these states still account for the largest number of legislators facing criminal charges.

These big, underdeveloped areas are often known as the badlands of India - and local media has often reported how powerful gangsters convert their muscle power into votes for national representatives, whether with money or guns.

The Congress Party, which heads the federal coalition, for example has come under heavy attack for appointing several so-called "tainted" ministers who face criminal charges.

The Congress Party's defends its action, saying the law allows the accused to hold office until they are proven guilty in court.

But that apparently is not something that happens with any due speed.

Analysts say criminal cases often linger in courts for decades, and convictions are hard to come by. Case in point: The current Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav has faced corruption charges since 1997, but his case is still dragging through the court system.

A Congress party spokesman, Tom Vadakan, admits there is a growing link between crime and politics, but is confident that Indian democracy will weather the storm.

"This does pose a major problem. This nexus exists cannot be denied nor be swept under the carpet. But [the] point remains the system has survived… and despite all this, our system is competent to take on the shock of these kinds of people in politics," Mr. Vadakan said.

Both the Congress Party and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party say reforms are necessary to weed out the unsavory elements.

But BJP spokesman Siddharth Nath Singh says that may not be easy at a time when support of regional parties is vital for the survival of national governments.

"That problem is going to be there because we are in a coalition era. You don't know how to address because you are supported by regional parties. The numbers, as of now, is coming from the regional parties where this (criminal charges) is becoming more and more popular," Mr. Singh said.

Civil society groups such as the Public Affairs Center are now calling for a wider debate on how to clean up the system.

Mr. Paul at the Public Affairs Center says his group will campaign to raise awareness about what he calls the "growing criminalization" of Indian politics.

"Basic place to start is informing, educating the public about the meaning of all this. Because our electorate is also very often ignorant and driven by caste or other considerations it won't bear fruit for some time to come. But public education, attacking public apathy and ignorance on all this has to be a very fundamental thing," Mr. Paul said.

Several measures, such as state funding of elections, have been proposed to attract a better class of people to politics. But analysts say political consensus to push through such measures may be hard to find.