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Term Crooked Politician Takes on New Meaning in India

An Indian government minister has been jailed for life for murdering an aide 12 years ago. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, almost a fourth of the members of India's parliament face charges for crimes ranging up to rape and murder.

Shibu Soren was federal minister for coal until last week, when a judge convicted him and four accomplices of murdering Soren's secretary in 1994. Federal investigators said the aide was killed because he knew Soren had accepted a bribe in 1993 in return for his vote on a key parliamentary motion.

It was the first time a powerful minister has been convicted in a country where crime and politics are no strangers. An independent study shows that nearly a quarter of the elected members of parliament face criminal charges, ranging from minor offenses such as destruction of property, up to and including rape, kidnapping, murder and extortion.

Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says the nexus between crime and politics is broad.

"Many people would argue that in the late '60's and '70's, money began to play a much larger role in political mobilization, and somewhere around that time, this trend expanded," Rangarajan said. "There are people who have fairly clear underworld connections, particularly in terms of fund-raising, or control of muscle power."

Shibu Soren was a leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a regional party that supports the current Congress-led government.

Most members of parliament facing serious criminal charges belong such smaller, regionally based parties, and most of those come from the underdeveloped states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.

Soren is the first of these lawmakers to be found guilty in a court of law. His conviction is an exception in a country where critics say politicians and the well-connected escape justice for two reasons: the hold of the political elite over investigative agencies, and a painfully slow justice system.

Now that appears to be changing, fueled in part by an angry public that says the powerful must no longer remain beyond the reach of the law.

The cry for justice began reverberating earlier this year, when the news media focused on two high-profile murder cases in which the sons of powerful men were acquitted.

The media attention touched a nerve among the public, and led to mass demonstrations, candlelight vigils and petitions for new trials.

In the more prominent case, a model was shot dead in 1999 in a bar full of celebrities. The accused: the son of a senior Congress Party politician.

He was acquitted earlier this year after what has been called a shoddy police investigation, and after witnesses refused to cooperate. A high court has now reheard the case, but is yet to deliver its judgment.

In the second case, Santosh Kumar Singh, the son of a senior police officer, was accused of killing a law student in 1996. He was acquitted three years later for lack of evidence, but in October, after the case was reopened, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Some citizens are hoping the convictions of Soren and Singh mean the law will now be applied to everyone equally.

"A message needs to be sent out to the people that the law is above positions and titles," they say.

However, others are not confident. The Bangalore-based Public Affairs Center, which conducted the study on criminality and members of parliament, says political parties have shown little interest in weeding out those with criminal pasts.

Samuel Paul, who heads the center, says that may be in part because the coalition government is dependent for its survival on the smaller parties.

"Because of the competitive nature of the political game, I don't think anyone has the courage to do anything about it," he said. "For example our study, copies have been sent to all the MP's, (members of parliament) political parties - I don't think we even got a single letter back acknowledging it. I think there is a kind of silence about all this, and every party hoping they won't be caught."

He may have reason for concern. Political parties admit that many legislators have criminal links. But like Tom Vadakan, a spokesman for the Congress Party, politicians remain vague about how they intend to tackle the problem.

"This so-called nexus that has been in existence, one can't deny that," Vadakan said. " Wherever there is human nature, there is this tendency to try to circumvent certain things…. That is true, it is a trait which exists everywhere."

The news media, however, have welcomed the judgment against Soren, saying it has put the political class and the well-connected on notice that they need to clean up their act.