NEW DELHI, Oct 7 // For two decades, Lalu Prasad Yadav was a giant on the country’s political stage.
He ran a state of 100 million people, took charge of the country’s massive rail network and his party was a crucial prop for the shaky coalition government in New Delhi.
Yadav managed all this despite a constant whiff of corruption around him and liked to thumb his nose at the law, riding triumphantly on the back of an elephant after a brief spell behind bars in 1997 as a crowd of admirers cheered.
Last week, a court jailed Yadav for five years for his part in a multi-million-dollar embezzlement case.
It was a landmark moment in a country where public disgust with corruption is finally starting to bite. Voters could throw the ruling Congress party out of power at the next general election, due by next May, for presiding over one of the most sleaze-ridden periods in the country’s history. The popular outrage has also spawned a clutch of anti-corruption parties.
In India, a staggering 30 per cent of legislators face charges for serious crimes such as rape, murder and kidnapping. The dirty money that fuels politics is also crucial.
More than 90 per cent of funding for the two main parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, comes from unknown sources, according to the advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms.
Yet, only once has India’s public booted out a government for shady dealings. That was in 1989, when a kickbacks scandal over the purchase of artillery guns from Sweden’s Bofors contributed to an election defeat for Congress.
The scandals have come thick and fast on prime minister Manmohan Singh’s watch. There was a huge scam over the sale of the 2G mobile spectrum, which Time magazine listed as number 2 on its “Top 10 Abuses of Power”, behind the Watergate scandal and then the government was hit by a furore over the allocation of coal deposits now known as “Coalgate”.
All this has prompted the emergence of an anti-corruption movement, rattling the government, in part because much of it comes from the urban middle-class, a traditionally apolitical bloc.
A Lowy Institute poll of Indian citizens in May found that 92 per cent thought corruption had increased over the past five years.
An increasingly activist judiciary has added to the clamour to rid politics of criminals.
In July, the supreme court ruled that legislators convicted of a serious crime would forfeit their seats.
Along with the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, which chose a broom as its symbol, is the Nav Bharat (New India) Democratic Party of Rajendra Misra. A former businessman, he worked with the national parties to improve governance, but was disillusioned and decided to go it alone.
“India isn’t a poor country. It’s a poorly managed country,” says Misra, who is planning to stand in next year’s election.
There will be many like him: young white-collar workers challenging a system where seats are mostly occupied by old men and handed down to next generations like family heirlooms. But the upstarts have their work cut out for them.
Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says strangely, criminals often do better. “Candidates often use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to protect the interests of their parochial community,” Vaishnav said.
Shekhar Tiwari, a co-founder of the Nav Bharat Democratic Party, agrees. “Some of what we say sounds like a dream. But if we don’t dream, nothing is possible.”
Still, a recent drama in the Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was revealing.
Mr Singh’s cabinet issued an order allowing convicted legislators to hold office, in essence defying the supreme court.
Critics said the move was aimed at shielding allies – such as Yadav in Bihar state – whom the Congress may need to form a ruling coalition.
But Rahul Gandhi – the Congress party’s probable candidate for prime minister – stunned his own colleagues, calling for the order to be “torn up” and a humbled government withdrew the decree.
Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst, said it’s all about credibility now. “Had this gone through, Congress would no longer be a victim of the criminalisation of politics but would be a patron of it,” he said.
Reporting by Reuters