India holds the title of the world’s largest democracy. When it gets into rhythm during its elections cycle, its sheer magnitude is a wonder to behold.
In the last count there were 814 million eligible voters and 8,251 aspiring parliamentary candidates in an election that had to be staggered for weeks.
However, it is a deeply flawed democracy. In the last national election of 2014, a shocking 34 per cent of the 543 MPs elected to the powerful Lower House (Lok Sabha) faced criminal charges, up from 30 per cent in the previous 2009 election and 24 per cent in 2004.
The actual charges facing 20 per cent of the MPs were serious ones such as murder, attempted murder, assault and theft.
All political parties were tainted, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Eight members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet face serious criminal cases themselves.
Indian political scientist Milan Vaishnav, in his book titled When Crime Pays, has detailed this astounding link between criminality and Indian politics.
A key factor in motivating parties to select candidates with criminal records, he says, comes down to “cold, hard cash”.
The crooks are self-financing, so they are not a drain to their parties’ coffers. Many parties are also essentially personal fiefdoms, which welcome links with well-heeled thugs.
Indian politics could be unique in this aspect. Whereas the Mafia in Italy and their cousins in North America are content to buy protection by financing politicians, their Indian counterparts go outright for elective office.
In one startling revelation by Dr Vaishnav, Indian government Whips once sprung six MPs out of prison to help in a crucial parliamentary vote.
It didn’t seem to matter that between them, the felons faced 100-odd cases of kidnapping, murder, arson and the like.
There are a number of reasons Indian democracy sustains these sleazy types.
They have no qualms in intimidating voters and rivals in critical constituency races.
Voters also prefer them because when it comes to delivering government goodies, they can circumvent the normal bureaucratic process by simply knocking heads.
If we don’t watch out, our young Kenyan democracy could be heading in this alarming direction.
A growing number of ex-gangsters, conmen, hoodlums, goons, hooligans, outlaws, charlatans and thieves are either in elective office or campaigning to be elected.
In recent weeks we have seen a glimpse of what is in store. A former leader of a savage tribal gang who has been moving from party to party seeking a ticket for senatorial office.
A clown with a popular following who has been engaging everybody in loud theatrics while seeking gubernatorial office.
Alleged drug dealers who hold high county offices. And suspected warlords who sit in Parliament and have been on the spotlight in the recent wave of banditry in pastoral counties.
ROLE OF COURTS
Under Kenyan law, a person convicted of an offence who has served a prison term of at least six months is ineligible to run for office.
That is the legal theory. Many of the rogues like to split hairs by insinuating they have never been convicted, or were released by higher courts once imprisoned. The courts, for one, remain a problem.
When last did you hear them jail a crooked politician? Even in open-and-shut cases?
Political parties should also sidestep the loose vetting procedures of the IEBC, the EACC and the Registrar of Political Parties so as to impose their own clear integrity rules.
If the courts insist dubious candidates must be allowed to run, let them do so as independents.
In particular, the narrowly legalistic way the Political Parties Disputes Tribunal sometimes handles individual complaints can be a hindrance.
Ultimately the buck stops with the voter. Still, political parties have a duty to play their rightful gate-keeping role.
Chapter Six of the constitution, which sets out a code for leadership and integrity, has remained dead in the water due to deliberate intent.
The statute law that was meant to give bite to Chapter Six was weakened during passage. I doubt many current elected leaders would be left standing if the Chapter’s guidelines were faithfully enforced.
The excessive focus on academic qualifications is rather misplaced.
It is actually a scandal that no financial disclosures are required of elected officials in a country where corruption has become a real menace.
Appointed state officers are subjected to some stricter vetting, which is not the case with their elected colleagues.