In This Review

When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics
When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics
By Milan Vaishnav
440 pp, Yale University Press, 2017

India is one of many democracies, past and present, where voters do not “throw the bums out” but instead pack their state and national legislatures with people who have been charged with (if not always convicted of) serious, sometimes violent crimes. The money such reprobates can muster helps them gain office, but Vaishnav argues that the two real enablers are ethnic rivalries and weak institutions. When courts and administrative agencies don’t work, voters in ethnic or religious communities may rationally prefer representatives who can protect their interests by whatever means necessary, which allows criminal-minded musclemen to shift from merely supporting candidates to running for office themselves. Vaishnav makes a convincing case by telling tales from the campaign trail, analyzing the conditions that breed crime and corruption, and probing survey data that reveal that voters who are particularly focused on their ethnic identities are more willing than others to vote for candidates charged with crimes. His study reinforces the growing consensus that healthy democracies require strong institutions not only of accountability (such as elections) but also of governance, and he concludes with a robust set of recommendations for how to clean up Indian politics.