India: Taking (them to the) stock

8th Dec, 2014

At a deserted service station somewhere between Delhi and Jaipur last week, I watched a small television flicker with a broadcast from India’s PM and all-round man-of-the-moment Narenda Modi.

With relaxed and almost jokey demeanour rarely seen in a British politician, Mr Modi, in Hindi, answered questions and mentioned his ongoing wish for Indians to uphold Gandhi’s wish for a sanitary India, through the initiative Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission.

It seems he has very little to frown about, all things considered. At November’s G20 in Australia, Modi was the man to be seen with (hugs from host Tony Abbott and notably sought out for ‘catch-ups’ by Obama, Cameron and Putin). Despite commentators airing concerns about a relatively slow start in terms of policy change, voters seem little bothered.

After BJP’s opposition took a hammering in May, their humiliation continued in October with BJP gaining majorities in both the capital (in Haryana, BJP took forty out of ninety seats) and the financial capital, Mumbai (in Maharashtra they scooped up 122 from 288 seats). To add insult to injury, rival Congress did not even scrape second place in these elections and instead demoted to third. Indian politics has long been a two-horse race, so these defeats speak volumes about Congress’ ability to be seen as a relevant, let alone viable opposition.

With these victories, Modi has now been able to fill the Cabinet positions reserved in case of a coalition situation.  Historically tricky states for BJP such as West Bengal and Bihar are being courted in advance of elections over the next few years, with regional leaders receiving promotions. The implementation of Shripad Naik as new minister for Yoga has caused a few smirks in international press, yet some of his other choices are really no laughing matter at all.

The criminal charges against Modi’s ministers include, but are not limited to: attempted murder, rape, criminal intimidation, extortion, rioting, promoting religious and racial hostility, abetting a mutiny, electoral violations and inciting communal disharmony. A staggering one-third of his 66-strong Cabinet now face charges of some kind, double the level the Congress party ever had.

Even for those not embroiled in outstanding criminal cases, there are concerns around their bloated finances; some MPs have personal assets of up to 189.69 crore (£19.5 million/$30.6 million). BJP’s spokeswoman Shaina Nana Chudasama is not alone in blaming all these accusations of Ministers on ‘political vendettas’. We thought you might say that, Shaina.

Where do the courts come into all of this? Over the summer India’s Supreme Court ruled that politicians with a ‘criminal background’ should not serve in government. In India, those convicted of serious crimes are banned from holding office, but not those only facing charges.

And how has the man in charge reacted to these claims about his Cabinet? Well, we are assured that he personally vets each minister. Yet, Ram Shankar Katheria (Minsiter of State for HRD) has a staggering 23 cases against him. Perhaps Modi’s vetting is little concerned with trivial claims such as extortion.

Modi stormed to victory on the back of explicit claims to fast-track criminal cases against elected politicians. He went so far as to say in April that he “will set up special courts under the supervision of the Supreme Court…within a one year time-limit”.  Nothing has happened since, and the accused simply remain with the Supreme Court’s safe-zone of ‘facing charges’ by repeatedly filing appeals in India’s sluggish legal system.

Arguably, Mr Modi has not forgotten all his election assurances. His first Independence-Day address in August saw him highlighting India’s simple need for toilets, an imperative not normally addressed by the highest office.  He has reintroduced linking India’s biometric identity system (Aadhar) to bank accounts to pay subsidies to some of India’s poorest, a move intended to reduce corruption. He has made it harder for those inspecting labour laws to veer from the law. In October he announced the end of government-controlled subsidies in diesel, twinned with the raising of natural gas prices in a move to encourage investment in India’s energy system.

Within even the crooked cabinet there are signs of hope. His recently appointed chief economic advisor is the liberal economist Arvind Subramanian, and railways minister is Suresh Prabhu, famed for liberal developments during his previous turn as Power Minister ten years ago. These selections add gravitas to Modi’s reformist potential.

There is more fuel for optimism; the journalist Ashok Malik notes that the most “lucrative” ministries (read: those most vulnerable to corruption through the issuing of licenses or contracts) are reserved for politicians whose free time is not filled with ongoing criminal cases. Case in point: the appointment of Manohar Parrikar in the Defence post, whose dealing with gangsters is limited to prosecuting them down for illegal mining in his home state of Goa.

Modi may well be able to run this great country with a crooked cabinet, but that is beside the point. After achieving an electoral victory not seen in decades, he is nullifying his very successful electoral tag line- the anti-Congress, the anti-corrupt, the anti-silver spooners- with a Parliament peppered with men and women seemingly so far above the law they’re on the moon with India’s space mission.

According to the Association of Democratic Reforms, a Delhi-based advocacy group, politicians facing criminal charges are twice as likely to win an election than a ‘clean’ one, hence the willingness of political parties in India to ignore these ugly charges.

Mr Modi seems on course to complete some genuinely reformist economic and social liberalization policies, but if his ship is full of holes, sooner or later it will hamper and potentially debilitate his ability to get there.

Grace Lown is an Economics graduate born and raised in London. After graduating with her MSc in International Relations, she earned her wings in a London think-tank. Currently living and working in Delhi, India.