Incumbents and Criminals in the Indian National Legislature

Toke Aidt (Cambridge University)
Miriam A. Golden (University of California at Los Angeles)
Devesh Tiwari (University of California at San Diego)

Abstract: Utilizing data on criminal charges lodged against candidates to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Lok Sabha, India's lower house of representatives, we study the conditions that resulted in approximately a quarter of members of parliament elected in 2004 and in 2009 facing or having previously faced criminal charges. Indian political parties are more likely to select alleged criminal candidates when facing greater electoral uncertainty and in parliamentary constituencies whose populations exhibit lower levels of literacy. We interpret allegations of criminality of parliamentary candidates as related to their capacity to intimidate voters, and we show that criminal candidates depress electoral turnout. Finally, we document that the well-known incumbency disadvantage characterizing Indian legislative elections stems from the superior electoral performance of allegedly criminal candidates, who drive incumbents from office. Our results raise questions for democratic theory, which claims that electoral competition improves accountability, and for the future of the Indian polity, which is experiencing a growing criminalization of the national political arena.