ElectionWatch: A new wave in India’s state polls?

Much has been made of Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi's failure to deliver a victory in the recent state elections in Uttar Pradesh, as well as the party's losses in other state polls. But other developments heralded by the results could be more important for India's future.

Gandhi may have erred in adopting the pose of a “jholawallah” (cloth bag carrier), letting his beard grow and harping with feigned rage on the many woes of the state – known as one of India's “most backward.” But even if he doesn't do any better in a more honest avatar as a forward-looking, well-traveled modernist, the Congress Party will continue to rely on him to unite its various regional leaders. And his family pedigree means that he will no doubt sit in the prime minister's chair one day, whether or not his personal charisma brings his party to power.

In a bit of wishful thinking, Reuters' Jeff Glekin suggests today that the results could actually deepen the Congress's commitment to economic reforms, since (he says) the usual package of sops for the voters failed to deliver the state. Voters were indeed nonplussed, though the Congress made noises about adding a jobs quota for Muslims, for instance, and pointed at its poverty-alleviation programs like a five-year-old employment scheme guaranteeing work for the rural poor. But it's probably closer to the truth to say that they viewed Gandhi's promises as fleeting, and Gandhi himself a temporary guest on his way to a bigger stage in New Delhi, than to say that suddenly economic austerity, an end to job quotas, and a thrust for the free market have gained new popularity among the voters.

The victorious Samajwadi Party (SP) won by promising exactly the kind of populist payouts that have always delivered wins in Indian polls, and by benefiting from the usual anti-incumbency trends of the country's revolving door system. According to the Times of India, for instance, the SP promised the electorate farm loan waivers of around $2 billion, free electricity worth $320 million, free irrigation worth $120 million, $360 million in free laptops or tablets, $200 million in unemployment benefits, minimum support prices for crops that will cost $1.2 billion and other schemes for free education, pensions and the like that run to $10 billion. Moreover, the SP also promised to carve out a quota in government jobs and education for Muslims – among whom it swept the vote.

The UP results may signal other changes in Indian politics, however.

Outgoing Chief Minister Mayawati – the leader of the Dalit-oriented Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – implied that the results reflected nothing more than business-as-usual, hinting that the SP's duplication of her own failures would duly bring her back to office in the next election.

But one curious development suggests that may not be strictly so, and that UP voters are instead expecting real progress from their future leaders, as Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has delivered in neighboring Bihar.

For the first time, though the victorious Samajwadi Party is hardly known for probity in public affairs, the voters refused to vote for accused criminals.

According to the Hindustan Times, only 14 out of 900 candidates contesting the UP elections despite a raft of criminal charges against them won seats in the legislative assembly this go-around. That's a positive development by any measure, of course, considering that the usual range of accused criminals in the national parliament and state assemblies has been hovering around 25 percent (as I've written about for GlobalPost).  Nope, it's not a wave against corruption, as most pundits say the anti-graft movement of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal was an irrelevance.

But a recent academic study, explained cogently by Wall Street Journal blogger Rupa Subramanya, points out why the vote against crooks is still meaningful for the common citizen. New research by Matthieu Chemin, an economics professor at Canada’s McGill University, suggests that criminal legislators may actually reduce bureaucratic corruption, because these more muscular political “dons” use might, rather than money, to get things done. And they want to keep all the spoils for themselves.

At the same time, though, Subramanya explains, “Mr. Chemin’s headline finding is that allegedly criminal politicians reduce the monthly per capita spending of people in vulnerable groups, in particular, the Scheduled Castes , Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes. This effect isn’t small: the election of an allegedly criminal politician decreases the monthly spending of the average Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes by a whopping 19%.”

Meanwhile, under their administration “murders, riots, and arson increased by 19%, 23%, and 34%, respectively, after 2004 in districts which elected allegedly criminal politicians after tightly fought elections. Crimes against women also worsened. Interestingly, there’s no evidence that crimes against property (such as robbery, burglary, and theft — arson is classified as a crime against public order) or other economic crimes (such as breach of trust or counterfeiting) increased.”

So a vote against (alleged) criminals – whom parties have used because they could be counted on to bribe and intimidate voters – equals a vote not only for real development, but also for the upliftment of the downtrodden. Both of which India (and especially Uttar Pradesh) desperately needs.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.