Voters Want Criminals In India's Parliament Out

Elections are underway in India to choose a new parliament. Nearly one in four of the members of the country's parliament is charged with at least one criminal offense. There's a big drive this year to get the crooks out of office.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we move now to Pakistan's neighbor, India, and a statistic that's startling. Nearly one in four members of India's parliament is charged with at least one criminal offense. An election is under way to choose a new parliament. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, there's a big drive this year to get crooks out of politics.

Ms. RANI PAL (Parliament Candidate, India): (Foreign language spoken)

PHILIP REEVES: Rani Pal is an elderly widow. She's sitting in a tiny, swelteringly hot room. This is her campaign office. Pal has never stood for parliament before, yet she's a candidate in India's general election.

Ms. PAL: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Pal shows off a photograph of a young man. It's her son, Raju. Raju was a rising politician in the region but five years ago, at the age of 30, he was murdered by gangsters.

Ms. PAL: (Through translator) He was my only son. I have no other children. The pain has been enormous, so great that my tears have dried up.

REEVES: Pal alleges a member of India's parliament was behind Raju's murder. His name is Atiq Ahmed. After her son's death, Pal vowed to ensure Ahmed was never re-elected. Now, she's trying to keep her word by running against him. Stopping Ahmed is her only goal.

Ms. PAL: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: A man with a machine gun stands on lookout duty at her door. Beyond lies Pal's new stomping ground, the down-at-heel, dusty town of Pratapgarh. It's in Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state with roughly the same population as Brazil. Parts of the state are very poor, parts are ill-governed and lawless, mafia men abound.

(Soundbite of villagers talking)

REEVES: This is Atiq Ahmad's campaign office. It's a big, white marquee. Ahmad's mustachioed face scowls down from a poster. He's unable to be here in person.

Mr. MOHAMMED ISSA (Campaign Manager, Atiq Ahmad): Atiq Ahmad is in jail, on the charge of the case filed under the Gangster Act and one case under the kidnapping. But all these cases are fabricated.

REEVES: Ahmad's campaign manager, Mohammed Issa, says Ahmad has been in jail for 15 months awaiting trial. He points out Ahmad's not been convicted of anything. In all, Atiq Ahmad is charged with more than 40 criminal offenses, including murder, extortion and kidnapping. That doesn't bother these young men in the streets near Atiq Ahmad's campaign tent.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of blaring of car horns)

Mr. ISSA: We're all supporting Atiq.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: They belong to India's Muslim minority. So does Atiq Ahmad. They think he'll defend the interests of impoverished Muslims like them.

Unidentified Man: Hello, good evening.

REEVES: Calls pour in on the hotline in the office of the Association For Democratic Reforms in India's capital, New Delhi. The association's hooked up with other organizations to mount a national election watch. They're monitoring candidates with criminal charges, and trying to raise public awareness about them. The association's coordinator, Anil Bairwal, says many calls come from people eager to clean up India's politics.

Mr. ANIL BAIRWAL (National Coordinator, Association For Democratic Reforms): The majority of people want a capable person, honest person that can represent them in the parliament.

REEVES: Bairwal says politicians tend to argue the criminal charges are filed against them for political reasons, by rivals. That is sometimes true, but Bairwal believes many cases don't fall into that category. Just look, he says, at the members of India's outgoing parliament.

Mr. BAIRWAL: There are 333 cases of heinous nature, which include murder, attempt to murder, robbery, kidnapping, rape, extortion.

REEVES: It can take many years for cases to go through India's courts. It's not easy to convict a politician. Intimidation and bribery are common.

REEVES: It's a searingly hot day on the campaign trail in Pratapgarh, the constituency where the widow Rani Pal is running against Atiq Ahmad on behalf of her murdered son. Men glug down water from a tanker and hurry back to the large crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting and clapping)

REEVES: They've come to a rally by a big, regional party to see a third candidate in Pratapgarh. This candidate also has a charge sheet alleging attempted murder, extortion and forgery.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

REEVES: A helicopter appears and lands nearby.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Sanjay Dutt, a Bollywood superstar, steps out. He's the party's general secretary. Dutt also wanted to stand for parliament, but he's been convicted of illegally possessing weapons. In India, you can't stand for parliament if you've been convicted of an offense punishable by two years' imprisonment or more until six years after your prison sentence is completed. Getting crime out of politics in India is a massive undertaking. Yet Anil Bairwal, of the Association For Democratic Reforms, thinks he and his fellow activists are making progress.

He believes after these elections, the number of politicians with criminal charges in India's parliament will go down.

Mr. BAIRWAL: Ah, will it go down to zero? I mean, absolutely not. There is just no chance. It's a process that's going to take a lot of time. You know, things are not going to change in a day.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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