Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2022 > Understanding the Phenomenon of ‘Criminal Politicians’ in Uttar Pradesh (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

Understanding the Phenomenon of ‘Criminal Politicians’ in Uttar Pradesh Elections | Amitanshu Verma

Friday 11 March 2022

by Amitanshu Verma *

Abstract

In the ongoing Uttar Pradesh assembly elections the focus is yet again on ‘criminal politicians.’ Almost every other speech teems with invocation of words like mafia, bahubali and tamancha-wadi. As the incumbent BJP goes to polls it highlights controlling the mafia politicians, as one of its prime achievements in the last five years. This essay provides a brief historical sketch of the rise of the figure of ‘criminal politician’ and the discourse of ‘criminalisation of politics,’ in order to understand how these notions function in the political field, and how they inform the rhetoric in the ongoing election. Using the notions of proximity and distance it elucidates the dynamic relation between such figures with the people and parties. It outlines the consolidation of the aesthetic of political practice where violence is a key determinant, and which is paradoxically shared by the world of ‘criminal politics,’ as well as the government run by chief minister Adityanath.

Addressing a public meeting at Aligarh in early February, Union Home Minister, Amit Shah said, "If you search for mafia in Uttar Pradesh, then it is visible in only three places: Jail, outside Uttar Pradesh, and in the list of candidates of Samajwadi Party."[1] He warned that in case the Samajwadi Party (SP) returned to power, ‘mafia-rajwould resume in the state. The supposed end of ‘mafia raj’ is one of the achievements that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigners have incessantly listed during the ongoing assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, as part of its larger claim of having improved ‘law and order’ in the state.[1] Indeed, one of the first decisions the Adityanath government took after coming to power in 2017, was to constitute an anti-bhumafia task force (anti-land mafia task force) at all levels of state administration.[2] In an attempt at communalisation of this discourse, the BJP’s campaign pitch invariably mentions names like Mukhtar Ansari, Atiq Ahmad and Azam Khan as epitomising this mafia-raj,and is silent on other names such as Vikas Dubey and Vijay Mishra, all figures charged with crime involving violence and coercion. The widely publicised spectacles of excavator machines (popular in local contexts by the abbreviation of the manufacturer’s name, JCB) reducing prime property, allegedly belonging to unscrupulous politicians and their associates, to rubble have come to exemplify Adityanath’s war on what he sees as crime networks which were nurtured by erstwhile ruling parties. Adityanath has rounded off his campaign by announcing that the state government would construct houses for the poor and dalits on land freed from the clutches of the mafia.[3]] Indicating not just a demolition of the hold of the mafia, but also a poetic justice of sorts by distributing presumably ill-gotten wealth among the masses.

The centrality of so-called ‘criminals’ and their mafia raj in the ongoing election campaign by the ruling party invites us to understand the discussion around the presence of alleged criminals in electoral politics and representative institutions. I discuss what has been called the phenomenon of ‘criminalisation of politics’ and identify its elements which have helped BJP to frame its pitch on goondagardi and mafia raj, as embodied in certain political figures, which it claims to have rid the state of.

Emergence of the discourse of ‘criminalisation’ and the figure of ‘criminal politician’

The subject of ‘criminal politicians’ has come up during all elections in the last four decades. In the pages of a leading national daily in 1984, a commentator rued the ‘criminalisation of politics’ “in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where every faction has its own gangs of armed musclemen.”[4] In an interview to Paul Brass in 1983, former prime-minister Charan Singh noted, “we have a gang of criminals who have [been] returned as legislators who are serving as ministers.”[5] From the late seventies onwards, the phenomenon of “hoodlums who don the garb of politicians to win elections,” to state assemblies and the parliament, began to be noticed.[6] The commentariat used a rather odd and misleading phrase to describe this development: ’criminalisation of politics.’[7] As if the field of politics got contaminated owing to the appearance of a few individuals facing criminal charges. They certainly did not mean that political activity was being illegalised, as the literal meaning of the phrase would suggest. While recognising the association of such figures with community based mobilisation and the patronage they received from political parties, the public discourse more often than not reduced complex socio-economic phenomena to the ambit of criminality. The role of political parties in patronising such figures was noted, yet, parties were seen essentially as interest and ideology driven. Parties patronising ‘criminal’ actors were condemned but there was a possibility of redeeming themselves by severing ties with such figures. While it sometimes included discussion of ‘corruption’ and systemic flaws, ‘Criminalisation of politics’ was by and large seen as embodied in criminally accused legislators, known as, ‘criminal politicians,’ not only by commentators but also by the general public. In 2003 the Supreme Court of India made it mandatory for candidates to assemblies and the parliament, to file affidavits disclosing the criminal charges against them.[8] From then on it has become customary for news media to highlight the number of criminally accused politicians in each election, and to carry career profiles of the more infamous and charismatic ones among them, in order to show the decline in moral standards, the hold of the rule of law, and the rise of realpolitik in civic and public life.

When the BJP invokes the names of Atiq Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari and Azam Khan, and claims that its actions against these political leaders are evidence that Adityanath regime has ended mafia rajin UP, it plugs into the discursive terrain outlined above. These names stand synonymous with ‘criminalisation.’ In response, the opposition invokes another set of names. Dhananjay Singh, Brijesh Singh, Raghuraj Pratap Singh, Moti Singh and more, to highlight that mafias who share the chief minister’s caste continue to function with impunity.

A somewhat de-contextualised reading of ‘criminalisation of politics’ may provoke questions such as - Why do people vote for criminals? Is there an information deficit among the voters about the candidates criminal antecedents? The question of crime in political life, on the other hand, comprises much more than what the discourse of ‘criminalisation of politics’ seems to include. Crime is neither limited to a few figures who are often portrayed as its progenitors and repositories, aided by political parties, nor does it exclude the state itself. It can be argued that the instruments of crime and violence are possibilities potentially available at all levels of representative institutions, and are known to have been used for diverse ends: for accumulation, political power, communalisation among others. The attention on the so-called ‘criminal politicians’ has been partly engendered by association of such figures with violence. Crime itself, in terms of subversion of law, democracy, violence, scale and intensity may be of a higher degree when the perpetrator is the state, bureaucracy or those occupying the highest representative positions. The amorphous discourse of ‘criminalisation of politics’ has been engendered by the appearance of political actors who were seen to possess a capacity for violence. Violence exhibited by political figures in local contexts is at the heart of this discourse more than the whole gamut of crimes in politics. Scholarly works in the last two decades have understood its operation in the nexus of politics, capital and criminal violence in creation of ‘mafia assemblages’,[9] the role of party structures,[10] cult formation and figure of the ‘boss,’,[11] ‘stagnant’ economy and ‘distorted capitalism,’[12] and the relations between land and caste.[13] The variable connotations that ‘crime’ may carry in local imaginaries of power at the intersection of capital, political institutions, local histories, society, culture and desire in a given setting have also been shown. In the subsequent sections I discuss some of the elements which help us understand the public discourse around ‘criminal politicians.’

Appearances of ‘criminality’: Between Proximity and Distance

I use the notions of proximity and distance to understand some of the crucial aspects that formulate the discourse around ‘criminal politicians.’ The twin notions help us wade through different locations and identities. The ideas of ‘proximity’ and ‘distance’ are operational in the discourse around ‘criminal politicians’ vis-a-vis geography, urban-rural distinction, community and class. For instance, during my fieldwork to study the phenomenon of bāhubali phenomenon, I often came across situations where supporters of a particular ‘criminal politician’ in a constituency would list so-called bāhubali figures from other districts as examples of criminals and mafia, while denying, or recasting, the ‘criminality’ associated with their own leader. In Kunda assembly seat in Pratapgarh district whose six time MLA, Raghuraj Pratap Singh, is seen to exemplify ‘criminal politics,’ constituents would often refer to Mukhtar Ansari, the MLA from Mau, or Atiq Ahmad or Brijesh Singh, as examples of a criminal leader. In contrast, in Mau, when I asked the same question, people would identify Raghuraj Pratap Singh as a criminal politician. The respondents were not always supporters of such figures, but seemed to have a more grounded view of these politicians’ activities. For instance, in Kunda a number of respondents pointed out that many times the so-called criminal activities were perpetrated by minor figures, but owing to the local MLA’s infamy every criminal activity got associated with him. The locals had also seen first-hand the welfare work done by the politician. Alternatively, locals who had seen short-comings of the Kunda MLA from close quarters would hardly share the reverential attitude towards Raghuraj Pratap Singh of some thakurs from Rajasthan. The perception and discourse of ‘criminal politicians’ was negotiated by the proximity or distance of the political actor from the people of the locality. This often leads to a situation where in a constituency the political actor enjoys widespread support among the section of people to whom they have proximity on the lines of locality, caste, religion etc., but may be seen in black and white terms of corruption or criminality in most other constituencies, other castes or, say, among urban anglophone classes. It is for this reason that even though there is an apparent consensus on the undesirability of ‘criminal politicians’ among the public at large (from a distance), it begins to crumble as soon as we come into proximity with particular contexts and figures.

Similarly, allegiance along the lines of caste and religion is described through proximity and distance. Thus, I have seen Yadavs in Kunda express misgivings about their local MLA, while sections of Rajputs in as far as Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, celebrated him as a symbol of thakur power.

While the twin notions of proximity and distance help us describe associational subjectivity and perception of political actors vis-a-vis social, geographical and identity location of constituents and other people, when it comes to political parties they assume the form of political strategy. This has interesting consequences. To illustrate, in the ongoing election in UP, the SP has made sure that it keeps Mukhtar Ansari at an arm’s length owing to his criminal reputation in the state. Yet, knowing the considerable influence he enjoys in several eastern UP districts, with SP’s quiet acquiescence its alliance partner, the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP), has fielded Ansari’s son (since his father Mukhtar Ansari has been cast as the epitome of a muslim mafia), Abbas Ansari, from the Mau assembly seat. In electoral politics, thus, the discourse of ‘criminal politicians’ is negotiated through a play of claiming proximity and marking distances, especially during elections. In fact, various forms of proximity and distance help us understand whether an act is being seen as ‘crime,’ an assertion of pride or as a righteous act to restore ‘justice.’ The BJP’s campaign pitch which equates several muslim political actors with mafia raj,is thus to announce its distance from not only putative criminals but also muslims, a community which the saffron party often associates with crime using indirect language.

‘Criminal Politics’ and its aesthetics

In early 2000s a senior police official lamented that figures like Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh and Jai Prakash Narayan were inspirational figures of a bygone era.[14] The new role models, the official emphasised, of those growing up in UP were Amanmani Tripathi, Raja Bhaiya, Mukhtar Ansari, Babloo Srivastava and so on, all allegedly associated with violent criminality and private accumulation. From the late 1970s onwards it was the spectacle of political actors boasting allegations of violent crimes, booth-capturing, gang wars, use of machine guns, shakti-pradarshan (display of power) through long cavalcades of big cars and motorbikes and presence of armed henchmen, settlement of disputes in durbars of local strongmen, usage of violent and threatening language, exhibition of machismo, and the widespread support that such figures enjoyed in localities and among social groupings, that constituted the landscape of discussions on ‘criminalisation of politics.’ It was also noted that for such politics and political figures it was not sufficient to possess power and be linked to criminality, but central to its articulation was to be seen to possess power. What was being witnessed, therefore, was consolidation of an aesthetic of political practice and local power. “The aesthetic embodiments of political positions are material transformations and interventions, with concrete effects.”[15] This aesthetic and its various expressions not only suggest wielding of political and social power in a general sense, but do so in the specific insinuation of political figures possessing a capacity for violence and crossing the limits of the law. It is an aesthetic of political practice, which is characterised by display of violence and power. Crime, insofar as it involved gruesome or spectacular violence, rather than its ‘non-violent’ forms like corruption, is central to this aesthetic. This explains the focus on profiling politicians who are associated, sometimes anecdotally, with spectacular violence: ‘This bāhubali fed his opponents to crocodiles’, ‘He ambushed the opposition leader’s cavalcade and showered him with bullets using AK-47s’ are some such typical assertions. Again, there is an emphasis on capacity to subvert or defy the law: holding daily durbars to deliver instant justice, ‘he runs his gang, or operates, from the jail.’ How the constituents related to such figures was defined along the lines of their proximity or distance. But the aesthetic appeal of such politics was not restricted to local geographies and social equations, and went beyond these boundaries. For instance, a whole genre of cinema has evolved in recent years which focuses on criminal, mafia or bāhubali politics from the ‘hinterlands’ of the hindi speaking states. Such depictions involve bloody and spectacular violence, audacious, street smart, passionate and cunning protagonists, derogatory and pun-filled vehement language/dialect, and conflict involving economy, caste/religion and personal vendetta. The intent of such cinema, as can be observed, is to represent the struggles, conflicts and desires in towns and cities which often engender violent expression. The aim of delving into local contexts and character development is to heighten and represent the violent aesthetic of politics and society, in certain contexts, rather than simply document crime.

Approaching the question of the aesthetics of ‘criminal politics’ allows us to elaborate the multidimensional, and sometimes contradictory, connotations of political acts, speech, iconography, representation, their effects, valuation and reception by spectators. In this sense political aesthetics looks at the historically situated shapes and expressions that power takes and the valuations associated with it. Thus, it is not limited to speech, rhetoric, acts and propaganda by political actors or parties, but is properly placed in a social field that involves people at large. The emergence of the aesthetic of violent political practice in UP can be associated with a number of political, social and economic developments: such as withering away of the ‘Congress system,’ capital induced transformations in towns and villages and the violence that embeds caste practices.

While a full exposition of the operation of this aesthetic of violent political practice in the socio-economic and cultural context of UP, and its deployment in governance, is beyond the scope of this essay, the BJP’s invocation of mafias and criminality in the ongoing election deserves comment. In 1999, The Times of India reported on how the 29 year old Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur was becoming a liability for the BJP, and a disappointment for his guru, Mahant Avaidyanath of the Gorakhnath Math.[16] The incumbent MP was said to have “unleashed a reign of terror not only among the minorities but also a sizeable section of the Hindus.” [17]The MP’s associates were alleged to be involved in the murder of opponents, and the administration appeared to be powerless before him. The following years witnessed communal riots (Mau and Gorakhpur), incendiary speeches of communal brutality that would be inscribed in public memory.[18] The fact that the priest politician was not disposed to make a display of personal wealth and power, and restricted his ‘violence’ to speech and action, contributed to his ‘no-nonsense’ image. When Adityanath became chief minister of UP in 2017, he carried a decisive, strongman image who could counter opponents by hook or by coercion. His Hindu Yuva Vahini was said to enjoy ‘parallel’ authority in Gorakhpur and nearby districts, which meant that in certain aspects of social and political life they could go beyond institutional and legal norms and often used violence or its threat as an instrument. People would daily throng his durbar, at his office, to get their concerns resolved. On assuming the chief ministership he was expected to display these qualities in his style of governance. Adityanath did not disappoint. He brought in a slew of brazen measures which were seen to violate fairness, equality before the law, right to constitutional remedies, right to peaceful protest and at times even economic logic. He shut slaughter houses, imposed restrictions on interfaith marriages, enhanced powers of administration to impose fines and confiscate assets, and cracked down on dissenters and protestors. During the farmers’ protests against the farm laws the official BJP twitter handle posted a cartoon warning farmers to not come to Lucknow: “Yogi is sitting there, he will get you beaten (or peel off your skin) and your poster will be pasted on the walls of the city.”[19] He announced a war on crime and proclaimed,”Agar apradh karenge toh thok diye jayenge (If they commit crimes, they will be shot).”[20] And UP, reportedly, witnessed a spate of extrajudicial killings and maimings by the police.[21] It may seem ironic that while the BJP harps on the end of mafia-raj, the governance associated with its chief minister would seem to boast of acts of subversion of the law and violence. What we see here is the insertion of the aesthetic of violent political practice into the discourse of Hindu nationalism by Adityanath and the BJP. The significance of this for Hindu nationalist governance can be understood from the fact that several legislations and even the language and rhetoric used by Adityanath, as in the case of promoting ‘encounters,’ is being sought to be emulated by chief ministers of other BJP ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh and Assam. Certainly, militant hindutva, is not solely informed by developments in UP, and has evolved its own repertoire and language of violence in politics and, using communication technology, has contributed to the creation of ‘vigilante citizenship’[22] The specific form it takes in local and regional settings is embedded, however, in particular historical and political contexts.

Concluding Remarks

At an election rally in Aligarh, in late January, the venue displayed huge posters of Adityanath with the image of a lion in the background.[23] Enthused party workers would break into a slogan which, newspapers noted, brought a smile on Adityanath’s face: Bulldozer baba ki jai! (Hail the bulldozer saint!) One of the main images that is dominating the BJP’s election pitch on bringing an end to mafia rajis the bulldozer. Returning to where we began, the image babaji ka bulldozer stands for the uninhibited and personal style of Adityanath’s governnace. Its power and appeal lies in its being unrestrained in its application of what the UP government thinks is the law. The emphasis on the spectacular bulldozing of the mafia by the government can be understood from the fact that even in cases where it was pointed out to district administrations that its own scheme of regularisation of unauthorised property could be employed to register property after payment of compensation or the buildings could simply be seized and repurposed, it still proceeded with the demolitions under the gaze of the media. The image of the bulldozer reducing mafia’s power to rubble stands for Adityanath’s way of dealing with alleged criminals in their own language. It shares similar aesthetics of political practice where violence and acting beyond the boundaries of law signifies desirable power. Thus, while the BJP government espouses the thokoneeti (extra-judicial policy of shooting down criminals), at the same time it accuses SP of being tamancha-wadi, or followers of the cult of the country-made pistol, evoking the image of a situation where criminals swaggered the streets swishing their guns. The deployment of this aesthetics in the governance model of the state seeks to derive legitimacy by constituting supportive publics along the lines of hindutva as well as improvement of ‘law and order.’

(Author: Amitanshu Verma is a Delhi based researcher and is a PhD in political science from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted on amitanshujnu[at]gmail.com)

[1] Asian News International (2022): “Mafia in UP can be found in jails or candidate list of Samajwadi Party: Amit Shah,” ANI, 2 February,
https://www.aninews.in/news/national/politics/mafia-in-up-can-be-found-in-jails-or-candidate-list-of-samajwadi-party-amit-shah20220202151810/.

[2] The BJP’s claim that it has improved the ‘law and order’ situation in the state includes, in addition to the clampdown on ‘criminal politicians’ and ‘mafias’, ensuring security, especially for women and traders, and the control on petty extortion and local level ‘goondagardi.’.

[3] Express News Service (2021): “CM Yogi Adityanath lays foundation of houses for poor, project land ‘seized from former MP Atiq Ahmad’,” The Indian Express, 27 December, https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/lucknow/cm-yogi-adityanath-lays-foundation-of-houses-for-poor-7691885/.

[4] Khanna, K.C. (1984): “Casteism in U.P. and Bihar: Chaudhury Charan Singh looks back,” The Times of India, Bombay, 30 October, p. 8.

[5] Brass, Paul (2014): An Indian Political Life: Charan Singh and Congress Politics, 1937 to 1961 (The Politics of Northern India 1937 To 2007), New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., p. 269.

[6] Singh, Janak (1985): “Criminals rule the roost in Bihar,” The Times of India, Bombay, 14 May, p. 9.

[7] See G. P. D. (1985): “Election Season in South Asia,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 20, No. 11, pp. 436–436, Guru, Gopal. (1990): “Corporation Polls in Kolhapur,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 47, pp. 2588–2588 and Chakravartty, Nikhil. (2008): “Time to smash the mafia,” Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, Number 15.

[8] Supreme Court of India (2003): Judgement in Writ Petitions (Civil) Nos. 490, 509 and 515 of 2002, 13 March, https://adrindia.org/sites/default/files/Supreme_Court’s_judgement_13th_March_2003.pdf.

[9] Harris-White, Barbara. and Lucia Michelutti eds. (2019): The Wild East, London: UCL Press.

[10] Martin, Nicholas and Lucia Michelutti (2017): “Protection rackets and party machines: comparative ethnographies of “mafia raj” in north India,” in Asian Journal of Social Science, number 45. Nicolas Martin & Lucia Michelutti, Protection rackets and party machines: comparative ethnographies of “mafia raj” in north india - PhilPapers.

[11] Michelutti, Lucia., Ashraf Hoque, Nicholas Martin, David Picherit, Paul Rollier, Arild E. Ruud and Clarinda Still eds. (2018): Mafia Raj: The Rule of Bosses in South Asia, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[12] Das, Arvind. N. (1992): The Republic of Bihar, New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

[13] Kumar, Avinash. (2015): Criminalisation of Politics: Caste, Land and the State, Jaipur: Rawat Publications.

[14] Awasthi, Dilip. (2004): “Role Models from the darker world,” The Times of India, Mumbai, 30 December, p. 9.

[15] Sartwell, Crispin. (2010): Political Aesthetics, New York: Cornell University Press, p. 2.

[16] Ramachandran, Ramesh. (1999): “Avaidyanath’s disciple shatters his dream,” The Times of India, Mumbai, 29 March, p. 10.

[17] ibid.

[18] See Chaturvedi, Shashank., David N. Gellner & Sanjay Kumar Pandey (2019): “Politics in Gorakhpur since the 1920s: the making of a safe ‘Hindu’ constituency,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 40-57, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2018.1521785, and Verma, Rooprekha., Vibhuti Narain Rai and Nasiruddin Haider Khan (2005): Mau Riots: A Report, Saajhi Duniya, Online Resource: https://vibhutinarain.blogspot.com/2008/07/what-happened-in-mau-summary-of.html.

[19] BJP Uttar Pradesh (2021): Tweet, @BJP4UP, 29 July,
https://twitter.com/BJP4UP/status/1420593464857694214?s=20&t=UdrqxuIGyJ3F8aT1cwdXJw.

[20] Jaffrelot, Christophe and Syed H.A Rizvi (2019): “In Uttar Pradesh, law is misused to target minorities,” in The Indian Express, March 25, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/lok-sabha-elections-uttar-pradesh-yogi-adityanath-up-police-law-and-order-5640693/#:~:text=In%20June%202017%2C%20the%20chief%20minister%20announced%20on,40%20criminals%20had%20been%20killed%20in%20police%20shootouts.

[21] Editorial (2021): “‘Operation Langda’ is of a piece with Uttar Pradesh’s encounter culture,” in The Indian Express, August 17. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/uttar-pradesh-yogi-adityanath-up-police-7456978/

[22] Banaji, Shakuntala (2018): “Vigilante Publics: Orientalism, Modernity and Hindutva Fascism in India,” in Javost - The Public, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp. 333-350, https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2018.1463349.

[23] Amar Ujala News Desk (2022): “Bulldozer baba ka naam sun kar muskura gaye mukhyamantri,” Amar Ujala (Hindi), 23 January,
https://www.amarujala.com/uttar-pradesh/aligarh/the-chief-minister-smiled-after-hearing-the-slogan-of-bulldozer-baba.

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.