During a Sunday conference on election reform intended to discuss ways to elect a more inclusive parliament, one refrain seemed to repeat throughout the proceedings: a call to regulate the media, which many see as enabling the inequalities present in the electoral system.
Tara Krishnaswamy, a founder of Citizen’s for Bangalore, which works towards the decentralisation in governance, pointed out the conundrum of political candidates with criminal records being three times more likely to be elected than candidates who are clean, despite the existence of a law calling on candidates to release an affidavit declaring their assets and criminal antecedents.
Tara said research shows that while voters do not necessarily like criminals, they elect them because they are unaware of their criminal records.
“I claim that elections are not free or fair,” she said, blaming the media for giving some candidates a disproportionate amount of coverage than others. “Out of the 15 names on the ballot, only 2 or 3 will be known. All candidates don’t get the same amount of exposure, which is not their choice. Someone else is making that choice for them – the media. And some candidates, like women, get an unfair amount of exposure which has nothing to do with their politics; it is how they look and how they dress.”
Political scientist Milan Vaishnav, whose book When Crime Pays examines the influence of money and muscle in politics, agreed that the presence of candidates with criminal records was a problem. In 2014, nearly a third of members of parliament had charges of criminal misconduct against them, while one in five members of parliament had been accused of a serious crime, including attempted murder. Furthermore, 82% of elected members of parliament are crorepatis, creating an environment where India is being largely ruled by an egalitarian class who are buying their way into political candidacy.
However, he argued that some voters select criminal candidates knowingly, “because these candidates use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to get things done – to perform those basic tasks that the government has been weak in providing, like a rule of law”.
The status quo is being protected by lacklustre journalism, charged Shivam Shankar Singh, a former data-analyst for BJP. The focus of Singh’s ire was television media, which he described as incentivising wild behaviour in order to save on hiring reporters to carry out legitimate reporting and draw more viewers.
When several student lawyers at the university broached the subject of using laws to forcibly regulate the media, Alok Prasanna Kumar, head of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said external regulation of journalism could imperil the country’s already shaky freedom of speech.