The criminalization of politics

Georgie Anne Geyer

September 16, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer DL New Delhi, India

INDIANS ARE using a strange new phrase these days to describe the dangerous situation in which they find their once supremely idealistic country. It is "the criminalization of politics."

One hears it everywhere, too fashionable a phrase perhaps but nevertheless all too apt. One Congress Party adviser, Kuldip Narang, traces the criminalization to the end of the charismatic period of Indian politics, which stretched from Mahatma Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi. "The whole question of charismatic leadership, which has failed India, is responsible for this criminalization of politics," he told me during a long discussion here one day.

That same day, commentator Dinesh Singh wrote in the Times of India that the "general deterioration in the law-and-order situation in the country" could be traced to the breakdown in party politics. "Once the politicians use anti-social elements for their gains, they have to give them protection for their activities," he wrote. "This has led to the criminalization of society."

And S. K. Ghost, director of the independent Law Research Institute of Calcutta, was quoted in The New York Times magazine as saying, "In return for a ring of security, our politicians have surrendered their powers to gangsters." As they fail to answer the problems of the country, "they have to take greater recourse to muscle power to keep the disenchanted masses in line."

This might sound to the casual observer like an Indian replay of 1930s Chicago, when the Mafia burrowed into traditional politics, but it is much, much more. What thoughtful Indians are trying to warn their country of is no less than a wholesale turnover of the legitimate functions of government to criminal enterprises.

This has already largely happened in the big eastern Indian state of Bihar, just northwest of Bangladesh. In the 1950s the third-richest state in India, Bihar is now not only one of the poorest but a state whose politics is almost totally controlled by caste-based Mafia armies employing atrocious violence against enemies. Of an over-bloated "government" of 74 ministers, 14 of them are publicly known as hardened criminals.

But crime has equally invaded the "liberation movements" that now ring India and threaten the final dissolution of the state in Kashmir, the Punjab and Assam. In the last 40 years, it was assumed that such movements, which stretched across the Third World, might employ violence but were at heart idealistic. Today, India illustrates darkly the degree to which all the idealism has been drained out of these movements, with the original energies replaced by sheer lawlessness.

Whether in Kashmir, the "war zone," or the Punjab, "the wild west," the movements for secession in India are almost totally bereft of leadership and are riddled with drug Mafiosos, who often cross the borders to Pakistan for sustenance. Fully 143 of these groups are in Kashmir alone, hardly indicating a great and united cause. In short, they have been criminalized as well.

"The fact that these are not national liberation wars is shown by the fact that there are 143 groups and no leadership, both in Kashmir and Punjab," Shri K. Subramanian, a prominent strategic thinker, told me. "That is why I say that they are more gangs and partly criminal. Having the label of 'liberation movement' gives them respectability."

Then, when you look southward to neighboring Sri Lanka, which is being torn apart by the seemingly endless fight between the Tamils and Sinhalese, one sees forces on both sides increasingly criminalized and sadistic and less and less idealistic. The killing of Rajiv Gandhi by Tamils illustrates this best. And, like India, Sri Lanka used to be the very hope of the subcontinent.

It is not at all unusual these difficult days to hear Indians themselves, as well as foreigners here, compare the potential imminent breakup of India to the ongoing breakup of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, there are a number of similarities.

India, with its extraordinarily large Soviet influence over the last quarter-century, suffers from the same disastrous centralization as the Soviet Union. Both arrogantly closed themselves off from the Western world and embraced charismatic and ideological forms of leadership. Now, that shared "socialist" ideology has failed as much here as it has failed in Moscow.

And the Soviet Union, with the vast majority of its free rubles in the hands of ruthless racketeers, also faces a dangerous breakdown into criminal control of the economy, if not the state.

Every once in a while, we turn a corner and unexpectedly find something new, good or bad, in the moral sociology of development. I felt that here in this complex, magnetic universe that is India. I never dreamed that, at this point in the development of nations, the greatest danger would be that states would be turned over to their worst elements.

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