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Tue 17 Jan 2012 03:16 PM

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In rural India, crooks with crocs get the votes

Mafia-style capitalism and democracy is edging its way into the mainstream, says Pankaj Mishra

In rural India, crooks with crocs get the votes
Activists from Indias main opposition party in a protest against a Cash for Vote scam in New Delhi

In college during the late 1980s, in the north Indian city
of Allahabad, I heard many stories about local toughs and criminals who were
keen to get into politics. They came from Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and Bihar, two
of India’s poorest provinces that together contain nearly as many people as the
US

Students spoke with something like awe of Hari Shankar
Tiwari, one of the first Indian legislators to win his election while
languishing in prison for serious criminal charges. Another local legend was
Raja Bhaiya, the son of a feudal lord who was rumoured to feed his enemies to
crocodiles he bred in a lake on his estate.

This reverence for homicidal brutes had good reason. In this
predominantly rural region, men like Tiwari had realized the only real
opportunities for self-advancement; it mattered little that their wealth and
power derived from smuggling, drug- trafficking, kidnapping, assassination,
prostitution and extortion.

In the absence of honest policing and an efficient legal
system, the mafia dons provided rough instant justice. They also showered some
Robin Hood-ish largesse on the underprivileged, and gave irregular jobs to the
region’s many educated unemployables.

Many of their strongmen, nominally registered at the
university I attended, lived in student dorms. Harmless for the most part, they
were nevertheless menacing with their seemingly easy access to “katta” or
“tamancha,” country pistols and bombs. Activated by their patrons around
election time, they indulged in that pastime known as “booth-capturing,”
whereby groups of armed young men took over election sites, scared away voters
and stuffed ballot boxes at leisure.

In 1999, I returned to Allahabad after a long absence to
report on a parliamentary election. Accustomed to decay in those parts, I was
still shocked to find how rapidly the city - once the center of intellectual
and political life in north India and the ancestral town of the Nehru-Gandhi
dynasty  - had been undermined.

The students at the university looked as unemployable as
ever. Meanwhile, the mafia dons had grown richer with New India’s money. They
were moving into respectable professions, building shopping malls and apartment
buildings on dubiously acquired land (and ruthlessly trampling over anyone who
came in their way). The old middle class of lawyers, doctors and teachers was
in retreat, moving away to places like Delhi, and even farther west to Europe
and the US

I spent some time with one of the rising mafia dons, Atique
Ahmed, who in 2005 would be accused of murdering his victorious opponent in a
parliamentary election. Ahmed was then in baby- kissing mode, and revealed
nothing more fierce than his Dobermans. Late one night I nearly spoke harsh
words to the noisy men in the hotel room adjacent to mine. One of them turned
out to be Bhaiya.

Having narrowly escaped the belly of a crocodile, I have,
over the last decade, obsessively followed the rise and fall (and rise) of
gangsters in the region: Bhaiya’s lake, by the way, was seized by a hostile
local government, and he was thrown into prison, but he is due for a comeback
in the next elections. Long-suffering friends have kept me supplied with
stories of what it is like to live in towns and cities where regular payments
to the local mafia are the norm.

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Needless to say, this parallel universe of India’s Wild East
is, as Mrinal Pande, a distinguished Indian journalist, points out in her new
book, “The Other Country: Dispatches from the Mofussil” (Penguin India, 2011),
“completely at odds with the newly branded image of India as a fast-growing
modern economy with a large, upwardly mobile, English-speaking middle class.”

For many Indian as well as foreign journalists, the
devastated moral landscape of these provinces has remained terra incognita.
And, as Pande points out, the “free” local press is hardly a reliable guide to
them. On the eve of India’s Independence Day in August 2010, a bestselling
Hindi newspaper carried full-page greetings to the “people” from one of U.P.’s
most notorious fugitives, a man accused of killing two elected legislators and
at least one senior policeman.

Pande first knew places like Allahabad two decades before I
did, in a more civil age; her anguish and despair over their despoliation is
greater than mine. “Atrauli in Uttar Pradesh,” she writes, “was once much
adored by classical Hindustani music lovers.” It is now famous for its “schools
that do little or no teaching but offer special facilities for cheating during
the UP Board exams,” for junior and senior high school.

In another piece titled “No Future in Eastern UP,” Pande
meets old friends in Allahabad who reveal that criminals become their elected
representatives because they “can get anyone killed anywhere in India for a fee
or kidnapped by their gangs.” It barely matters whether they are low or high
caste, left- or right-leaning: “They go to any political party with bags of
money and buy party tickets.”

This is indeed what they have been doing for the elections
due in Uttar Pradesh next month. This week I spoke to Rajeev, an old friend
from my years in Allahabad, who had just returned to Delhi from a trip to his
eastern U.P. hometown of Varanasi. Long election convoys of unregistered and
expensive cars, he reported, were already clogging the city’s streets: a show
of strength for the dons lodged in prisons across the country, facing multiple
charges of murder but determined to secure seats in the state legislature. He
relayed the latest stories about Mukhtar Ansari and Brajesh Singh, two of the
region’s most influential gangsters.

The concentration of “black money” in a few hands, he said,
had created exorbitant apartment buildings and many malls selling brand names.
But the conspicuous consumption was accompanied by near-zero growth in
employment, creating a vast reservoir of educated, ambitious and frustrated
youth. Rajeev felt safer in the relative anonymity of Delhi and hopeful for the
prospects of his children. It was only after I put the phone down that I
wondered if Rajeev was being too optimistic about Delhi.

“On the face of it,” Pande writes, “provincial India with
its non-existent roads, frequent power blackouts and perennial water shortages
seems to be turning into a microcosm of metropolitan India with its
millionaires and consumers.” But in many significant ways metropolitan India is
beginning to resemble the provinces. In recent years, the parts of Uttar
Pradesh and Haryana that are now an extension of Delhi have witnessed a spate
of gang shootouts and unsolved deaths, together with a steep rise in property
prices and hectic mall construction.

Booth-capturing is still rare in the Indian capital. But
mafia-style capitalism and democracy no longer seem peculiar to the badlands of
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Exporting its malaises, the “other” India may be
finally breaking into the metropolitan fantasies from which it has been
excluded for so long.

(Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist based in London
and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)