No doubt in the very first elections held in newly independent India, the fact that you had been to jail lent a certain cachet to your candidature. Everyone worthwhile had been to prison after all – Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabbhai Patel, Maulana Azad etc. These days, however, most Indians would prefer it if their politicians didn’t list the nearest house of detention as their primary residence.
But who’s listening? Certainly not the political parties or the candidates themselves.
In the recently concluded state elections in Maharashtra, a well-known (allegedly ex-) Mafia don was elected to its Legislative Assembly. Police officers, who’d spent weeks and months lethargically tracking him down from crime scene to crime scene, are now expected to stand at attention every time his car self-importantly buzzes by, no doubt bringing normal traffic to a complete standstill. In a post election interview, the victorious candidate seized the opportunity to go one step further. He called for police protection. No, not protection from the police – but protection by the police. Why? Because as an honest and sitting MLA, he was required to go among the people and there were still those out there who might not quite realize that he’d… er, retired from the business.
Another victorious candidate from the state of Bihar was unavailable for comment on his win, even though he’d just won the right to sit in India’s Parliament. Why? Well, the prison rules didn’t allow for media visits. It was no doubt rather short-sighted of them, but apparently no one in government, much less the prison, had quite imagined that an imprisoned man facing charges of murder and kidnapping would not only contest an election from inside it, but would also win by a more than comfortable margin. Even as you read this, some industrious politician is busily penning a letter of protest about such archaic rules that limit the successful candidate’s all-important media access. After all, our jails, too, must depict India’s modern political scene.
No doubt there have been cases galore of petty criminals taking up yelling space in Parliament and grazing their cows on the lovely lawns of Lutyens’ Delhi (just to add that down home touch) throughout the history of India. But in my lifetime, the first I remember a noted criminal being voted into power was when Phoolan Devi was elected as Member of Parliament and paraded up hill and down dale by her political bosses, eager to soak up some publicity.
It was hard to believe that this grim faced, unhappy little tub of a woman was the houri described by Khushwant Singh: the woman who’d been child-bride, abandoned wife, village plaything, a married man’s mistress, survivor of a catfight and universal pariah by the age of eighteen; abducted, dacoit, raped, murderess, arrested and Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen by her late-thirties. Perhaps her constituency shared that same disbelief as they voted for her. I think everyone was waiting for the real Phoolan Devi (well, Seema Biswas would have done just fine) to show up and kick this wimpy imposter’s tail.
Alas, idle hope! Behenji didn’t challenge a single fat, lazy, thieving MP to a shootout under the wicked noonday sun in dusty Delhi. Neither did she stand the Indian political class on its collective head by actually working for her constituency – apparently the ‘social service’ stopped the moment they took away her rifle. Instead, she hugged the back benches and struggled hard to be invisible before being gunned down by some ghosts from her gory past. What she did accomplish, however, was to inspire another open-air lover far to the south.
Veerappan is a name rendered notorious, odious, and now oblivious. This interesting specimen, famous for his chosen vocation (elephant poaching, kidnapping and sandalwood smuggling) and infamous for his imaginative exploits (Q: How do you get rid of three pesky forest officials who think they actually have the right to stop you from committing criminal acts under their jurisdiction? A: Simple. You boil them alive. Q: Quick, the cops are hot on your trail and your baby daughter is screaming her tiny head off. What do you do? A: Hah! Easy! You break her neck, like so) was recently shot dead by a Special Task Force.
That STF put paid to Veerappan’s retirement scheme. In one of his periodic poor-l’il-me interviews he mentioned that he’d heard of Phoolan Devi’s amazing success in transmogrifying from people’s eliminator to people’s representative. And if only the governments of the two states he’d been terrorizing and looting for oh, twenty-thirty years or so could develop some amnesia, he was certain he too could affect a change of image from Robber Baron to Robin Hood.
Veerappan had a perfect right to this sentiment. For years he’d been lubricating the coffers of several politicians, political parties and police with his bloodstained pieces of gold. And good thing too, for they made sure that all the millions (of money and man-hours) spent in plotting his capture remained high in jargon and low in result. Apart from this cross party political base, he also had ‘international’ support from Sri Lankan Tamil separatists. Obviously he had an important role to play in his old age, if only the dastardly government(s) would give him the universal pardon he’d paid for.
This is a common sentiment among all criminals turned uber-criminals, I beg your pardon, politicians. As one supporter of the ‘retired’ Mafia boss turned Maharashtrian MLA put it – that was another life of bhai and he’s paid for that. This is different. In this new avatar, you look the same, talk the same and do the same. Difference is, now you do it under police protection in a jazzed up car that can stop traffic. Much better, really.
Moral? Crime and petty crime are for the hoi polloi. Class acts prefer politics. So eat your heart out Dawood Ibrahim!
originally published at Chowk.com 2004