Q&A with Aditi Phadnis of Business Standard

Aditi Phadnis is one of the best political reporters in India today. So I was extremely happy to exchange views with her about my new book, demonetization, and the political landscape in India today.

Here’s a glimpse:

Q. Muscle and money are traditionally associated with feudal politics. But a lot of India is postmodern and post-industrial. So, how do we explain the persistence of money and muscle?

A. The persistence of muscular politics, as I see it, has to do with the failure of governance. The prevailing wisdom in many quarters is that the allure of muscle would melt away with urbanisation, improvements in living standards, and rising literacy rates — in other words, with modernisation. This has not happened. Despite the many notable changes to India’s politics, economics and society, the ability of the state to manage its sovereign responsibilities has not increased in kind. We have not seen institutional rejuvenation that can keep pace with citizens’ demands.

You can read the entire exchange here.

Bonus: Business Standard created this illustration of me (is that really me?)



Book Excerpt in Mint Lounge


This weekend’s Mint Lounge has a short excerpt from the book. The excerpt provides a glimpse into the life and times of Anant Singh, a highly eccentric criminal-turned-politician in Bihar.

Anant Singh is an unlikely poster child for electoral success in a flourishing democracy. He is fond of wearing sunglasses, a cigarette perched on his lips, his body adorned in all white, occasionally gussied up with a leather jacket. If he were not in politics, Singh could have had an alternate career as a cinematic villain—his practised bad boy look was straight out of central casting.

You can read the entire excerpt here.

First review is in: WSJ on “When Crime Pays”


To my utter delight and surprise, Raymond Zhong of the Wall Street Journal reviewed When Crime Pays” in today’s paper. And, in even better news, he seems to like it.

The first paragraph literally made me laugh out loud:

The next time you sink into despair after news of a politician’s sexting or gaffes, be consoled: At least your city councilman didn’t start out as a bootlegger who did time for inciting religious riots. Your state legislator (probably) doesn’t threaten to feed people who cross him to crocodiles kept in a private lake. Your state governor didn’t cut massive pay-to-play deals that helped his son’s wealth grow 4,000-fold in a decade.

Zhong does a really nice job of hitting all the main points. He’s a terrific writer and clearly could have written my book in much nicer prose (reading the review almost makes me wish he had). Another passage:

We also meet more ambiguous figures, including some who seem to be thug, mafia don and Robin Hood all rolled into one. Ahead of polls in the eastern state of Bihar, Mr. Vaishnav watches a local strongman stride through a village with a band of followers in “a display of force and virility.” The politician, Anant Singh, was well-known for his past shoot-outs with police and gangs—yet boasted of organizing 10,000 weddings for poor folks in his constituency. In Bihar, Mr. Vaishnav also meets Sunil Pandey, a longtime assemblyman and former leader of an upper-caste militia group who completed a Ph.D. while in prison for kidnapping. His thesis was on—what else?—the philosophy of nonviolence. Mr. Vaishnav asks Mr. Pandey if he finds this ironic. His reply: “Life is limited and people have unlimited requirements. Thus there can be a need for force in some cases.”

The review is not without its critiques. In particular, Zhong writes that the book could have used more moments of “bleak comedy,” drawn  especially from the outrageous characters occupying Indian political life. He is undoubtedly correct in his assessment.

The entire review is here.

Hindu coverage of “When Crime Pays”

In Sunday’s edition of the Hindu, Varghese George has a lengthy look at my new book, “When Crime Pays.” He writes:

It is a well-researched and data-rich book on crime and politics in India. For those not interested in the biographical details of Indian lawmakers who live on the wrong side of the law, there are data sets and graphs, and those who are not interested in or are intimidated by the grey data points can devour the exploits of Arun Gawli in Mumbai or Anant Singh in Bihar or M.K. Alagiri in Tamil Nadu.

You can read the entire piece here.

Reuters interview on crime, money, and Indian politics

I had the chance to exchange views with Doug Busvine, New Delhi bureau chief for Reuters, the other day about my new book. We spoke about the twin themes of the book–money and serious criminality–and their relation to demonetization, upcoming state assembly elections, and Prime Minister Modi’s record in office.

Here’s a snippet:

Q: What’s the read-across from your research for the forthcoming round of state elections – especially Uttar Pradesh?

A: No matter which party wins elections in the pivotal state of UP, rest assured that the crime-politics nexus is not going anywhere anytime soon. Our best estimates suggest that fewer than 10 percent of UP state legislators elected in 1984 were the subject of ongoing criminal cases. That proportion has skyrocketed to 45 percent in the last election in 2012. The underlying drivers of criminality — costly elections, weak rule of law, and deep social cleavages — are available in spades in UP. The good news is that voters seem hungry for a chief minister at the top who is willing to invest in development and governance to improve the state’s image. But, at the end of the day, voters are also realistic: they understand that until the government in Lucknow is able to project its power into the far reaches of the state, they will need a local “guardian” to look after their interests.

You can read the entire interview here.

Sunday Times of India Interview

In today’s Sunday Times of India, I speak with Amulya Gopalakrishnan about my new book. In the interview, Amulya asks me what policy measures can be taken to minimize criminality. Here’s a glimpse of my answer:

Before thinking about policy responses, we have to come to grips with why politicians linked to criminality do so well in the first place. If this was about uninformed voters, mass media campaigns could educate the electorate. Unfortunately, a lack of information is not the binding constraint — it’s a lack of governance.

You can read the full interview here.

Chaitanya Kalbag on the “cess pool” of state elections

Chaitanya Kalbag has a nice column in today’s Economic Times about whether the issue of corruption will figure at all in the upcoming five state polls due to kick off in February. Uttar Pradesh, of course, is the prize everyone has their eyes on. But there are several states of consequence that will go to polls in the next few weeks: in addition to UP–Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Goa.

Kalbag is rightly skeptical that Prime Minister Modi or any other major political leader will take serious steps to cleanse what he calls “India’s political cesspools.” Kalbag very graciously cites my forthcoming book to justify his skepticism:

“Just as markets feature intermediaries who match buyers with sellers, political parties have embraced and promoted candidates with criminal links, drawn to their deep pockets at a time when the cost of elections has exploded and party organizations have atrophied,” writes Milan Vaishnav in ‘When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics’, to be published this month. Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, adds: “Loophole-ridden campaign finance laws have been no match for the torrent of undocumented cash that those with criminal ties are able to marshal.”

The whole piece is worth reading. You can find it here.

New op-ed: “Purify the Parties”

In a special New Year’s Eve address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again reiterated his desire to see election finance reform in India. This has been a regular theme in the PM’s speeches, dating back to the 2014 general election campaign. However, Modi’s rhetoric has intensified in the days and weeks following his government’s November 8, 2016 demonetization decision.

In the speech, Modi said:

Political parties, political leaders and electoral funding, figure prominently in any debate on corruption and black money. The time has now come that all political leaders and parties respect the feelings of the nation’s honest citizens, and understand the anger of the people.

It is true that from time to time, political parties have made constructive efforts to improve the system. I urge all parties and leaders to move away from a “holier than thou approach,” to come together in prioritising transparency, and take firm steps to free politics of black money and corruption.

All of this is well and good, but the PM unfortunately stopped short of outlining a detailed agenda for reform. In a new Indian Express column, I outline a four-point reform proposal that I argue Modi should adopt immediately. It would begin to cleanse India’s system of political funding while also placing the opposition on the back foot. In the piece, I write:

While we will continue to debate the merits of demonetisation, the government has repeatedly signalled it will stay the course. The question is: Will it eventually summon the same fortitude when it comes to closing the loopholes from which political actors derive undue benefit? Fresh moves aimed at the political class will inevitably create disruption, including for the ruling party, but it will engender massive popular support. It will show the entire country that no one is truly immune from the cleansing. The ball is in the government’s court.

You can read the piece in its entirety here.