Corruption has always been a key issue in Indian political campaigning, but perhaps never as much as over the last few years. The spate of scams in which the ruling UPA government was embroiled, the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement graduating to the Anna Hazare movement and thereafter, the formation and ascendancy of the Aam Aadmi Party (at least at the initial stages) on a predominantly anti-corruption plank raised the pitch against corruption to an all-time high. But has the rhetoric really translated into a wholehearted electoral rejection of those tainted with corruption charges in this Lok Sabha election?

Apparently not, unless one takes the broad, sweeping anti-incumbency against the Congress and UPA to be primarily an expression of the anger against their overt and covert abetment of corruption. There are enough individual instances that indicate that corruption is not always on top of the voter’s mind and the corrupt record of politicians may not be a factor strong enough to determine their fate in the electoral politics of the country.

According to the National Election Watch - ADR report, as per the pre-election affidavits filed by the candidates, 23 of them were booked in cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Of these, seven have won during the 16th Lok Sabha while the rest lost by a narrow margin and were often placed a distinct second and third.

Among the seven tainted candidates who were elected, four are from the Bharatiya Janata Party which has won a sweeping mandate. It includes B S Yeddyurappa (Shimoga),  B Sreeramulu  (Bellary), Ganesh Singh (Satna) and Nathubai Patel (Dadar Haveli). The other three include Anbumani Ramadoss of Pattali Makkal Katchi (Dharmapuri), Capt Amarinder Singh of INC (Amristar) and Mohammed Faizal of NCP (Lakshadweep).

The real reasons behind the election of these candidates have been complex and more often, specific to the concerns of their constituencies, corruption may or may not have been the topmost among which. In Shimoga, from where Yeddyurappa contested, people were not very happy with the sitting MP, his son, Raghavendra Yeddyurappa. His overall performance was rated 4.7 on a scale of 1-10 by voters of his constituency in a survey conducted by Bangalore-based NGO Daksh in association with ADR.   

In that survey, voters across constituencies in India had been asked to rate the issues important to them, the performance of their sitting MPs on each of these issues and based on that, a composite performance score for each MP was arrived at.

Not only did Raghavendra Yeddyurappa fare poorly in that voter perception survey, Yeddyurappa senior himself had been indicted in cases involving illegal land mining by the Lokayukta and was accused of having illegally denotifed hundreds of acres of land in Bangalore and Shimoga. He had resigned as the Chief Minister of Karnataka following this. And yet, BJP could retain the Shimoga seat.

Farmers growing arecanut, who constitute a large voter base in this region, were wary about the ruling party because of prevailing hysteria over the apprehension that the Congress government would ban arecanut production.

Ramesh Hegde, a resident of Shimoga said, “In Shimoga, arecanut growers (over three lakh in number) were given a false impression by the BJP that that the ruling government (Congress) would ban arecanut; this rumour created fear among the farmers. So all the voters turned against the Congress party.”

“Moreover, the BJP hijacked many of the achievements and works of the UPA government and publicized them as though they were the reason for development in the region. Coupled with the Modi wave, the BJP clearly capitalised on the situation and won despite the serious corruption charges against Yeddyurappa” added Hegde.

Bellary saw a similar case. Though people were dissatisfied with the sitting BJP MP J Shanta, rated 4.6 on a scale of 10, anti-Congress sentiments led to the defeat of its candidate N Y Hanumantappa, who was considered “clean,” and gave an edge to corrupt BJP candidate Sriramulu.

Sriramulu was the co-owner of Obalapuram Mining Company (OMC) along with Reddy brothers, G Janardhana and G Karunakara, which allegedly mined iron ore illegally in Karnataka and exported it to China and elsewhere. Sriramulu was also accused of illegally gabbing land in Bellary.

The Chief Minister himself had campaigned hard on Hanumantappa’s clean image and requested people to reject Sriramulu. Clearly, that did not cut ice with the people, who were more concerned with better electricity for agricultural activities, subsidy for seeds and fertilizers and better health care facilities. This becomes clear when one looks at the scores assigned to these issues on a scale of 10 by voters in Daksh survey (see chart below).

In Madhya Pradesh, which re-elected Shivraj Singh Chouhan of BJP for a third consecutive term, the Congress was rejected in a big way. The party which had 12 seats of the total 29 in the outgoing House was reduced to just two. The overwhelming anti-Congress sentiment overshadowed the corruption charges against BJP candidate Ganesh Singh in Satna and he won again, despite being rated very poorly as an MP in the Daksh survey. Singh got a composite score of 2.8 for his overall performance in the region and yet managed to win.

In Dharmapuri constituency (TN), the alliance of BJP with the PMK-led Ramadoss led him to win the seat despite his tainted image. The survey indicated that local issues like the need for better roads, drinking water and security for women took priority and the people were not happy with the sitting MP R Tamaraiselvan of the DMK, a member of the UPA.  

In Punjab, the poor performance of the erstwhile BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu, who scored an abysmal 2.3 on his overall performance, and the infighting between the Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP led the Congress to bag the seat despite Captain Amarinder Singh’s tainted image. Ashok Chavan, whose alleged role in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scam cost him his job as chief minister of Maharashtra in 2010, also got elected from Nanded.

That said, however, one cannot reduce corruption to a non-issue. For some voters, it remains a factor that affects their day-to-day lives and which they want to change.

Rahim Miya, 50, a migrant from Cooch Bihar in West Bengal has set-up a small hotel in the South Delhi Masoodpur jhuggi cluster, to feed his fellow migrants who work as construction labourers in and around Delhi. But since he lives on illegal private land, police demanding money is a frequent occurrence.

“The police frequent the jhuggi at nights and demand money from us for putting our tents here. Though I have not been a direct victim, I am tired of watching my fellow neighbours being looted of their hard-earned money. With a hope to end this practice, I voted this time, taking off from daily chores here,” Miya said.

Both in Delhi, where Rahim Miya lives and in Haryana, where the anti-corruption movement has found strong support, the Congress party which held eight and seven seats respectively could retain only one seat put together. It was the worst ever defeat for the party with people like Kapil Sibal, Salman Kurshid and Naveen Jindal losing their seats from these two states.

It is therefore a complex amalgam of issues that play out when voters exercise their franchise and corruption has a role of varying importance from one constituency to the other.

In Punjab, the Congress party which had eight MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha, could garner only three seats this time. Interestingly, the same state paved the way for the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal. AAP won four out of the 12 seats in Punjab.

In Chandigarh too, the Congress candidate Pawan Kumar Bansal lost to the BJP. Bansal had resigned from the Railway Ministry following charges against his nephew, Vijay Singla in the Rs 10-crore cash-for-post railway bribery case. The other parties capitalised on this to capture votes. According to the Daksh survey, the issue of corruption was rated to be of high importance (7.6) in Chandigarh and Bansal was rated low (2.6) on his overall performance in the constituency.

Meanwhile, in Assam, the Congress MPs were rated low in tackling corruption (less than 3.5) and accordingly, the party which held 7 of the 14 seats in 15th Lok Sabha, won only three this time. Earlier in 2012, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had admitted that there was corruption in almost every department of his government and stressed on correcting the system. But that was not enough to avert the Congress debacle.

According to (Dr.) G Gopakumar, psephologist and former Dean and Head of Social Sciences, Kerala University, the Congress had faced a similar debacle during the 1989 elections due to the Bofors scam. The only thing that differentiates this election from that of 1989 is the Modi “wave” played out with development card; that went in favour some of the corrupt candidates of the BJP. Otherwise, with a strong anti-corruption movement, people like Yeddyurappa and Sriramulu could not have won the elections,” Gopakumar said.