Indian members of Parliament went home last week amid hoots and howls, derided as the sorriest lot ever to disgrace the halls of the world's largest democracy. The 14th Lok Sabha, or People's House, met for only 46 days in the past year-the fewest ever-because of disruptions caused by its many dubious members. One in 10 members didn't participate in a single debate. Eleven M.P.s were expelled for taking bribes. The coal minister was compelled to step down when he was convicted of murder (though he was later acquitted on appeal). And when the opposition called for a confidence vote, several members had to be transported to the People's House from the big house-where two of them are serving life sentences for murder-to participate. As the legislators adjourned last week, House Speaker Somnath Chatterjee wished them good riddance: "You do not deserve one paisa [cent] of public money," he scolded. "I hope all of you are defeated in the next election."
That's not likely. Parties in India have long used allies with shady pasts to influence voters. But as the power of the national parties waned-accelerating in the late 1990s-because of the rise of caste- and ethnicity-based regional players, alleged and convicted criminals began to play a broader role. No single party has won enough parliamentary seats to govern alone since the Congress party did so in 1984, and the number of seats won by India's six national parties-which include the Congress, the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-fell from 477 in 1991 to 388 in 2004. Now, in many constituencies, there are four or five significant parties, and the share of the vote needed to win a seat has fallen as low as 15 percent. As a result, criminal strongmen no longer need to throw their support behind a leading politician, because the number of votes they need is small enough that they can win elected office themselves. With regional players well positioned for the next general election on April 16, there is some chance that a politician who has undergone a criminal investigation could become the prime minister.