NEW DELHI: The list of charges against Indian politician Kameshwar Baitha is long and startling: 16 counts of murder, 25 of attempted murder, six of assault with a dangerous weapon, three of extortion . . . and so on.
In many democratic countries, such severe criminal allegations would be catastrophic to a politician’s chances of winning a seat in the nation’s parliament.
But Baitha says the 109 charges, wracked up during his time as a Maoist insurgent in his home state of eastern Jharkhand, will not dent his chances at the ballot box as he seeks re-election in the mammoth elections underway in India.
“The kind of work I’ve done, and particularly my focus on the weakest social groups in my constituency, is what makes me popular,” Baitha told Agence France-Presse, dismissing the charges as false.
“Everyone knows that I am the man to beat,” he added.
Fighting corruption and cleaning up Indian politics are major issues at this election, particularly for middle-class and urban voters. The five-week voting process ends on May 12 with results due four days later.
Baitha, who first won his seat in 2009, said voters in the impoverished and mainly tribal forest belt of northeastern Jharkhand see him as a Robin Hood-type figure.
“You are sitting in distant Delhi — come to the region and you’ll know what the people have to say about it, what they think of these cases,” Baitha said, becoming angry on the phone.
Almost a fifth of candidates standing for the 543-seat parliament face criminal charges, according to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reform, a Delhi-based think-tank.
And they are not only in remote and poor areas like Jharkhand, but at the center of power in India. Five of the seven candidates contesting for the election frontrunner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi face charges, albeit relatively minor ones.
A key aide of BJP leader Narendra Modi, who is tipped to become prime minister on a platform of clean governance and strong leadership, is being investigated for alleged murder and extortion.