If the 32 criminal cases against him are to be believed, Yogesh Verma makes for a formidable opponent. They range from rioting and assault to attempted murder, culpable homicide and dacoity, or gang robbery, with murder. He has been jailed twice but never convicted.
The notoriety has not ended Verma’s two decade-long political career. The stocky 53-year-old is running for election this month in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state with 200mn people, on the ticket of the main opposition Samajwadi party.
Verma’s younger brother Rajan has dismissed the cases as “politically motivated” but also acknowledged his brother’s “naughty” reputation. Yogesh was “very aggressive right from his childhood”, he said. “If someone fights for their community and you slap legal cases on them, that is not a criminal.”
Verma is one of a growing number of Indian politicians and candidates accused of serious crimes, with three rival candidates in the Hastinapur seat he is contesting also facing cases. The phenomenon has alarmed observers in the world’s largest democracy.
In the lower house of the national parliament, the share of MPs facing criminal cases rose from 24 per cent in 2004 to 43 per cent in 2019, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organisation. The proportion of those with serious cases more than doubled to 29 per cent. “This is unmistakably a rising trend,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, an ADR co-founder.
In all five state elections being held in the country, including those in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa, the share of candidates with alleged criminal backgrounds has risen since elections in 2017, according to the ADR.
In the first round of voting for Uttar Pradesh’s multi-stage election, 75 per cent of Samajwadi Party candidates disclosed that they face criminal cases, ADR said. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the share was just over half.
The presence of alleged criminals in politics is not unique to India. But Milan Vaishnav, whose book When Crime Pays examines criminality in Indian politics, said several factors had encouraged their rise.
At a grassroots level, political parties depend on strongmen to corral support, often along caste or religious lines, and their funds help finance campaigns. Over time, these individuals become more powerful and popular, particularly in poorer communities with dysfunctional state and judicial services.
“They have a reputation for ‘getting stuff done’,” Vaishnav said. “They’re not interested in long-term fixes . . . they’re interested in ad hoc favours.”
Sanjay Kumar at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies think-tank in New Delhi said parties wanted someone who was “feared a bit”.
“People think, ‘This is the man who does instant justice,’” he said.
Mukhtar Ansari, who has been described in Indian media as a “mafia don-turned-politician” who won five elections in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly, is in jail and awaiting trial while his son Abbas contests his seat. Raghuraj Pratap Singh, known as “Brother Raja”, has been in the assembly since 1993 despite allegations of attempted murder and kidnapping.
Ansari’s brother Afzal called all allegations against him a “conspiracy” and a “pack of lies”. Singh could not be reached for comment but has denied all allegations.
In 2019, a court in Uttar Pradesh dismissed a 20-year-old murder case against Yogi Adityanath, the state’s BJP chief minister and a close ally of Modi, who denied wrongdoing.
Verma, a member of the country’s Dalit community, thrives on his image as a champion of the oppressed. At a recent rally, wearing a white puffer jacket and garlanded in flowers, he was carried on the shoulders of a crowd chanting inquilab zindabad, or “long live the revolution”.
Ashish Kumar, 20, said Verma once helped his family evict a tenant who would not leave a local shop they were leasing. “Yogesh Verma is compassionate and a friend of the poor,” Kumar said. “You can’t understand what it means to have a man as influential and powerful as him.”
A Samajwadi party activist, Monu Pawar, said Verma’s allegedly chequered past was a source of strength. “If you are politically active and fight for your community and people, then you have to go to jail,” Pawar said. “Legal cases [are] the jewels they must wear.”
Rajan Verma said his brother was too busy to comment.
The success of alleged criminals in Indian politics has led to limited attempts at reform. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court ruled convicted officials would be barred for six years. But few cases ever get that far.
The top court in 2020 ordered political parties to report candidates’ cases on their websites and justify their selection. But given the practical and financial advantages that such candidates bring, ADR’s Chhokar said there was little incentive for parties to purge their ranks.
“While India is a vibrant democracy, the political parties are not democratic at all,” he said. “This is the most fundamental issue in Indian democracy and elections.”