As India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh holds the last and seventh phase of assembly elections on Tuesday, one startling fact that has emerged is the large number of candidates with criminal cases against them.
It’s nine in the morning and a dozen men sit on wooden benches in a shed covered by a roof of hay and clay tiles, held up by bamboo poles.
As Hari Shankar Tiwari steps out, the waiting men spring to their feet.
There is a rush to touch his feet. Mr Tiwari puts his hand on each person’s head and wishes them long life.
One old man asks him to put in a word for his son at the local hospital.
His son is ill, and the overworked doctor in the government hospital will look after him only if someone important puts in a word.
That someone important is Mr Tiwari - he has represented Gorakhpur town in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the state assembly since 1985 and has been a minister for the last 10 years.
He is contesting the elections again and is confident of winning this time too.
It’s not political office which gives Mr Tiwari his power - even before he became a politician, he was well known in the region.
This soft-spoken genial old man is often called Godfather. He acquired the reputation because, his critics say, he doesn’t hesitate to use any means - fair or foul - to keep ahead of his adversaries.
In the past, he has been hauled into court with charges of murder and gang war against him. He has been arrested and jailed too.
But nothing has ever been proven and today there are no pending cases against him.
“That was done by people who are opposed to me. All the cases ever filed against me were false. That’s why they couldn’t prove anything against me,” he tells me over hot tea and toast stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes at his home.
He doesn’t say it, but he was also helped by the fact that his case files happened to have been lost by the prosecution.
In the early 80s, Mr Tiwari was among the first few candidates with pending criminal cases to contest assembly seats.
Ishwar Dwivedi, who has retired as the head of UP police, says it is almost impossible to bring convictions in such cases. “Often evidence is destroyed, these are powerful people and they intimidate - even eliminate - witnesses.”
Mr Dwivedi is now the convenor of UP Election Watch, a civil society alliance working for clean politics and accountable governance.
He says there has been a sustained increase in the number of criminals joining electoral battle this year.
“Of the 5,940 candidates who have filed their nomination papers, 882 are facing criminal cases,” Mr Dwivedi says.
“This information is provided in their application form by the candidates themselves. It’s not something we are saying,” he explains.
Alarmed by the growing entry of criminals in politics, the High Court in Allahabad has set up a committee to probe such cases.
The districts I’m visiting in UP are geographically in the eastern part, but local people call them “the wild west”.
Here, power literally flows out of the barrel of a gun and murders, riots, extortions and kidnappings are the order of the day.
The electoral rules do not prevent those charged with criminal cases from standing for electoral offices, they only bar those who have been convicted.
So politicians like Mukhtar Ansari, Raja Bhaiya, Amarmani Tripathi and Atiq Ahmed are free to ask people to vote for them.
All of them are accused of serious offences like murder, attempt to murder, rioting and gang war and are currently lodged in various jails.
But the incarceration is often not that restricting. According to reports, they run their election campaigns from inside the four walls of the jail.
Legislator Mukhtar Ansari, an accused in the murder of a rival politician, is in Ghazipur jail. His cell was raided a few days ago while he was presiding over an election meeting. Several of his men were taken into custody.
Several other prisons around the state where high-profile politicians are in custody have also been raided in the past few days after reports that they were being used by their VIP inmates as their election offices.
Kumar Harsh, Gorakhpur-based senior journalist, says UP has long had this connection between crime and politics.
“Initially the feudals, the landlords, entered politics with help from their musclemen. Later, these musclemen thought they would join the game directly.”
Some people say they are concerned over the growing criminalisation of politics, but most say they support those with criminal backgrounds because it’s hard to live in Rome and fight the Pope
Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research blames it on the failure of the state machinery.
“The state can’t provide protection to its citizens even in the minimal sense, so they go to the mafiosi.”
Adds Anand Rai, senior journalist, “There is too much corruption here. There’s no law and order. The slow judiciary and corrupt politicians have let people down. So these so-called criminals are the last resort for the public.”
He says many people go to these politicians to resolve their petty. “If you go to court, it could take you years to get an order, but if you go to these politicians, you could have a resolution in no time.”
The Deputy Inspector General of police for Gorakhpur, Brij Bhushan Bakshi says what is most worrisome is that in the last few years the societal acceptance of criminals has grown.
For this, he blames the general loosening of social morality.
“Earlier a man would never marry his daughter off to a criminal, however rich or powerful he may be. But things have changed now. People are no longer bothered by such questions. Their value systems have changed.”
Police say the region’s proximity to Bihar - India’s most lawless state - and the easy availability of small arms has also contributed to proliferation of crime in the region.
Since the beginning of this year, the police have seized dozens of home-made guns, including crude six-inch revolvers to a-foot-and-a-half-long semi-automatic weapons.
They are easy to make, and they come cheap. One can be bought for as little as 1,000 rupees ($25).
“Here when people get angry with someone they tell them - it will cost me only 5,000 rupees ($120) to fix you,” journalist Rajesh Mishra says.
He says these men who yield political power - and sometimes guns too - have now become role models for the young.
And bigger the crime, the taller the leader.
In the holy city of Varanasi we meet legislator Ajay Rai. He is charged with attempt to murder and rioting.
I ask him if he has been booked for extortion too, and he seems upset. “Murder, yes. Rioting, yes. But never extortion,” he says vehemently.
In Uttar Pradesh, crime doesn’t make you a social pariah. It makes you a politician, a leader.
Mr Dwivedi of UP Election Watch says promoting those with criminal backgrounds is not one party’s preserve. All mainstream parties are equally guilty in this regard.
In the last assembly, 205 of the total of 403 legislators had pending criminal charges.
“Thankfully they were distributed among various parties. But imagine what would happen if they were to join hands and form a government of their own?”
It is indeed a frightening prospect.
By Edos News