Bhagwan Sharma, left, puts on a hat in the colors of his Samajwadi Party during campaigning for elections in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Sharma, also known as Guddu Pandit, faces 13 criminal cases against him but remains popular in his constituency. (Simon Denyer/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In India’s democracy, crime really can pay.

In the past month, voters in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people, have been lining up in huge numbers to cast votes in state elections.

But of the 2,000 candidates from the main parties contesting here, more than a third are facing criminal charges, including murder, rape, kidnapping and extortion, according to figures compiled by the advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms.

And many of them will win.

“They are popular with voters,” lamented Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi. “I call it the Robin Hood syndrome. They take care to use their corrupt money, money that they get through illegal means, to give to the poor.”

Despite a nationwide campaign against corruption last year, the percentage of candidates facing criminal charges has risen from 28 percent to 35 percent since state elections were last held in 2007. At least 30 candidates are incarcerated.

It is a similar picture nationally: 162 of the 545 members of India’s lower house of Parliament are facing criminal charges, compared with 128 in the previous Parliament.

Democracy is the glue that has held India together — and kept it largely peaceful — since independence from Britain in 1947. The power of free speech and free elections has helped this huge, diverse country emerge as a global power in the 21st century. But democracy here is still a “work in progress,” said Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reforms.

Although many Americans complain about the role of big business in funding political campaigns in the United States, the roots of the corruption and criminalization of Indian politics, ironically, lie in the outlawing of corporate contributions by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1967, in an attempt to cripple a right-wing opposition movement by depriving it of funds.

“The ban on company donations closed the only honest, open and transparent avenue of raising funds to fight elections,” commentator Prem Shankar Jha wrote in the magazine Tehelka. “The harm it has done is beyond measure.”

At the constituency level, the only alternative was to establish a network of patronage and favor-swapping from individual donors that soon became entrenched.

At the national level, Jha argued, the ruling Congress party was soon demanding massive kickbacks from business deals, mostly defense and infrastructure contracts, to fund its central command. It is the road that led inexorably to the corruption scandals of the past few years.

A typical Indian constituency might have 1,000 villages, and the cost of campaigning is enormous.

Unrealistically low campaign-finance limits also forced candidates to raise “unaccounted” funds, said M.R. Madhavan at PRS Legislative Research.

“Who has access to unaccounted funds? Criminal elements,” he said. “This forces you into bed with criminal elements.”

Criminals and wealthy politicians regularly dole out cash in return for votes. Quraishi said his agents seized more than $12 million in cash during elections last year in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, including one haul of $1 million in cash hidden in sacks on the roof of a bus.

Criminals have other attractions for voters, who tend to favor “strong men” who can protect their interests in constituencies in which caste divisions are sharpest, said Milan Vaishnav at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Voters are not ignorant or uninformed,” he wrote. “They are simply looking for candidates who can best fill a perceived representational vacuum.”

An unlikely Robin Hood

In the constituency of Dibai, an 80-mile drive southeast of Delhi, Bhagwan Sharma is standing for reelection to the state’s legislative assembly.

He makes an unlikely Robin Hood. He faces 13 criminal cases, including charges related to rape, extortion, rioting and causing grievous injury. He faces nine charges of criminal intimidation and one of taking a second wife without telling her that he was already married.

But as he closed his campaign waving from the roof of his car, surrounded by cheering crowds, there was no doubting his appeal.

“He is a muscle man; he is a powerful man,” said Anshul Yadav, a 21-year-old shopkeeper. Others said Sharma had helped bring more-regular electricity supply to the area, supported farmers and aided the poor.

Sharma says the charges against him were trumped up by opponents to discredit him. Indeed, the breakdown of the criminal justice system means that an innocent person’s name can easily be tarnished by a politically motivated charge that might take decades to be resolved.

Nevertheless, he has spent two spells in jail and was thrown out of the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party as it tried to clean up its image. But his supporters scarcely seem to care.

“He is a social worker. He works for the poor, so it doesn’t matter if he has a thousand cases against him,” said Subash Balmiki, 38.

Others are not so sure. In an office adorned with the face of anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, businessman Hari Om Dubey said he has been advising people to vote for the most honest candidate. The trouble, he said, is that “not a single candidate is spotlessly clean.”

Business-politics nexus

Sharma’s story is an unlikely rags-to-riches tale. The former bicycle repairman was first hired as the driver for a powerful politician. After his boss was jailed, Sharma rose swiftly to become a property dealer in the fast-growing Delhi suburb of Noida and then a politician in his own right.

The links between the property business and politics are so strong that they can be measured, according to a study by Vaishnav and Devesh Kapur for the Center for Global Development.

Politicians often park their illicit assets in real estate while doling out favors for developers. At election time, huge sums of money flow the other way, back to the politicians to finance their campaigns, strangling liquidity from the construction sector and depressing cement consumption.

Quraishi said battling criminals and illegal campaign financing is the most important reform needed to make Indian democracy function more smoothly. But, he acknowledged, it is hard to get politicians to agree to reforms that would undercut their way of doing business.

Nonetheless, he said, all is not lost.

Thanks to a mass voter education campaign, turnout in the Uttar Pradesh elections was up by more than a quarter to nearly 60 percent, a record. It is testament, Quraishi said, to the enduring power of Indian democracy, despite its flaws.