- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

PRATAPGARH, India — The man known as King Brother is strolling the grounds of the walled, guarded compound where he makes his home. Behind him, a dozen hangers-on follow at a polite distance. His dachshund, Tipu, scampers at his feet.

A powerful state legislator and scion of a princely family, King Brother is at ease here. He has his friends around him, and servants to bring him tea. He monitors every political move in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, not surprising for a man whose family has watched over a swath of this part of rural India, as aristocratic landlords, for 1,100 years.

Except that King Brother — Raghuraj Pratap Singh, to use his given name — is in jail.

Mr. Singh may be a one-man charity caring for poor constituents and a self-appointed judge whose word is law in local disputes. But he’s also accused of murder, kidnapping and other charges he can count by the dozen. However, he’s in jail on unrelated charges, and is likely to be out soon.

Meanwhile, he treats the Pratapgarh Jail as a state-supplied condo complex: it has takeout food, volleyball matches and guards who have openly ceded much of the control to him.

“It’s a nice party here every evening,” he said, sitting down for a cigarette and a cup of tea as dusk fell. One by one, men came by to touch his feet as a sign of respect. He patted his stomach: “And we’ve all put on weight.”

Around him, everyone laughed. They always laugh at his jokes.

Mr. Singh, who denies all the charges, is just one of hundreds of Indian politicians who prosecutors say work at the intersection of crime and politics.

It’s a problem throughout the Asian democracies, and American politics are certainly not spotlessly clean either. But as this South Asian behemoth tries to drag itself into the 21st century — struggling to be known for its software programmers instead of its poverty, and its growing middle class instead of its religious violence — it’s being held back by a political class that is unable, or unwilling, to weed out criminals.

The result: Development money disappears into overseas bank accounts, crusading activists are silenced and idealistic political aspirants don’t bother joining the fray.

“None of these people are being brought to justice,” said Prashant Bhushan, a legal reform activist. “And even though some of them are occasionally charged, nobody serves out a sentence.”

The last official national survey, in 1999, found at least 40 of the 788 members of Parliament and 700 members of state legislatures facing charges.

King Brother, an independent state legislator, has plenty of company in the 402-seat Uttar Pradesh assembly, where 198 members now stand accused of crimes. He’s a leader of the assembly’s Thakurs, a traditional landowning caste whose members wield considerable influence.

For the less civic-minded, India’s state assemblies offer vast opportunities for profit, with control over millions of dollars in funds and enormous power over planning and hiring.

The public responds with cynicism.

When the weekly magazine Outlook did a survey of professions most useful to society, politicians came in just above black marketeers, and two steps up from pimps.

There’s the former legislator accused of arranging the murder of his mistress, and the state Cabinet minister facing fraud charges who was once re-elected from jail. There are the legislators who, officials say, protect gangs running India’s growing kidnapping-for-ransom industry.

In the central state of Bihar, relentless corruption accusations finally forced former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav to give up power in 1997. But first, he arranged for his semiliterate wife to replace him. He remains, quite openly, in control.

But it is King Brother — “Raja Bhaiya,” he’s called in Hindi — whose name is repeated in folktales across rural India.

In villages along the narrow, tree-lined roads that lead to Kunda, the small town at the center of his power, he is a hero — albeit a feared one.

When a child is sick in these villages of poor farmers, King Brother buys the medicine. When neighbors squabble about boundary lines, he settles their disputes. In return, he gets overwhelming electoral victories and fawning displays of support.

“We worship him like a god,” said Chaudhary Shayan Tadav, shopping at a tiny pharmacy on a recent morning, the road outside clogged with market-day traffic of bicycles and horse carts.

Mr. Singh insists he’s just a caring politician.

“The people of Kunda see me as a family member, and I feel lucky to have such people around me,” he said. “All I can do is serve the people honestly.”

The monsoon rains were good this year, and the fields around Kunda are exuberantly green, the markets jammed with produce. The air smells of damp earth and abundant harvests. But with King Brother gone, few are celebrating.

Officially, Indian aristocrats were stripped of their power after independence from Britain in 1947. But in Kunda, as in many other rural towns, little has changed.

The Singh family remains powerful here, imbued with the authority of wealth and centuries of feudal rule. And while King Brother is technically not a king, his nickname — used by everyone from acolytes to enemies — reflects the power of a royal birthright with a political career built on top of it.

“We are helpless orphans without him. We don’t have anyone to look after us,” said Babban Tiwari, one of his many political workers, lounging barefoot at a family compound.

His word, in these towns, is not questioned. Even his supporters say he has a large network of informants, along with men to enforce his will.

“If he is not tough with the wrongdoers, then how can he protect the downtrodden?” asked Mr. Tiwari.

But officials say anyone who questions him can face his wrath.

Sometimes, the trouble can seem almost ludicrous. During 1998 elections, complaints of orchestrated campaign violence reached such a clamor that officials simply barred him from entering his own district.

Sometimes, though, the trouble is more forbidding.

In 2001, officials say, King Brother’s men killed a young man for refusing to move his scooter out of the way of the politician’s motorcade.

But go to the Pratapgarh Jail and ask King Brother about all this, and he simply shakes his head.

“I was totally set up,” he said, blaming rivals who resent his work for poor constituents. Affable, outwardly easygoing and carefully coifed, the thirtysomething politician laughs away the charges: “People think we made millions, or robbed some banks.”

At the jail, it’s obvious who is in control: King Brother’s visitors don’t need permission to enter and aren’t frisked. When the electricity goes off, it’s King Brother who shouts for a generator to be switched on.

He shouldn’t be in jail much longer. He was locked up in 2002 under India’s sweeping Prevention of Terrorism Act during a political feud with the state’s former chief minister, charges even his opponents concede were politically motivated. When the chief minister lost power, the new state government requested those charges be dropped.

Plenty of other charges — including murder and kidnapping — will remain, but with the judicial system subordinate to political power, it’s not clear if he’ll ever face prosecution for them. The charges are in the hands of police, who would need to take additional legal steps to get prosecutions started. The last time a local police official tried that, he was quickly transferred.

In India’s glacier-slow judicial system, the prisoner-politician expects he’ll be free in another month or so. He seems in no rush, saying prison has taught him “to cope with life more quietly.”

Not everyone would agree. When word came down he’d be freed, local officials allied with the former chief minister began demanding assignments elsewhere.

“I’m scared,” Mohammed Mustafa, who had ordered raids on two family palaces, told reporters. “He could get me or my family members eliminated.”

While King Brother insists he would never seek revenge, the fear is there.

Along a quiet road near Kunda on a recent morning, an old man was walking in the shade of overhanging trees. Asked what he thought of King Brother, his eyes widened.

“I’ve gone senile,” he said sharply. “I’ve forgotten everything. I know nothing about these things.”

Then he turned and walked away.

Boston’s Curley served time, city

From combined dispatches

Less feared but no less loved than “King Brother” in Uttar Pradesh was the Boston politician whose story is told in “The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958)” by Jack Beatty.

The late James Michael Curley dominated Boston politics for half of the 20th century, serving as city councilor, mayor of Boston, governor of Massachusetts and its representative in the U.S. Congress. He also served two prison terms without interrupting his career of public service.

Born to Irish immigrants, he was admired by working families who believed his triumph was their triumph, and resented by Yankee blue bloods for his streetwise political style.

He was elected mayor of his state’s capital four times, serving in 1914-17, 1922-25, 1930-33 and 1946-49. A memorial park named for Mayor Curley stands across Union Street from Boston City Hall, where a standing and a seated statue of himself keep an eye on posterity. The park was dedicated in 1980 by Mayor Kevin White who served at City Hall nearly as long, 1958-83.

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