For Mukhtar Ansari, a tall, burly politician with a bottle-brush moustache and a lurid criminal record, incarceration in a federal prison in the badlands of northern India is the next best thing to freedom. A member of the Uttar Pradesh state legislature, Ansari has been locked up for three years, awaiting trial for nearly two dozen mafia-like crimes, including murder and gun-running. But he remained in touch with supporters prior to the recent election, in which he stood for the Varanasi seat in the nation's parliament, from his cell in the Uttar Pradesh city of Ghazipur, 70km to the east. Dedicated campaign workers such as Lakshmi Devi, an elderly widow who thinks of the jailed candidate as a modern-day Robin Hood, were allowed to call on Ansari at any time of day. To get unfettered access to his prison cell she needed only to flash an entry permit. This is not a government-issued photo ID but a note on Ansari's personal letterhead. 'Gatekeeper Sahib,' the woman's tattered, handwritten letter says, 'do not stop auntie from coming to see me.' The national Election Commission got wind of Ansari's cushy set-up and transferred him some 400km away to Kanpur jail for the week before voting was scheduled to start in the district he was contesting, returning him on May 6. Ansari's jailers in Kanpur were instructed to install an elaborate network of video cameras to keep track of his visitors. Ansari's candidature is indicative of a bewildering phenomenon in the world's largest democracy; voters in India often joke they can't tell whether criminals are masquerading as politicians or vice versa. And nowhere has the system attracted more seedy characters than in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, where, the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) says, 219 parliamentary candidates out of 1,360 in this year's election had police records. And 40 of these were in 'red alert' constituencies; where three or more candidates had a criminal record. The Election Commission requires that all licensed weapons be submitted to the local administration during the election season. The result is scores of illegal gun shops run under the patronage of local politicians, including Ansari - who faces charges under Uttar Pradesh's Gangster Act and its Arms Act - open across the state. Last year, more than 12,000 arrests were made in connection with the manufacture or possession of illegal firearms in western Uttar Pradesh alone and police officials say that orders were most frequently placed by gangs acting on behalf of candidates and their supporters. The guns are used to intimidate voters and to enforce extortion that raises money for election campaigns. On occasion they are used to capture polling booths. Some of Ansari's henchmen were arrested last year under the Uttar Pradesh Arms Act. The men are alleged to have been on 'extortion patrol', shaking down businesses in a convoy of five sports utility vehicles, in which police found five revolvers, four rifles, a double-barrelled shotgun, 118 cartridges and 32 mobile phones. Ansari maintains he is innocent of all crimes and he hasn't been convicted yet, but that is hardly surprising given convictions are rare under India's enervating judicial system. He makes his money from lucrative government contract work - called thekedari - in coal mining, scrap disposal, railway construction and the production of liquor. This was not his first campaign from prison. He was elected to the state legislature in 1996, just weeks after being charged with firing an AK-47 at a policeman. He won re-election by a huge margin in 2002 while facing charges of illegal arms possession. He ran for and won a different seat in 2007 while awaiting trial on other charges, including the murder of Krishnanand Rai, a rival politician. Ansari claims he couldn't have done it because he was in jail when gunmen surrounded Rai's car and opened fire. But India's Central Bureau of Investigation responded by producing voice recordings of purported conversations between Ansari and the men who killed Rai. The case continues to creep its way through the courts. In many ways, Ansari's criminal record has been an asset to his political career, rather than a liability. Such is the suspicion and hostility that the people of Uttar Pradesh harbour against the authorities that allegations of criminality can mark somebody as a leader - and an influential one. Campaign worker Devi lives in Gona, a village on the fringes of Ghazipur, where Ansari's legal problems have given him credibility with the downtrodden locals. Although it is outside the Varanasi constituency, in the run-up to the election, the village was festooned with Ansari's campaign posters. In this feudalistic rural landscape, blighted by violent caste-related crime and back-breaking poverty, Ansari, who hails from Ghazipur, is seen as a saviour and protector of the lower castes. Unemployment has risen in Gona because loss-making weaving and sugar factories have closed in recent years. Ansari found Devi's teenage son employment in a bead factory in a neighbouring town last year. And he distributes cash to the indigent, paying for weddings, dowries and eye operations. Although power outages are frequent elsewhere in the state, in this area, the villagers count on having electricity 22 hours a day, which they say is largely thanks to Ansari's influence with the local utilities board. When villagers have legal problems, Ansari is the man they turn to; they say he dispenses justice faster and more surely than the courts. Devi says he intervened once when her son was wrongly arrested after a feud with an upper-caste landlord's son. All it took was one call from Ansari to intimidate the arresting officer. The irony is that India's campaign-financing laws, passed in the 1990s, may be responsible for bringing hardcore criminals into the political process, according to Amitabh Bhattacharya, a Varanasi-based columnist for English-language daily Northern India Patrika, who has followed Ansari's career. Until the mid-90s, he says, candidates with a background like that of Ansari didn't play a direct role in politics. However, under Indian law, there now exists no legal method for political parties to raise more than a fraction of the money they need. Initially, criminals were used by political parties to raise money - through extortion, kid-napping and other illegal means. In return, they were offered government contracts. With time, however, the criminals began to get directly involved in politics. 'Earlier their role was centrifugal, now it is centripetal,' says Bhattacharya. Convicted criminals can remain in office while they appeal to higher courts and cases can drag on for years. 'To me a criminal is a criminal is a criminal,' says Bhattacharya. 'But that's not how everyone thinks.' In the previous parliamentary elections, held in 2004, 20 per cent of candidates elected had a criminal background, according to National Election Watch, a consortium of 1,200 non-governmental organisations working on electoral reforms in India. Many of them were charged with serious crimes such as human trafficking, rape, embezzlement and even murder. Considering there is no law that bars candidates with a criminal record from contesting elections, or political parties from sponsoring them, there is little pressure to correct India's graft-ridden political system. However, in the run-up to this year's parliamentary election, held in five phases beginning in mid-April, some prominent personalities took it upon themselves to try to wrench the system away from criminals. The chief aim of the recently launched Forum for Clean Politics, run by the New Delhi-based Public Interest Foundation, is to prevent candidates with a criminal record from standing. 'Sixty-two years after winning independence, India waits to be free again,' reads the homepage of nocriminals.org, launched by the foundation. 'To be freed from criminals who have muscled their way into power.' The foundation is headed by Bimal Jalan, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and supported by other prominent figures such as Naresh Chandra, a former cabinet minister and ambassador to the United States; Suresh Neotia, an industrialist who is the chairman of Ambuja Cement; and Tarun Das of the Confederation of Indian Industry. Once the election had begun, the foundation sent out e-mails and text messages and launched helplines to encourage voters to check candidates' credentials before they cast their vote. 'The aim of our campaign is twofold,' says Anil Kumar, a former bureaucrat and the director of the Public Interest Foundation. 'One, to appeal to all political parties to not sponsor criminal candidates. And two, if they still do, to appeal to voters to reject them outright.' In July last year, as their leaders went to vote on whether to back the Manmohan Singh-led coalition government and a controversial deal with the United States, Indians witnessed parliamentary democracy in its basest form. Onto the floor of the parliament MPs hurled wads of cash, claiming they had been paid off to vote in favour of the government. Bribery as blatant as this is corroding the foundations of Indian society, stalling development and making it difficult to feed a country with more malnourished children than any other, analysts say. Corruption-combating NGO Transparency International's ratings over the years have not been flattering to India. Its report for last year ranks the country at 72nd among 179. 'We want people to realise that the people they vote for will represent them in parliament and make legislation for them,' says Kumar. 'The key problem is the lack of awareness among the public about the candidates' personal backgrounds.' The Public Interest Foundation is not alone in trying to spread such awareness. ADR, the watchdog behind National Election Watch, lodged the public-interest litigation that prompted the Indian Supreme Court to issue a directive to the Election Commission in 2002 making it mandatory for candidates seeking election to parliament or a state legislature to file affidavits regarding any criminal activity. Vikas Kumar, one of ADR's programme executives, says he is not sure how successful these campaigns will ultimately be but, in the western state of Gujarat, for instance, the percentage of standing candidates with a criminal record came down to 9 per cent from 19 per cent in 2004. Dharam Pal Yadav, a mafia don-turned- politician, who once ran a clandestine country liquor business and has 35 criminal cases against him, was expelled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just before the 2004 elections. However, successes on that scale are rare; important states such as Uttar Pradesh remain infested with criminal candidates vying for seats in parliament. Since the country's independence in 1947, the state has remained the most influential to the formation of the central government because it controls 80 seats of the 545 in parliament, more than any other. For political parties in Uttar Pradesh, sponsoring criminal candidates is a necessity because only they have the financial clout to mount a realistic campaign. Bhattacharya points out that Ansari could not have survived if he had not had the backing of a powerful political party. In 1996, Ansari was inducted into the Bahujan Samaj Party after being hand-picked by its head, Mayawati, India's first Dalit ('untouchable') chief minister. In 2002, when Ansari was charged with the murder of a Hindu leader, Mayawati had the investigating officer transferred. When she campaigned for him in Varanasi this year, Mayawati told people not to denounce Ansari as a criminal. 'A person who fights those who harass the poor people cannot be termed a criminal just by implicating him in false cases,' she said. 'Mukhtar is a victim and I consider him innocent.' Ansari is not the only candidate to have Mayawati's backing. Dhananjay Singh, a much-feared candidate from Jaunpur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is accused of serious charges, including murder. On April 13, a politician who had campaigned against Singh was found hanging from a tree 500 metres from his home. While the police called it suicide, family members suspect he may have been murdered at the behest of Singh and in connivance with the police. Political observers anticipate that no witnesses, if there are any, will dare step forward to testify against Singh. Even if they do, it probably won't impede his parliamentary career. When Gona's residents are asked about Ansari's criminal record their faces pucker. They won't stand for any criticism of him. 'His enemies often spout nonsense about him,' says Shakuntala Devi, a 40-year-old woman. 'He is only bad with people who are bad with him.' Villagers say they made regular trips to Varanasi, campaigning for him just before voting in April. Locally, they did the same for his brother, Afzal Ansari, an MP and a co-accused in Rai's murder, who was released on bail in January and was contesting the Ghazipur seat. When the results of India's elections were announced last Sunday, Mukhtar Ansari was shown to have failed in his attempt to unseat Murli Manohar Joshi, a strong Hindu nationalist candidate from the BJP. But Ansari remains a member of the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh and there's no evidence to suggest his criminal credentials caused his defeat; Varanasi is a holy Hindu city and the BJP have a stronghold there. Although Afzal Ansari also failed, across Uttar Pradesh, 31 candidates with criminal records won seats as members of parliament; and Singh was one of them. Across the country, 150 victorious candidates have criminal charges pending against them - 73 of them serious charges including murder - a jump of 17 per cent compared with the 2004 election. People who have visited Ansari in his Ghazipur cell say he is living like a king. He conducts his business using a smuggled-in mobile phone and his wife sends him homemade food - paratha, a fried unleavened Indian bread, with mutton kebab is his favourite. A cricket buff, he has converted a part of the jail compound into a makeshift cricket ground, villagers say, and has taught inmates how to play. Some inmates act as personal servants, washing his clothes, brewing his tea and giving him massages. That must make the election defeat a little easier to swallow - and there's always next time.