Utilizing data on criminal charges lodged against candidates to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of representatives, we study the conditions that resulted in approximately a quarter of members of parliament elected in 2004 and in 2009 facing or having previously faced criminal charges. Our results document that Indian political parties are more likely to select alleged criminal candidates when confronting greater electoral uncertainty and in parliamentary constituencies whose populations exhibit lower levels of literacy. We interpret the decisions of political parties to enlist known criminals as candidates as a function of the capacity of these candidates to intimidate voters. To substantiate this, we show that criminal candidates depress electoral turnout. In addition, our results suggest that India’s well-known incumbency disadvantage stems from the superior electoral performance of allegedly criminal candidates, who drive parliamentary incumbents from office. Our study raises questions for democratic theory, which claims that electoral competition improves accountability, and for the future of the Indian polity, which is experiencing a growing criminalization of the national political arena.