Politics, the silent majority, opinion leaders and businesses

Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA
A politically unbiased Bangladeshi who is a little literate, reads and watches news and views in newspapers and television channels and has a reasonable idea about good governance, if asked to give his or her honest opinion about Bangladeshi politics, will say: “Doing politics in Bangladesh is the easiest way of making money”.

Mujahidul Islam Selim, a veteran politician, now General Secretary of Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), while participating in a television talk show a few years back had compared politics in Bangladesh with ‘Gabtolir Goroor Haat’ (a makeshift market under open sky at Gabtoli in Dhaka for selling and buying goats, bulls and cows). Selim believes the ruling classes and big entrepreneurs have established their firm domination over all the big political parties and there will only be alternations of governments basically between two parties: Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). So, the reactionary policies and wholesale corruptions at every level of our society, according to Selim, will continue to remain the same.

If asked to say about politics in Bangladesh, an elderly farmer, who does not understand politics and not care how good governance at the helm could change his as well as his next generations’ fates, will give you a litany of low prices of foods and other materials he saw in his lifetime. Then, he would repent of the yawning gap between the prices of rice, say, in 1951 and of that now in 2011. At the end of the conversation, he looks tired, deep furrows in his brows, poignantly trying to visualize his salad days in the distant past, and a bit nonchalantly says: “The day bygone is always better”.

This farmer, who represents the vast majority of Bangladeshi population, will cast his vote in favour of someone in whom he would find an ability (or a jugglery) to transport him at least 10 years back, if not all the way back to 1951, so that he at a lower price can buy edibles that he does not cultivate himself on his own field. To him a reduced price of rice is the price of his vote.

If asked to offer his or her opinion on politics in Bangladesh, a student of higher studies or an individual adorned with a Masters from a reputed Bangladeshi university may give you an answer that, in most cases, may more frustrate you than the nostalgic statement you received from the farmer who is eager to live back in 1951 to get rice dirt cheap.

During the 1990s, it was a matter of routine for me to drop at DUS, a café near the Teachers Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka university, in the afternoon, on my way home after my office work, to take a hot tea and two pieces of ‘samucha’, not for so much a tea as my usual evening tea but as a pretext to eavesdrop on the young students to learn tidbits of how did they see the world and analyze the politics in the country. While seeping tea my ears always would stand pricked up to pick up conversations of the adjoining students who would gossip among themselves around DUS.

One evening at DUS, my ears were fortunate to pick up a gossip on politics among some young students. The topic was: Politics of Jamat-e-Islam, the non-secular political party and of Shibir, the student wing of Jamat-e-Islam. The gossipers perhaps were inclined towards Chatra League, the student wing of Awami League. They were spitting venom at Jamat and Shibir, always referring to views of a particular newspaper that mostly supports their political ideology.

After heated discussions castigating Jamat and Shibir, one student argued: “Mind you, Jamat and Shibir people are dangerous strategists. They know they can’t garner support from the public due to their ignominious role during our liberation war. So, they are trying to win people’s heart by their so-called charity and honesty”. He further said: “A business wing of Jamat, Ibne Sinha, a company for diagnostic programs, unlike other similar companies, does not give away commissions to physicians for their referrals; instead they offer 15 per cent concessions directly to clients seeking pathological analyses from their diagnostic centers. So, you find huge crowds in all the Ibne Sinha diagnostic centers and surprisingly more than 20 per cent of their clients are Hindus”. Another student intoned: “Honesty is their weapon”.

Honesty, however, is almost absent in Bangladesh with rampant violence, power struggles and misuse of powers at the government levels, a consistent theme in Bangladeshi politics since its liberation, during all the tenures of governments run by AL, Jatiya Party (JP) and BNP with political leaders and their workers marred by corruptions, absence of ideal political schooling, low level of education and lack of true patriotism.

Many Bangladeshi people while casting their votes to decide who they would elect to rule the country for the next five years perhaps find themselves as the most helpless decision-makers, torn by the lack of an opportunity to express their true wishes through ballots. They are at a loss for knowledge. They are left with limited alternatives. They are compelled to choose either of the sinners who cheated on them on a number of occasions both in the immediate past term of the government and in the previous term. They find in the ballot paper not a single name of an honest guy who they could vote for.

The majority of the voters, who are as naïve as the farmer eager to live back in 1951, however, are not impaled on the horns of a dilemma while choosing either of the sinners; they are quite comfortable with the candidates seeking their votes. They follow whatever their opinion leaders point their fingers at. These simpletons are not eager to find a Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia or a Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank or a Mujahidul Islam Selim of Communist Party of Bangladesh to captain the nation. Intellectually they are living in caves and these beguiling voters are the banks our shrewd political leaders repose on.

The so-called educated voters too are either not enlightened or are blindly biased to a particular political party for their selfish gains or egoistic satisfactions. They are also living in caves as prisoners of today’s print and electronic media that are basically controlled by the ruling classes who by turn decide who should be at the helm to rule the nation and when.

It is not far-fetched that we the people of Bangladesh—educated or illiterate—are the mental prisoners in the unsafe custody of our political enterprises. We get the values and views of the country and the world from the prints in newspapers and images and programmes in television channels, the omnipresent media that are controlled by powerful individuals linked to political parties and are responsible to keep us informed with whatever they fancy with a discreet view to serving their political masters. Most of us are in no position to check what we receive from the newspapers or the television screens against the facts of the real world. We live emotionally and cognitively in a world of manipulative information. Like chained troglodytes most of us rarely even wonder whether what we see and think corresponds to reality or not.

Voters in a democracy may not know all the technicalities of running a government, but they surely can judge the results. When voters in Bangladesh were frustrated with the outcomes of politics and fed up with the activities of the major political parties a silver lining sparkled in the political clouds hovering over Bangladesh when in 2007 the septuagenarian “banker to the poor” Professor Yunus, the only Nobel laureate from Bangladesh, announced “Egiye Cholo, Bangladesh” (March Ahead, Bangladesh) as the theme of his new political party “Nagorik Shakti” (Citizens’ Power) with a noble intention to changing Bangladesh’s confrontational political culture.

But Professor Yunus miserably failed to convince the people of Bangladesh that it was high time they had looked at an alternative to the monopoly of politics by the coterie of politicians who always failed to deliver whatever they had promised before all the elections.

Professor Yunus made a blunder by thinking doing politics in Bangladesh to better the fate of our nation was not so much difficult compared to running his Grameen Bank to provide microfinance to alleviate poverty. He perhaps was inspired by what the 19th century literary celebrity Robert Louis Stevenson said about politics: “Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary”.

Professor Yunus did not take lessons from the history of Bangladeshi nasty politics where people like Dr. Kamal Hossain, the internationally acclaimed constitutional lawyer, had to succumb to the charms and jugglery of a man who was catapulted from the position of a truck driver to the status of a lawmaker. Professor Yunus could not understand the dynamics of Bangladeshi politics where a farmer is swayed by slogans and lectures that promise to transport him back to 1951 when he would be able to get rice and lentil dirt cheap. Professor Yunus perhaps forgot that we the Bangladeshis are basically chained troglodytes incapable to find the beauty of leaderships like those of Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia.

What then should we have to do now to change our fate? Shouldn’t we be content with what we have in our existing leadership to define our fates? Should we still dare look at an alternative?

In theory, the representatives of the people in a democracy should be from the people, in order to best represent the culture, values and beliefs of the majority of the people. Who could be the genuine representative of the elderly farmer, mentioned above, who still longs for his salad days in 1951? There is a common belief that a visionary like Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani could perhaps be our perfect leader who led a life like a farmer and was never thirsty to build his fortunes at the expense of the poor.

The other day my youngest brother Maruf A. Khan forwarded to me a story titled “Rickshaw Puller Sets an Example in Bangladesh”, authored by A. Mohit and published recently in technorati.com—a poignant story about a Bangladeshi named Joynal Abedin.

The story tells: When, at age 30, Joynal Abedin watched in desperation as his father suffered and died in a small village in Mymenshing he had taken a resolve that he would not be like other bystanders who were unable to do anything to help others. Joynal, who did not have money or education, along with his wife had left the village and moved to the capital city Dhaka. For days and nights, under rain and sun, in cold and heat, he pulled rickshaws for 14 years while his wife Lal Banu worked at a clinic. In 2001, the couple returned to their village home with a savings of Taka 280 thousand (nearly US$ 4000). With that money, they purchased 23 decimals of land and constructed a house to live with their two young children. With rest of the savings Joynal and Lal Banu opened a four-bed hospital on his land, and named it after their daughter “Momtaz”. They also established a free coaching center for the underprivileged children.

People began coming to Momtaz Hospital from far and beyond, since there was no other free facility in the nearby villages. On an average day, the hospital treats around 25 patients and dispenses various medicines to them. With time, recognition followed, and Joynal was awarded a title “Sada-Moner-Manush” (Man of a golden heart) in 2008.

Kevin Gonzales, an American friend of mine, after hearing from me the story of the rickshaw puller, said with exclamation: “Why not choose Joynal Abedin as a leader of your country?” Indeed Kevin was perhaps right. If we find Professor Yunus not at all a suitable leader to navigate our nation, if people like Dr. Kamal Hossain have a thin possibility of winning an election, we may perhaps find in Joynal Abedin a man to best represent the values and beliefs of the majority of our people. Joynal Abedin as a leader, I am personally confident, would not at least rob our country in order to line his own pockets the way many of our leaders, their children and their grandchildren have long been fleecing this poor country of ours.

The writer can be reached at e-mail: maswood@hotmail.com


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