Who's responsible for the deaths in UP elections?
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote more than two hundred years ago that worse than a bloody hand is a hard heart, and the English poet had as if meant it to be an early indictment of the Chief Election Commissioner of Bangladesh. The chief custodian of our electoral process has presided over the bloodiest elections in this country's history. More than a hundred people have died and many times more that number has been wounded in the Union Parishad elections. The keeper sat on his hands while the usurpers made a mockery of the most important pillar of democracy under his watch.
If he's still not convinced that he has failed to do his job, it's because you can't wake a person who is pretending to be asleep. If all those people have died in the villages of Bangladesh, then who has their blood in his hands? The driver is to blame if a bus runs over a pedestrian. The contractor is responsible if a worker dies during construction. The owner is responsible if a customer dies of food poisoning after eating in his restaurant.
How then can our CEC avoid responsibility for so many lives lost in the badly managed elections? He should have planned better, identified the risks, and arranged for adequate security to preempt the eventualities. Last April, after a meeting with the top officials of security agencies, he said that the local government elections were always a "troublesome" matter. That's all the more reason why he should have taken more precautions since he already knew it was going to be tough.
But what precautions did he take other than putting together a self-fulfilling prophecy? There are many allegations that the chairman-hopefuls took money from the member-hopefuls on the pledge of getting them elected. The chairman-hopefuls then allegedly ploughed back some of that money into bribing district and central leaders to buy the party nomination for themselves.
And here we're talking about big money that mostly lined the pockets of local party bosses. Interestingly, the voters have been deprived in more than one way. They have been deprived of their votes and many of them from selling those votes for money (not that I support it). You can say, this time flow of money in elections has been concentrated in few hands while the voters didn't get a chance to bother much about who they should vote for.
I know money was always there, and it gradually moved from fewer hands to many. In the early days, candidates bought off village headmen and elders, who guaranteed voting blocs. Average voters in their decision to vote were swayed by these influential people, while their share of fun lay in the prospects of having free treats to betel leaves, cigarettes, snacks, and tea on top of having cordial and close attention from the candidates.
Elections were the only time in this nation's life when the voters expected to get pampered by their politicians. The last time I had campaigned for a cousin of mine, the game had already changed. The voters were no longer shy and they stayed up at night waiting with betel leaf and tea for the candidates or their representatives to come and negotiate a price for their votes. I remember in my area, the bidding had gone up to Tk. 500 for one vote.
That mass marketing of cash-for-vote incentive still had its limits. The money had to be given secretly because it was still deemed immoral and illegal. The vigilante teams of every candidate gave chase to opponents offering money and, if caught, beat the daylights out of them or handed them over to police. That etiquette has long ceased to exist.
In the UP elections this year, money has once again returned to the local oligarchy. The ordinary voters helplessly watched the last vestige of their involvement in government rudely taken away from them. Those who managed to enter some of the polling centres often had their ballots stamped already and neatly folded by the agents of the dominant candidates. The voters were then asked to carry the readied ballots to the booths and drop them into ballot boxes as if that was enough to do for the rightful exercise of their voting privilege.
The CEC has tried to blame everything on the political culture prevailing in the country, which sounded funny. It has only convinced the rest of us that he was blaming the dance floor to hide that he didn't know how to dance. This man is guilty on two counts. One is his failure to prevent the death of so many people. The other is his refusal to accept responsibility for that failure.
Someday he is going to have a conscience to know how hard-heartedly he has been defending his tainted hands.
The writer is the Editor of weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org