The Accidental Truthteller
If Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda is not your favourite go-to guy when you look for truths, he has only himself to blame. Throughout his time in office, the CEC has done to truths about elections what a three-year-old does to its toy cars: toss them around with carefree abandon. The banality of his artless statements can only be rivalled by his enduring faith in them (recall his routine defence of every election that he has conducted as "free, fair and credible"—which is, frankly, no longer funny). But of late, I am beginning to see in him a man capable of courting facts occasionally.
The reason for this little hopeful note is a recent comment by the CEC about the state of leadership in Bangladesh, in which he came "dangerously" close to the truth. While inaugurating a workshop for newly recruited election officials, the CEC said: "Often it is seen that someone who extorts money from hawkers in Gulistan later becomes a leader. One day he can be a parliamentarian too." (Prothom Alo, February 16). He also talked about other problematic people that the Election Commission has to deal with, including the "malam party" (mugging gangs that use toxic cream on their victims), pickpockets, bag snatchers and "casino members". Although he was vague about what those people have to do with the EC, the indication in the first part of the comment is quite clear.
First of all, what is striking about it is that the CEC has chosen to speak out, albeit briefly; a refreshing departure from his usual hear-no-evil-see-no-evil routine. His statements are usually couched in bland generalities, and often appear to favour the powers that be. Going by his own standards, his February 16 remark marks a difference. In his observation, the CEC frames his sentences carefully, afraid lest he say too much or offend anyone, but says enough to drive home the important message that money, crimes and power are intrinsically connected with today's elections in Bangladesh. If this is the CEC's way of telling a political story, his setting is Gulistan, his protagonist a small-time crook, and his plot revolving around the said crook's meteoric rise through the dark corridors of politics leading all the way up to the high seats of power.
Shortly after the CEC's comment, as if to validate his point, news broke out about the alleged involvement of an MP in human trafficking in Kuwait (a charge that he categorically denied). A local newspaper picked up the story after the Kuwaiti media published reports on the arrest of an unidentified Bangladeshi on charges of money laundering, human trafficking and illegal visa trading. According to the Arabic daily Al-Qabas, the suspect is a member of a three-man racket whose other members include a Bangladeshi MP. It added that the trio occupied sensitive positions in three major companies that brought over 20,000 Bangladeshi workers into the country in exchange for large sums of money believed to be in excess of 50 million dinars. The MP allegedly channelled the money to the US to set up a company in partnership with an American national.
Unfortunately, money, crime and power walk hand in hand in Bangladesh. They form the triple nexus in our politics. But stories like the above show just how far the rot has spread. Even in his most truthful state, the CEC has only scratched the surface of a minefield that holds the dark secrets of politicians of all stripes. Today, most politicians—whichever party they belong to—no longer vary in kind, but in degree, the degree to which they are susceptible to the corrupting influences of money and power.
We are talking about a culture that breeds corruption and is protected by the corrupt. Here, leaders rise through the ranks of their parties not because of their honesty, willingness to serve, or their grassroots appeal, but because of their strategic value and how much they can bring to their party's coffers. They hold important public offices despite damaging conflicts of interest, and hardly ever have to face trials for corruption should they belong to the right side of power. The drug lords and yaba godfathers, the unscrupulous businessmen, the thugs and gangsters, all are welcome in the sinister embrace of this corrupt system. Power is the new Holy Grail in Bangladesh, and nothing is off-limits in its pursuit.
We get a broader picture of this situation from the Democracy Index 2019 of the Economist Intelligence Unit published last month, in which Bangladesh, once again, fell in the "hybrid regime" category, meaning that substantial irregularities often prevent the elections from being free and fair. The hybrid regime has been defined as one in which "government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common…. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent."
But the apparent euphoria expressed by some after Bangladesh climbed eight notches up the index (Bangladesh was ranked 80th among 165 independent states and two territories worldwide, up from its 88th position a year ago) is another proof of just how little we care about our democratic health or expect our leaders to guide us to a better future. The beneficiaries of the irregularities cited above are well-known to everyone, apparently even to the CEC, who (along with his predecessor) will have to answer for his role in conducting one controversial election after another and thereby creating an environment conducive to the operation of a hybrid regime.
But for now, let's stick to the subjects of the CEC's comment. His Gulistan, if taken in the right spirit, is a metaphor for the entire country, his crooks symbolise all who are searching for a backdoor access to power, and his leaders are bound by their shared lust for power and money. This must be one of his most honest moments so far, right?
Or, alternatively, we're reading too much into his comment. It was probably one of his many bland generalities that fall neither here nor there, and that are not meant to be taken seriously. After all, as a review of all that he has said and done so far will suggest, there is unlikely to be an appetite in him for a turnaround now.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: [email protected]