When it comes to winning support, politicians are selective about how they represent themselves, their views or decisions, their projects or policies, and their opponents, supporters or alliances. Politicians in Bangladesh claim to represent multiple, changeable and complex interests but what does that mean in practice? Let us hear the experiences of some ordinary citizens in different constituencies in this regard.
To introduce the relationship between MPs and the local public representatives, I will begin with a Union Parishod (UP) chairman, not because he is typical in a totalising sense, but due to what he reveals about the commonality of some aspects of MP-local elected representative relations centred around particular events. A grassroots local public representative narrates his pain in working with the hierarchies of bureaucracy.
In a conversation with the researchers he narrated his perspective about whether an MP possesses absolute power. He explained that in a few places, the MP is tantamount to the local equivalent of the prime minister. He elaborates by saying, “Well, not quite, since the prime minister remains within the constitutional restrains; whereas, the MPs exercise their authority to exceed their limitations almost whenever and however they please, beyond law, beyond protocol, beyond all decency. They impose their self-made rules at will.” The conversation continued: “Who exercises power like this and how?” I asked. He says that it is because MPs are constructing and reconstructing pavements around their own houses, or in places from which s/he will get votes during elections. The places that were in dire need of repair were being neglected; the problems in need of immediate attention weren't being solved. Even at the Union level, the MPs interfere.
Here the barrier between the MP and a local public representative is revealed; a mix of political interests, bureaucratic rule and myopic party affiliation restrict the implementation of development in response to need. The UP Chairman was not critical of a particular MP. The weak linkages between the MP and ordinary citizens shown in his testimony were evident in nearly every one of the interviews I conducted in different constituencies.
Let us look at the way one interview preceded as I tried to get a local Union Councillor to explain the relations between the MP and the constituents and the nature of public engagement in the area. When I asked him how an MP engages with public representatives at the grassroots level, such as himself, he explained that to encourage effective interaction, the government passes ordinances to allocate authority to several sectors included in the government such as the Department for Women's Affairs, Public Health, Local Government, and so on. What is their task? I wanted to know from him.
The answer was straightforward: to ensure public participation in the locality in order to solve various problems, they must organise people-centred activities. Due to the social enclosure system nowadays, there are a few sycophants circling the representatives at all times to grab all the facilities. One has to ensure their responsibility and accountability to the people. I asked what accountability means in this context. He explained, “Let's ponder on what happens in Bangladesh. You buy a nomination from your party, symbolised by 'Sheaf of Paddy' (Dhaner Sheesh for BNP) or 'Boat' (Nouka for Awami League), and you get elected because nobody bothers about who you are but what symbol you are representing.”
As he further elaborates, “Actually, you don't need the citizens to vote for you; thus, you surround yourself with the muscles required to obtain and hold on to power; you rear a few loyal political party supporters who would get you the votes and silence any voice of dissent. The situation is becoming worse with time and might reach endemic proportions during the next government, be it Awami League or BNP forming the cabinet.”
The majority of local constituents also believed that they have to destroy this shadowy, symbolic politics in order to ensure nomination by the public, rather than the parliament. According to them, people must be allowed to form the parliament adhering to the constitutional protocol and not vice versa. In your opinion, what should an MP's activities be? I asked groups of citizens in many constituencies. The answer was that the same as the MPs in developed countries. The MP should only propose new plans and laws on the basis of analytical research. Is his/her any special background not taken into account? I further asked the councillor.
The answer was: Not only that, but much more. The MPs are handed infinite power over the administration. Firstly, the absolute power that the party heads enjoy must be revoked or limited with principles. The party head shouldn't be allowed to exercise unbridled authority. Secondly, one shouldn't be granted nomination merely on account of possessing Tk 1 billion. If you want to see potent and effective parliamentary democracy, this aspect must be reformed. Thirdly, the constituents are happy if the MP has fulfilled his/her task of notifying the parliament about the central predicament of the constituency.
Shifting gaze to other actors in a constituency, some Union Porishad chairmen told me that in deciding what is urgently needed, and which tasks should be given priority, the MP consult with them and take decisions. They appreciate this. In response to the question what an MP should do in his constituency, the chairmen told me that the primary duty should be to enact law. As they narrate, “The MP should play his/her role with dignity and should contribute to establishing good governance. But in our country MPs stay out of the parliament. His or her concentration is more on development activities rather than framing laws.”
Ordinary female citizens claim that not even the Members of the Ward or Union/Upazilla call on them, let alone the Chairman or the MP. When they were told that the MP visits the area twice a month, they maintained that they do not have the opportunity or time to make their way over there.
The relationships between the elected and the elector are both political and social in the sense that I have noted. If politics is about a struggle of power, resources and ideas, then social relations are a necessary part of democratic politics, that is, to win support and make engagements. Thus we need to distinguish different acts of representation in a particular democratic setting, taking developments that stress the importance of relationships, context and representation into account.
Dr Zahir Ahmed is Professor, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University and adjunct faculty, BIGD, BRAC University. He has been conducting research on parliaments (Westminster, Bangladesh Parliament, and Ethiopia Parliament) and constituencies in collaboration with SOAS, University of London since 2012. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org