Have you ever heard of a committee representing England's Conservative Party in Dhaka? Do the Republicans have a pro-youth front serving Donald Trump's agenda in Sylhet? The answer to both would be an overwhelming no.
However, it is quite common to find representatives of the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party or even organisations such as the Jubo Dal or Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish in countries like the UK and the USA.
Information on these committees is a mere Google search away. You can find what the New York State Jubo League Committee is up to and what their plans for the future are. New York houses one of the largest Bangladeshi immigrant populations; but there are party units in much smaller states as well.
This raises the question: Why do these expatriates hold up the political rivalry abroad? One could say that it's a matter of ideology and patriotism. Another reason, and one that can be supported by a mere glance at Sylhet's political atmosphere, is the expatriate Bangladeshi's desire to get nominated back home.
There are at least 44 expatriate political leaders currently lobbying to get nominated in 19 constituencies of Sylhet. Such is the dominance of expatriate candidates that Upazilas like Bishwanath, Balaganj and Osmaninagar have been nicknamed the 'lands of the expatriates'.
These upazilas belong to constituencies in which both the current and previous parliamentarians live abroad with their families. This time there are two expatriate candidates reaching for the seat in Sylhet-2. The last time it had a Bangladesh-residing parliamentarian was in 2006, when missing BNP leader Ilias Ali held the constituency.
In the national election of 2008, Awami League's Shafiqur Rahman was elected as a parliamentarian from the Sylhet-2 constituency. Yahya Chowdhury, another UK-based Jatiya Party leader, won the election in 2014. Inspired by these wins, people like Anwaruzzaman Chowdhury, joint secretary of the Awami League in UK and Ataur Rahman, vice-president of Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish in the UK are lobbying hard to get a nomination this year.
But this seat represents approximately 3.9 lakh people. It includes upazilas like Balaganj, an area where 20 percent of the population live below poverty level. Up until 2011, neither Balaganj, nor its adjacent upazila Bishwanath, had a government secondary school. It is also prone to flooding.
Speaking to Star Weekend, the former MP Shafiqur says he has been living in Bangladesh somewhat permanently since the win. His family still lives abroad and he spends a significant amount of time away from station visiting them.
“Expats who have businesses abroad find that they cannot attend to all their duties,” admits Shafiqur. “Signing of important documents gets delayed, and the MPs cannot attend all the meetings of the parliamentary standing committees.”
The current parliamentarian, Jatiya Party's Yahya Chowdhury has a similar jet-setting lifestyle. This MP's family lives in England, and he has to travel frequently, leaving local politicians frustrated. They point to the fact that in this seat, the union of Osmanpur had been elevated to the upazila of Osmaninagar in 2014, but is yet to even have an Upazila complex, let alone other amenities.
Misbah Uddin Siraj, organising secretary of the central Awami League unit is aspiring for Sylhet-1 and Sylhet-3 and feels that since expatriate politicians are not permanently rooted in the country, they are out of touch with the grassroots.
“I have been involved with field level politics for 45 years and been elected as the party's central organising secretary three times. There are a lot of expatriates and seasonal politicians gathering in the field to contest the elections. This is not a good practice. People who worked at the grassroots level should get nomination. I believe the party leadership will consider this.”
Many other local leaders also agreed that they cannot compete with expatriate politicians who earn in foreign currencies. As a result, they lose out on getting nominated as candidates.
Miftah Siddiky, organising secretary of the Sylhet city unit of BNP hopes that the party will reward the politicians who work on the ground and face political oppression. “There are a lot of wealthy expatriate aspirants who believe that they can contest the elections by lobbying with the central leaders.
But they will be a bad choice for the party. The local people will not accept them,” he says.
Grassroots BNP leaders admit to feeling isolated from the England-based inner circle of politicians surrounding Tareq Rahman. They admit that it is ultimately him who will decide on the candidates, but feel helpless at not being able to reach him abroad.
This time, Sylhet-6 has the greatest number of expatriate aspirants. The seat, which is currently represented by Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid, has six expatriates from Awami League and Jatiya Party. Two of them live in USA, three in England and one in Canada. The constituencies they are eyeing are Bianibazaar and Golapganj.
These expatriate leaders supposedly try to put in a good word through relatives of party leaders abroad. UK-based AL leaders try to maintain a good connection with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's sister Sheikh Rehana, who lives in the UK. The same happens with BNP's acting Chairperson Tarique Rahman, living in exile in the UK.
ATU Taj Rahman, UK expatriate and JP Presidium Member says: “I have been trying to work for my party here and abroad. This year, I will be contesting from Sylhet-4.”
Habiganj-1 constituency's former MP from BNP, UK expatriate Sheikh Sujat Miah seems confident about getting a nomination again if BNP runs for elections.
Sarwar Hossain, who founded Awami League's politics in Canada is now hoping to get an AL nomination from the Sylhet-6 constituency. This constituency is represented by the country's education minister, Nurul Islam Nahid.
Like Sarwar, Habibur Rahman, the relief and social welfare affairs secretary of Awami League's UK branch, is targeting candidacy from the Sylhet-3 constituency. He even brought out a huge procession at Dashin Surma last Friday.
According to Faruque Mahmud Chowdhury, president of Shushasoner Jono Nagorik's (Shujan) Sylhet chapter, the rising number of expatriates participating in the elections isn't a healthy sign for the country's democracy.
“People vote for the party more than the person representing it. In that respect, people directly in touch with the locals should get nominated in order to ensure a good political vibe,” says Faruque.
He adds, “The scenario is changing. Expatriate politicians are entering the country in huge numbers both for the national election and the Union Parishad Election. All they want is to get elected.”
The current MP of Sylhet-2, however, does not think being an expatriate is an issue. “Most expatriate politicians think that all they need to contest the elections, is have a strong lobby and enough financial backing. But that is not true—we are dedicated to winning the people's support and trust,” says Yahya.