In Bangladesh, a poor politician is of no use to anyone

In Bangladesh, a poor politician is of no use to anyone

Afsan Chowdhury,

In Dhaka’s swirling political speculations and gossip, the latest is about who among the electoral candidates is wealthy and who is not. On paper, many have declared their wealth and almost none have been found credibility among the public. They know that to survive in politics you need to make and spend a lot of money which, going by wealth levels, would be impossible.

Politics is not just about power but also money and one needs it to survive. So, most of the wealth statements are disbelieved and provide ammunition more for good conversation. Behind such comments may lie a more disturbing reality. The people don’t believe the politicians or the process through which transparency may be ensured. If this is the case, what is the kind of a governance system in place?

The wealthy

In the land of the super wealthy, politicians are at the top as they have to help out the hyper rich. Favours don’t come easy and the rich know that unless the politicians are well off, they will simply fade away. It’s in the interest of the rich that the politicians are also rich. So, whether one likes it or not, politicians are destined to be rich because they are part of the system that controls the wealth making. A poor politician is of no use to anyone.

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If people are not wealthy others would be suspicious about their capacity to both make and conceal money. A rich man is expected to show off his wealth but not be exposed. The art of making wealth is also expected to develop his art of concealing it. So, even if a politician is seen spending millions for interesting causes like a daughter’s wedding, the halafnama (affidavit) he submits to the Bangladesh Election Commission may to show that he barely makes any money. Only then is the politician considered smart.

The poor 

The politician is surrounded by many kinds of people and much depends on him to provide them with income or at least support. This means they are a cottage industry of sorts who are supposed to provide full or additional income to the people who are their supporters and enforcers. For these people—some lumpen, some not—this is their most critical role. So, the MP can’t be expected to be poor as he would be unable to help the other poor folks around him. It would be a break with tradition, and some would even say a break with their political commitment.

The halafnama paradox   

Yet we have a system of wealth declaration before the parliamentary polls are held, which provides great interest of the tabloid variety. People want to pry into the wealth secrets of their future MPs the same way they want to know about the secrets of film stars whom many adore and worship.

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These are actually part of the formal process of electioneering. They are supposed to serve as checks and filters for the less-than-honest and so on. However, going by records, these halafnamas have more entertainment value rather than legal. This is because the system of wealth-making in Bangladesh is non-transparent in general and the intent of the halafnamas is to provide the opposite. In this battle, it’s obvious which wins.

Formal system, informal reality

The problem is that the electoral system is formal, while the political system is informal and the two are so different that they can’t co-survive comfortably. However, both are a fact of life and while the government system is sourced from the formal world, the world of politics is about realities that keeps society, including wealth-making, going.

A good recent example was the road transport crisis where many suggestions were made and people widely protested against this sector’s excesses. However, once the protests died away, the situation returned to what it was earlier and the strike by the road transport workers later was far more widespread and effective than the public protests. This shows that no institution is formal and cannot be when governance itself is informal.

Strengthening the system

The transport sector is key to understanding how the state functions. It shows that even in a formal sector informality determines since that is the ‘system’. Hence, the system is informal but the structure is formal and the manifestations are determined by the relationship between the two.

Few institutions are so wide-ranging as the transport sector and that is why the state of governance is detectable in the way this sector runs. It’s a convergent sector and we should read the state through the same lens.

Power produces money and money produces power. The conflict between the formal and the informal can’t disrupt this transaction method. This is why the elections are not just about electing MPs but also to strengthen the system through which both governance and politics play out.

Let the halafnama be. The lack of credibility is only half the story. That there is such a document which is considered necessary but is not relevant to the process is where the reality of the system lies.