Awami League politics in the time of coronavirus

Uncontrolled corruption will lead to danger ahead

Space is shrinking for the people’s representatives. Bureaucrats and businessmen are gaining clout, says history professor Muntassir Mamoon

Uncontrolled corruption will lead to danger ahead

The novel coronavirus pandemic has brought forward the realities that lie behind the country’s wave of development and growth. The fragile state of the health sector has been exposed. Poverty is on the rise. Uncertainty prevails all over.

However, even in such dire circumstances, there appears to be no people-oriented policy in place. This can lead to a dangerous situation ahead.

Such views have been expressed by several politicians of the ruling party, political analysts, as well as historians. They say that uncontrolled corruption prevails. The government may talk about its commitment and ‘zero-tolerance’ towards corruption, but no significant punitive measures are actually taken. In these critical times, instances of massive corruption and mismanagement are coming to the fore. This is evoking public ire.

Over a hundred local representatives have been expelled due to irregularities and corruption in the distribution of relief. Most of these expelled persons are of the ruling party. Similarly, several bureaucrats have been transferred in recent times due to corruption in procurement.

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Awami League leaders at the grassroots want stern measures to be taken against such corruption. Pirojpur Awami League general secretary, MA Halim Howladar, speaking to Prothom Alo, said there are certain corrupt persons who do not even hesitate to steal relief goods. The government should not let them get away with this.

Muntassir Mamoon said countries have invariably faced a downfall where the bureaucrats and businessmen become policy makers of the state. Despite all complaints and allegations, Bangabandhu relied on the politicians, not on the bureaucracy.

Professor of political science at Dhaka University, Gobinda Chakraborty, said that the government’s commitment is tainted with a degree of hesitation and uncertainty. The lack of transparency in all spheres has become more apparent during the pandemic. The businessmen now sitting in the parliament are more interested in drawing up policies in their own interests rather than that of the people. And the bureaucrats have made the country into an administrative state.

Awami League has been in power for three consecutive terms now. The leaders say that the government is becoming more and more dependent on the civil servants. Politicians are being sidelined.

This has become obvious during the coronavirus pandemic. Party leaders are nowhere in planning and policy-making to tackle the pandemic. Even the ministers remain in the dark. The bureaucrats have been in control from the very beginning. Even in the local level committee, the members of parliaments have been made advisers. Secretaries have been placed in charge of each district. Many party leaders are unhappy with the situation, but are not voicing their discontent.

Historian Muntassir Mamoon said party leaders working at the field level are falling ill, but the secretaries have been put in charge of the districts. Space is shrinking for the people’s representatives. Bureaucrats and businessmen are gaining clout.

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Certain local leaders have said that the deputy commissioner sometimes calls them, sometimes does not. And the secretary in charge simply supervises the work from Dhaka. So they carry out the party relief work outside of this.

There is a lack of coordination everywhere, they pointed out. Panchgarh Awami League general secretary Anwar Sadat said, there is no denying that the party has been obscured during these coronavirus times.

Vice chancellor of the National University, political scientist Harun-or-Rashid, told Prothom Alo, a party is weakened if it becomes too dependent on the bureaucracy or administration.

Citizens for Good Governance (SHUJAN) observed that 61 per cent of the members of parliament sworn in after the 11th parliamentary polls, are all businessmen. The prominence of businessmen in politics began to grow since after 1975. Even bureaucrats became actively involved in politics.

The country went into the hands of the bureaucrats and businessmen. The state policy was tailored in the interests of the wealthy class rather than the people, say analysts. And the people have been paying the price over the past three decades.

There is a group that is using its power to make money and siphon it off overseas. This group is holding the government hostage. As for the actions of the private hospitals, these cannot be part of any civilised society. They must be sternly punished

Muntasir Mamun said countries have invariably faced a downfall where the bureaucrats and businessmen become policy makers of the state. Despite all complaints and allegations, Bangabandhu relied on the politicians, not on the bureaucracy.

Leaders at various levels within Awami League have said that coronavirus is a global problem and no one knows how long it will last. An eye must be kept on changes in world and regional politics. In the meantime, all attention is on coronavirus. The people are unhappy with the health system. The economy may face a serious crisis. Development work may slow down. Poverty is on a rise. All this may evoke public anger.

Central leaders of Awami League, however, do not see this as a serious problem. They say there is no formidable opposition in the country’s political arena. The main opposition BNP has not been able to do anything at all over the past few years. They foresee the government’s strength growing further in the future.

Presidium member of Awami League, Muhammad Faruk Khan, told Prothom Alo that Bangladesh is doing better than any country in tackling coronavirus. But preparations must be taken in case this proves to continue on for an extended time.

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Ruling party leaders say that the problems will mount if coronavirus continues for a few more months. Floods may damage the aman rice crop. The pace of development may slow down. The fragile state of the health system has also raised questions about the ongoing development. Attempts may be made to use these factors to create unrest.

In the past there had been sudden uprisings like the anti-quota movement or the safe roads movement. But in no way will any unrest be allowed to arise. The government does not want to bring the dilemma over lives and livelihood to the forefront and so is keeping a sharp watch on the overall situation.

From 8 March to 20 June, 87 persons were arrested on charges of spreading rumours and fake news, according to the Centre for Genocide Studies.

Speaking to Prothom Alo about this matter, agriculture minister Abdur Razzak said there would be apprehensions of unrest if there is a food shortage. But there is no food shortage in the country at the moment. If the coronavirus situation persists for a few more months, then the future can be discerned.

However, Gobinda Chakraborty said that the government is thinking of the well-to-do. It must stop trying to appease the VIPs. It must stop giving priority to the various pockets of power and turn towards a people-oriented policy instead.

Ruling party leaders say that coronavirus may have sets things back somewhat, but Awami League is not moving away from its ‘politics of development’. Some of the mega projects may have come to a halt, but the Padma bridge project is underway. The party wants to push any uncertainty into the background and forge ahead with its politics of development in the forefront. This has been reflected in the budget. Stimulus packages were declared at the very outset.

Awami League’s information and research secretary Selim Mahmud said crises open the doors to new possibilities.

Muntassir Mamoon, though, feels that the stimulus packages will not be able to revive the economy unless there is strict monitoring. And if the health sector remains in this fragile state, the GDP will not increase either.

Politicians and analysts think that the government may not have any political challenge at present, but it will be hard to emerge from the power structure that has been created. There is a group that is using its power to make money and siphon it off overseas. This group is holding the government hostage. As for the actions of the private hospitals, these cannot be part of any civilised society. They must be sternly punished.

The civil society, in the meantime, has been insipid over the last decade or so. The clamp down of freedom of expression may prove to be a boomerang. The government is in the midst of a gaping lack of coordination.

Political scientist Harun-or-Rashid said unless qualitative change gives rise to a strong opposition, the government has no challenges ahead. However, he added, it is unwarranted that such corruption should take place during the coronavirus crisis. The government must take a much firmer stance in this regard.

This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir