The political pendulum is rigged to swing back

In an article in August 2018, I argued that emerging political leaders, because of the unique socioeconomic reality in which they grew up, might be more likely to accept change and less likely to default to norms and practices pursued by their boomer predecessors. Today, such optimism may seem misplaced to many. It does to me at least. True, there has been a popular groundswell for wider change lately, driven by mostly young people. But the ideological homogeneity demanded by the political establishment continues to have a restraining influence not just on the reforms being sought but also on the emergence of leaders who could play a catalytic role in this regard. “New” doesn’t mean “novel” in their case—and our past-bound political class expects it to remain that way by punishing dissent and rewarding accommodation with the status quo.

Why else, for example, would something as vital and nonpartisan as reforming our archaic sexual violence laws still be a problem, despite the increasing presence of relatively young leaders in parliament? Why would most young leaders continue to tolerate our colonial legacies? Why would morality politics still be indulged? Why would politicians, old and young, still talk in terms of a post-independence reality even half a century after 1971, hanging on to old narratives? Far from driving substantive ideological trends in their parties, many in the younger crop of politicians are themselves reinforcing old trends and stereotypes. As the political pendulum keeps swinging in directions set by the system, it is perhaps natural that we have leaders like Haji Salim and Erfan Salim.

The father-son duo from Old Dhaka, representing two generations of leaders, are a perfect product of our present political culture. Together, they embody the homogeneity we have been led to expect. The Salims are now in the news because of their actions that date back not just months or years, but decades. We already know about the senior Salim and what he is capable of doing. His chequered history as a three-time lawmaker of Awami League, and previously as a BNP ward councillor, offers a manual on how to rise to power through crimes, corruption and deft manipulation of the system.

Compared to his long career, Erfan’s has only just taken off but he has signalled that he is ready to step up to the plate. Two reports, published side-by-side on the front page of The Daily Star on Thursday, show how the son is fast catching up, expanding his father’s criminal empire built on grabbing land, buildings and markets, extortion and a plethora of other crimes. Erfan was jailed for a year and a half after illegal firearms, alcohol, some 38 walkie-talkies and handcuffs were found during a raid at his father’s residence in Old Dhaka. Rab conducted the raid after a naval officer accused Erfan and his associates of assaulting him in a case filed with the Dhanmondi police station. During the raid, Rab also found a “torture cell” used by Erfan, in a chilling reminder of similar torture cells discovered in the houses of several leaders associated with the ruling party in recent years.

Media reports following Erfan’s arrest sketch a man not unlike most political wannabes of our time, eager to get on the fast-money-fast-power bandwagon. Fortunately for him, with both his father and father-in-law being incumbent MPs, his path was already paved. Perhaps more telling is the fact that he, too, began his political career as a ward councillor, just like his father—a position he has been “temporarily” suspended from after his imprisonment.

Erfan reportedly led a lavish lifestyle, with 12 bodyguards and about 30-40 young men at his beck and call. They would surround him like a special security force. And he would use them as well as his trove of surveillance and torture devices to run his criminal racket. Erfan was put behind bars through an order by a Rab executive magistrate. But there is no guaranteeing if he would be brought to justice through a court for all his crimes or, more importantly, if he would learn his lesson at all. Any objective reading of the trajectory of his father’s career and history of legal issues makes for gloomy predictions, however.

Haji Salim was facing a staggering 120 criminal cases when Awami League came to power following the 2008 general elections. He had 105 of them successfully withdrawn between July 2009 and August 2011 following his petitions for withdrawal, on grounds that the cases were “politically motivated”. According to a report by this newspaper published on September 20, 2011, his was the highest number of withdrawal applications filed with the home ministry by any accused. Moreover, in April 2008, Haji Salim was jailed for 13 years for having undisclosed assets worth Tk 27 crore. His wife Gulshan Ara was also jailed for three years in this connection. Unsurprisingly, the verdict was overturned on appeal.

After Erfan’s arrest, some wondered how an elected public representative could have committed the heinous crimes that he did, or how he was elected as one in the first place. I think the more pertinent questions to ask are: could a man of his background have turned out any differently? What does the continued tolerance of his father’s crimes and corruption through the decades tell us about his parties and Bangladeshi politics in general? And more importantly, what does Erfan’s case say about the state of emerging leaders, and should we write him off as an accident or is he a sign of things to come?

To me, the pendulum serves as a potent metaphor for the way this particular brand of politics works in Bangladesh. But what I have in mind is different from what is usually called the “pendulum democracy” (although this too defined our democracy until 2014, when the tradition of political power alternating between Awami League and BNP every five years ended). I like to think of this pendulum as a balancing force. It doesn’t take sides. It swings freely on both sides with the same force with which it is pushed, which in politics is determined by popular opinion leading to shifts in policies. But what if you manipulate the pendulum so that it moves only in one direction?

The pendulum in Bangladesh’s politics has been rigged to make it swing only backwards, so that real change never occurs regardless of which party is in power. The invisible force controlling the movement of the pendulum is what we generally know as “the system”. Unfortunately, all major parties, whether in power or in opposition, are the beneficiaries of this deeply criminalised system. Is it any wonder that corrupt leaders like Haji Salim are rarely held accountable? Is it any wonder that even when the opposition parties criticise the ruling party, they only talk about how bad the party is but never a word about the system that secretly empowers it? Is it any wonder that, beyond cosmetic changes, they never demand institutional reforms which could lead to wider socioeconomic change, establish accountability, and help dismantle the system? The truth is, the pendulum has been rigged to a point that even emerging leaders don’t see the virtue of public opinion in shaping public policies and all politicians, old or new, are rather becoming each other’s carbon copy in their mutual fascination for the past.

Judging from this reality, Erfan Salim is both a perpetrator and a victim—a victim as he was, and still is, part of the system which drives this past-bound mentality, and demands either active participation in it or complicit silence for its survival. Naturally, any difference that leaders like him or his father have is one of degree but not of kind. Even those politicians who differ in action, by not directly indulging in crimes and corruption, make up for it by their unquestioning support of the system. We must dismantle this system if we want real change, and if young leaders are to have any say at all in building our future.


Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.


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