BD: The risks of anti-corruption campaigns in a corrupt state

Afsan Chowdhury, October 5, 2019

In Bangladesh, nothing outside sports is grabbing public attention as much as the clamping down on corruption, particularly illegal gambling. The people arrested are corrupt and powerful. But what is electrifying everyone is that most are members of the ruling party, the Awami League (AL). Two weeks after the campaign began, people are asking if it is going to maintain its initial robustness.

In the first rush, panic set in among many ruling party big wigs. But that has calmed a bit as the focus is more on illegal gambling than on powerful politicians as such. However, the heat is on.

Just as the focus got more on gambling, the authorities asked for bank details of the leader of the Jubo League, Omar Faruk Chowdhury. Most people arrested are members of his youth group. He had also criticized the campaign.

It is no secret that high grade corruption is not possible without political connections. So why just this lot, and not others, including the formal sector criminals? Is there pressure from certain quarters no to touch those elements?

Shadow of 1/11 shadow?

“It was necessary to strike a blow against this corrupt part of our society,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. This had scared and angered many in her party, the Awami League. Though almost all have voiced support for her move publicly, people think that many of them are also involved in criminal activities.

The Prime Minister also said: “We’re continuing the drive against corruption to prevent recurrence of incidents such as 1/11.” Hasina was referring to the military takeover of 2007 which had cited a law and order decline and corruption as reasons for intervening. That coup pushed out the current OppositionBangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from power. The BNP is yet to recover from that blow. The ghost of 1/11 always lurks in Bangladesh’s political space.

The Prime Minister’s comment confirmed that she is aware that corruption and law breaking by her party workers are becoming a danger. She acted before it became an issue that could threaten the regime itself.

Sheikh Hasina has also hinted that the problem is related to her long stay in power. “We’ve been in power for long. So, there is a common tendency to make a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to our flaws,” she said.

It is true that people are happy when a powerful person who is considered above the law is arrested. It is also a fact that such a person is more likely to be connected to the ruling party.

Recognizing the fact that such arrests have a political angle, ruling politicians have been regularly saying that those caught were all linked to the BNP before they joined the AL. Ministers have said that large scale gambling dens began their journey under BNP rule.

While AL leaders are concerned about the party’s image, people in general are not. To them, the corrupt are enemies irrespective of their party affiliation. What the people seek is government action against these elements as they themselves are powerless.

Most people think that any criminal under any regime has to have ruling party connections to run such operations. Basically, this is open knowledge and media stories only confirm it.

But the political risk for a ruling party is obvious. Dismantling a structure built on patronage, privilege, corruption and muscle, is not easy. Given the type of politics common in South Asia, it is impossible not to have such elements within a powerful party.

Bangladesh has seen displays of violence in politics regularly. It is not just in conflicts with opposition parties but is between factions within the ruling party also. It is institutional and structural and not just about a bunch of bad apples in a fruit cart.

Structural limits?

Shamrat, a major bigwig of the youth wing Jubo League, who is also described as the boss of Dhaka’s organized crime by the media, remains untouched. He is missing. Media runs stories on him everyday, and ruling party bigwigs say that he will be in soon. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Recent media reports say that it is possible that the most critical political area –Dhaka city- can’t be handled by the ruling party without Shamrat’s organizational skill and muscle. So, the party may be tolerant towards him and his money making. Many party leaders may already be lobbying on his behalf. It has become a symbolic test case for the campaign. It will determine how far it can go.

The fact is, corruption in Bangladesh is structural. Campaigns of the kind Bangladesh is seeing now are good for public venting but they mostly involve street level crimes. Big corruption as in bank loans and construction are almost impossible to touch. It threatens not just the political or economic system but the political structure itself.

Given the all-pervasive nature of corruption in Bangladesh, it is possible that anti-corruption campaigns also have their structural limits.

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