Beneath The Surface
Big fish vs. small fish
Source: Daily Star
August 31, 2008
COMPARE two former prime ministers of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001) and Begum Khaleda Zia (2001-2006). Hasina is the daughter of the father of the nation while Khaleda is the wife of a former president and famous freedom fighter. Khaleda Zia owns two palacious houses (gift from government) in the posh areas of Dhaka city. Hasina lives in her husband's house. The nation is so "grateful" to the father of the nation that his two surviving daughters remain homeless! I expected that the current CTG would provide a level playing field by providing Hasina and Rehana with two houses in Dhaka as a token of respect to the late father of the nation. Till now that did not happen.
However, Bangladesh emerged as a basket case of corruption (champions in corruption five times consecutively) during Khaleda's tenure. That is not to deny that there was corruption during Haisna's tenure, but much less in magnitude compared to that of Khaleda's. If one looks at the average amount of wealth amassed and concealed by the respective politicians of the two big parties and disclosed in media, one could clearly see the difference.
Besides this, family members and relatives of Khaleda Zia -- especially her two sons and two brothers -- are alleged to have amassed and laundered huge amounts of wealth. Even government spokesmen admitted that. The general belief is that Zia family and their followers have pocketed about one-fourth of our GDP during 2001 and 2006 period. Also on the air is the story that all that went to win the 2006 general election by hook or by crook was to protect the wealth of the "Marcos dynasty" of Bangladesh.
If a government wants to enquire into the wealth of the former PMs, who should be caught first, Khaleda or Hasina? Surely, it is Khaleda Zia because of the three most important factors: she is the most recent former PM, Bangladesh bagged five "gold medals" in corruption during her tenure, and popular and media perceptions are that her family members through Hawa Bhaban amassed huge wealth.
Unfortunately, and surprising us all, just the reversed happened. Among the two former PMs, the anti-corruption drive started with Hasina. She was not allowed to re-enter the country on the ground that she amassed huge amount of wealth. Hasina decided to defend her case of engaging in corruption but her defense was also denied. Anyway, the eroding image of the government and international pressure paved her way home.
Once back in the country, a barrage of cases were built to put her behind bars. The anti-corruption drive was seemingly turned into an "anti-Hasina" drive -- the drive against a person who served as PM long before this government and ACC (the current structure) came into place. It is, as if this was the "price" Hasina and her party had to pay for the movements marshaled against misdeeds of the past governments and the subsequent establishment of the present setup of governance.
At a much later stage, and possibly to put up a so-called level-playing field, Khaleda had to face the fire. But what strikes us all is the fact that Hasina was charge-sheeted in a number of cases, appeared several times before the court with deteriorating health condition. On the other hand, not a single charge-sheet could be made against Khaleda Zia. What about Tarique Rahman? Not a single charge sheet so far. Both of them were granted bails by the hon'ble High Court, and, hopefully, they will be released soon.
Lists after lists of corrupt persons were published and fed to the press. This is unfortunate because a person cannot be called corrupt unless proved by the court. In one such big list, appeared the names of the business tycoons, bureaucrats, and media owners. The anti-corruption drive that marched so mercilessly suddenly stalled and a concept of "truth commission" was invoked. What is that? The commission is to pardon all "good boys" who will speak the truth after passing through a long life of telling lies. Why should they be pardoned? Because, we are told, they are the backbone of the economy. The arguments are well placed but public perception is that some of these "good boys" are linked to the power structure ruling the country now. Otherwise, why should not the same path of pardoning be pursued for others.
Now comes the final "sermon." For ensuring a free and fare election and for enabling participation of all parties, the government has to accommodate by relaxing the tight rope round the politicians' necks. These "sermons" are now being circulated by government-backed media mongers and the so-called civil society members. The million dollar question is, if corruption has to be compromised for the sake of a general election, then why this farce for such a long time, depriving people of their due rights?
The above mentioned few conflicting episodes are just tip of the ice-berg. One could come up with a number of anomalies to argue that, sordidly, the whole anti-corruption drive turned into an anti-politics drive over time. Initially, the drive won the hearts of the millions as they want an end to corruption. But people also want that a non-discriminatory and lawful course of action be followed for this. Advertently or inadvertently, the whole drive is now facing a serious question: would it help or hinder corruption in Bangladesh? As it appears, when corrupt tycoons are coming out of jails -- due to procedural mistakes or political maneuvering -- suffice it so that our dream of a corruption-free society would likely be dashed.
One of the advisers of CTG once remarked: We have not come to catch small fish but big fish (amra chunuputi dhorte ashinai, amra rui katla dhorte ashesi). To our utter dismay, we are forced to observe that chunuputis are in jail while rui katlas are swimming in the sweet waters of their swimming pools built from corrupt money. Bangladesh is surely a test case of treacherous paths of politics!
Abdul Bayes is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. For feedback, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.