Bangladesh has always been known as a land prone to natural disasters. Over the years, countless floods and cyclones have devastated the lives and livelihoods of its people, especially those living in marginal settings such as the coastal areas or the low-lying districts in the north and the northeast. In fact, frequent natural calamities were one of the main reasons why the rate of poverty remained high for many years.
Although that has changed and we have significantly improved our capacity as a nation to handle disasters, every now and then, a big disaster comes along and tests that ability. When that happens, we get reminded of how humanitarian the people in this country are. It is the ordinary people who inevitably step up to arrange and distribute relief of their own accord. But what about the political leaders and party activists who have historically played an integral role in relief activities?
Unfortunately, very few political leaders have gotten involved in the relief operations for what is now being termed the worst flood in the last 120 years.
As a young leader, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the historic “hunger procession” during the food crisis in the 1950s. During the devastating floods in 1988 and 1998, political leaders and workers were at the forefront of private relief operations. In 1970, after a devastating cyclone hit the coastal belt right before the national elections, all political parties suspended their campaigns and joined the relief operations. It was important for them to get engaged because the then Pakistani regime did almost nothing to help the cyclone-hit people.
At that time, communication was very poor. Ferries were the only way to reach the millions of people who were left stranded in the coastal districts. Still, political leaders, workers, student activists, including female workers, braved all obstacles and launched relief operations on their own with whatever resources they had.
One might say that it was a political “move” before the election. So what about now? With another national election coming up in a about a year’s time, why aren’t many of the top political leaders seen anywhere near the relief scene, apart from the prime minister and a handful of other leaders from different political parties? Wouldn’t this have been a good opportunity for them to win the people over with their humanitarian work?
There could be many different explanations for this very unusual behaviour. One could be that the political leaders do not feel they have enough freedom anymore to go out and get involved, because everything is controlled by bureaucrats. Many lawmakers have openly vented their agitation in the parliament against what they termed “excessive power” wielded by bureaucrats these days.
In recent times, we have seen a number of standoffs between politicians and bureaucrats in different parts of the country, which were clear indications of an increasing power struggle between the two groups. This rift was clearly visible at the beginning of the state of emergency after Covid broke out in early 2020. The government formed committees headed by secretaries in 64 districts to oversee relief operations for the poor and the jobless. Local lawmakers at that time raised flags that the bureaucrats were being given too much power – at the formers’ expense.
Ordinarily, the role of lawmakers – who are elected by the people and are, therefore, well aware of what people want – is to make legislations and take decisions about how the country is run based on the pulse of the people. The role of bureaucrats is to find strategic ways to implement those legislations and decisions. In other words, politicians and bureaucrats must complement each other.
But what’s happening now is the opposite – and it cannot be good for the people. What could explain the current situation? Is it that the people have lost faith in politicians after they saw what happened in the last two national elections, which the bureaucrats are taking advantage of to empower themselves? Or is it that political leaders do not feel the need to engage with their vote banks anymore, because there are easier and less expensive ways of winning elections? Has that compromised their ability to understand how people are feeling and make decisions accordingly? You may pick your reasons.
But there is one interesting thing that I noticed this time around. With the proliferation of internet connectivity and the popularity of social media, especially among people in the grassroots, even the smallest of things get noticed. This year, social media celebrities and not-for-profit organisations have cashed in on this opportunity by filling the void created by the absence of political leaders in the relief operations.
It’s hard to tell whether this is good or not, because during disasters like this, even the smallest of contributions can make a world of difference for a family that has been living on just one meal a day for weeks. But the truth is, people always expect political leaders to look out for them, especially when they are in distress – as major political parties like the Awami League and BNP have strong networks in the remotest parts of the country. Similarly, as long as they are in politics, leaders should think about “leading” their people. When that relationship breaks down, you know there is something wrong.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is deputy chief reporter at The Daily Star.