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OP-ED: By fair means or foul

  • Published at 02:09 am August 9th, 2021
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Responsible action is needed more than ever SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Some of the nouveau riche have garnered their wealth in not-so-transparent ways

Over the past few years, we have come to know of several cases where certain people shot into prominence in the media, not because of education or hard work, but because of association with crime or criminality. 

Notable among these personalities were operators of sports clubs who had humble upbringings but manipulated their way to success by luring politically powerful people into illegal gambling in those clubs. 

Raids by the police revealed how these people had amassed fortunes by operation of illegal casinos with powerful patrons backing those individuals. Then we heard how a hospital medical assistant came to own massive fortunes through fraud operations of Covid tests during the pandemic, securing collaboration with a highly placed medical professional in a hospital. 

He owned and operated a hospital with his ill-found wealth. And then we heard of a film personality who used her celebrity status to gain entry into posh social clubs of Dhaka by gaining access to the wealthy and politically-powerful people. 

Of late, we have a new actor in the scene of social climbing who made her debut, first as a businesswoman and later metamorphosed into a political and social butterfly through alliance with those in power.

All the way up

There is nothing wrong in one’s desire to move up in society with growth in economic status. In fact, this longing for upward mobility is ingrained in human nature. In most cases, this mobility happens automatically with education, jobs, hard work, contribution to society, and social recognition. 

For professionals, this comes with their education and the work they do. For businesspeople, it comes with their entrepreneurial work, the institutions they set up, the employment they provide, and the contributions they make to the community. 

And then there are others who move up in society because of their talents in art, culture, and literature. They become notables in their own right. 

We have no problems with the people who move up through hard work and talents. Our problems are with those people who become famous and become upwardly mobile by stealing (in many cases from the government), by fraudulence, and from alliance with the politically powerful who let them steal, rob, or defraud. 

Our problems become manifold when the society at large becomes a victim to such fraud and shenanigans. The employee who made fortunes by operating illegal gambling dens not only cheated the government and damaged the reputation of venerable sports clubs, but they also bought into neighbourhoods which are inhabited by decent people who made their way up in a completely legitimate way. 

The medical assistant who defrauded the government and looted money in the name of providing medical services successfully blended with the unsuspecting professionals and businesspeople because he had stealthily crept into a society where he did not belong. 

Same with the female business entrepreneur who succeeded in enhancing her wealth simply through her alliance with political bigwigs.

The tip of the iceberg

Actually, what we have seen so far is but a tip of the iceberg of the nexus of crime and politics in our country. Criminality in our political framework begins with tolerance of crime and corruption by the law enforcing agencies, and absence of rule of law. 

When people with criminality in mind find that others have gotten away with crimes with law enforcement agencies looking the other way, they also discover the nexus between those who make the laws and those who enforce them. 

Crimes and criminals survive because of this nexus. We have seen only a few instances of low-level operators running illegal casinos, or a single hospital employee duping the government of crores of taka through his alliance with his employers, or a female business entrepreneur leading the life of the rich and famous far beyond her means.

What we have not seen are the hundred others like them who are thriving in our society, making money and moving up from a humble background through nefarious means. All this has happened because we have corrupted the very fabric of our society by refusing to enforce the law and preventing crime and criminality. 

For a moment, forget about the rest of the population -- most of whom may eke out their existence on daily wages working for farms and industries, or simply on charity of others. We need to understand how the new entrants in the middle class behave to maintain their newfound status and to build on it for further growth. 

Their entry into the middle class opened doors for themselves and their children to opportunities that were denied to their parents and forefathers, and raised the expectations of many of them. To retain the continuum, and lift them further up, they must either seek political power or access to people more powerful than them. 

For many of the new middle class who have acquired the status by building wealth, this is a survival tactic -- and therefore they build a firewall around them so that their newfound status does not erode.

And how do they achieve this? By attaching them to the politically-mighty, working from the bottom. The wealth some of the nouveau riche have garnered has not been in a transparent way. While some may have acquired their wealth through their hard work, a good number have short-circuited this acquisition through unlawful means.  

The relationship between crime and politics

A few years ago, a committee set up by the government of India (NV Vohra Committee), was tasked to find out the relationship between crime and politics. The committee report attested to the rise of criminals with help of politicians and bureaucrats over a long period of time in India.  The committee also noted how erosion of rule of law and weak governance have contributed to this rise in criminal conduct of politicians in India.

We are witnessing in Bangladesh what India experienced decades ago when the unholy alliance began between politicians and criminals who crept their way up, acquiring wealth by cheating and defrauding the government and the people. 

Milan Vishnav, a noted scholar in the Carnegie Institute, observed that the nexus of crime and politics in India has been made possible by two sets of factors. One, with elections becoming costlier, candidates seeking elections take help of wealthy people irrespective of their criminal association. 

Second, voters have become agnostic of the criminality of the candidates as long as they can deliver. Failures in governance and rule of law allow criminals to thrive. 

It is no wonder, therefore, that we now see growth of the kind of politics India witnessed, and it shows no abatement. We will have the kinds of people who manipulate the system to climb the social ladder and share with politicians their ill-gotten wealth to rise even further up the social ladder. 

Hauling up a few of the social climbers and raiding their homes for illegal wealth and property will not rid us of the crime-politics nexus that we find ourselves in today. To stop the rot, we need reforms of our institutions, changes in law enforcement machinery, and above all, have good governance. 

We need to recognize that money and greed go together. More people make money, the greedier they become, because they see there is nothing to stop their greed. This can only stop when there is an honest and efficient government at the top which is keen to set up examples of good governance and good institutions.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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