THE response of the shipping minister to the query about the death from accidents of two students was made with a smile. The minister went on to give stats on road deaths elsewhere in what was obviously a defence of the situation. He is the shipping minister but leads the road transport workers’ unions; so, the roads belong to him. The communications minister is responsible for the road and infrastructure construction. That portfolio belongs to Obaidul Quader. The portfolio for defending road killers belongs to Shajahan Khan. The equation is simple.
Why transport workers are so powerful
THERE are certain facts about the sector which are not even contested. Three major points are:
— The owners and workers are both aware of their political value. They know that it is not possible for the authorities to act against them even if they do anything wrong, including causing large-scale road deaths.
— That this sector is a major recipient of undisclosed money. It is almost impossible to get such high rate of returns without any tax implication and no public ownership disclosure. Many people involved in the sector are also part of the government responsible for supervising the sector; so, there is little chance of any oversight of the sector which can cause a profit decline.
— The demand for transport is overwhelming; so, as long as there is supply, there is no chance of any major effort at sectoral reforms. The government simply cannot risk any conflict, let alone confrontation, with the sector as a whole.
Given this scenario, it would be very inaccurate to think that the administration is a neutral and uninvolved referee in the entire process. It cannot take a position which goes against the sector even if it wants to. Simply put, it gets very little out of public support, but transport workers’ support is critical. Political expediency is the main.
The powerless protests?
THE smiling minister is an astute politician who knows that it is a minefield which the government will not dare to step into. So, what needs to be done is to manage the immediate threat rather than end it. The government understands all too well that every movement that happens in the urban sector dies rapidly and the power groups always win. So, beginning from Shahbagh to the current quota reforms movement, each movement has met with a demise. For the moment, the urban middle class has no bargaining power and that is why the government feels safe.
On the other hand, the transport workers are rooted in the rural economy and making them unhappy carries a political cost. The slugging down of Shahbagh by rural anti-liberal sympathies which were manipulated by BNP-Jmaat-e-Islami shows that political power is not with the opposition parties either. To put it bluntly, they do not matter much. The government showed when they clamped down on the Hefazat that fateful night that it has the power. All hope of the opposition had rested on the huzurs’ shoulders but only the Awami League could turn it around. And that is why the smile on the face of the minister was so bright.
When the students occupied the streets and blocked roads, the sufferers were ordinary people who use it to go to various parts of the city, including the airport. Of course, it will be followed by a few arrests, few claims that much has been done but in the end, the structural demand for reforms will not be implemented. The very structure of the sector as explained earlier prevents reform as that might threaten the establishment.
MEANWHILE, amidst all this, there were city corporation elections with predictable results made before the polls had even been held. In fact, the elections are much less about who won or lost than how it has been conducted. So, it is more about the Election Commission and its capacity to perform than politics.
Though the commission has expressed satisfaction, the body with every election looks more helpless. As it fails to handle polls properly, its credibility declines. Now a credibility decline is no big deal in Bangladesh because few institutions are credible any more. The best example is the Bangladesh Bank which is much better at providing slightly absurd slices of comedy with its digital heist, disappearing gold and amusing explanations as to how ripping off banks are being disciplined. So, the issue is not really credibility.
The problem about less than good elections is that no wholesale mismanagement is necessary — even a small percentage is enough — to cast doubts on its capacity. In case of the latest rounds, with most candidates other than the ruling party ones boycotting them, it simply has not passed the test. Denials will soon arrive but it will not matter because the public perception of such elections is that the Election Commission just cannot ensure the kind of quality polls that are needed at this point of time with 2018 looming.
The problem in such a case is that the Election Commission is a constitutional body and the lack of confidence in the commission translates into the weakening of confidence in the constitution as well. And that is where the problem is beginning to brew.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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