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Allies among Enemies: Political authority and party (dis)loyalty in Bangladesh

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 March 2021

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The authority of political leaders in Bangladesh rests on diverse qualities, not least of which are the muscle and finance they can mobilize, and the relationships they can craft with senior party members. These are utilized to confront rivals both within and outside their own party. In some instances, the intensity of intra-party competition can be so severe that a further quality emerges: the capacity to find allies among enemies. Building local inter-party alliances can bolster the authority of politicians, yet be to the detriment of party coherence. This argument is developed through an analysis of mayoral and parliamentary elections held in the past decade in a small Bangladeshi city, where a ruling party member of parliament (MP) and opposition mayor appear to have developed such a relationship. This has thwarted the electoral ambitions of their fellow party members and has posed a serious challenge to party discipline. While political competition is often seen as being either inter- or intra-party, here it is focused around inter-party alliances. This portrayal suggests we need to give greater emphasis to the decentralized and local character that political authority can take in Bangladesh.

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1 See Piliavsky, Anastasia (ed.), Patronage as politics in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vaishnav, Milan, When crime pays: money and muscle in Indian politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017)Google Scholar; Jackman, David, ‘The decline of gangsters and politicisation of violence in urban Bangladesh’, Development and Change, vol. 50, no. 5, 2018, pp. 12141238CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jackman, D., ‘Violent intermediaries and political order in Bangladesh’, European Journal of Development Research, vol. 31, no. 4, 2018, pp. 705723CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Michelutti, Lucia, Hoque, Ashraf, Martin, Nicolas, Picherit, David, Rollier, Paul, Ruud, Arild Engelsen and Still, Clarinda, Mafia raj: the rule of bosses in South Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Note that the names of politicians in ‘Dalipur’ have also been anonymized.

3 Affiliate and auxiliary organizations to the BNP and Awami League are associated with the terms ‘dal’ (group) and ‘league’ respectively. Hence the BNP's student wing is the Chattra Dal (Bangladesh Jatiobadi Chattra Dal) and its youth league, the Jubo Dal, and the Awami League's equivalents are the Chattra League (Bangladesh Chattra League) and the Jubo League.

4 Iftar is the daily meal with which Muslims end their fast during Ramadan.

5 See Price, Pamela and Ruud, A. E. (eds), Power and influence in India: bosses, lords and captains (New Delhi: Routledge, 2010)Google Scholar; Piliavsky (ed.), Patronage as politics; Pfaff-Czarnecka, Joanna and Gerharz, Eva, ‘Spaces of violence in South Asian democracies: citizenship, nationalist exclusion, and the (il)legitimate use of force’, Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 45, 2017, pp. 613638Google Scholar; Vaishnav, When crime pays; Jackman, ‘The decline of gangsters’; Jackman, ‘Violent intermediaries’; Klem, Bart and Suykens, Bert, ‘The politics of order and disturbance: public authority, sovereignty, and violent contestation in South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 753783CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Michelutti et al., Mafia raj.

6 See Piliavsky (ed.), Patronage as politics; Jackman, ‘The decline of gangsters’; Michelutti et al., Mafia raj; and Klem and Suykens, ‘The politics of order and disturbance’.

7 See Vaishnav, When crime pays. While such a shift appears real, it has also been recognized that muscle is nothing new to the region's politics, with goondas (criminals, thugs, gangsters), for example, long identified in both urban politics and crime. Although the popularity of particular vocabulary may be new, the style of politics may be less so. See Jackman, ‘The decline of gangsters’.

8 In particular, see Klem and Suykens, ‘The politics of order and disturbance’; Michelutti et al., Mafia raj; and Ruud, A. E., ‘The mohol: the hidden power structure of Bangladesh local politics’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 54, no. 2, 2020, pp. 173192CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 A. E. Ruud, ‘To create a crowd: students leaders in Dhaka’, in Power and influence in India, (eds) Price and Ruud, pp. 70–95.

10 Martin, Nicolas and Michelutti, Lucia, ‘Protection rackets and party machines: comparative ethnographies of “mafia raj” in North India’, Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 45, no. 6, 2017, pp. 693723CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Piliavsky (ed.), Patronage as politics, p. 169.

12 Jackman, ‘Violent intermediaries’, and Kuttig, Julian, ‘Labour power and bossing: local leadership formation and the party-state in “middle” Bangladesh’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 54, no. 2, 2020, pp. 193214CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Ruud, ‘To create a crowd’; A. E. Ruud, ‘The political bully in Bangladesh’, in Patronage as politics, (ed.) Piliavsky, pp. 303–325; Jackman, ‘The decline of gangsters’.

14 Ruud, A. E., ‘The Osman dynasty: the making and unmaking of a political family’, Studies in Indian Politics, vol. 6, no. 2, 2018, pp. 209224CrossRefGoogle Scholar.


16 Michelutti et al., Mafia raj.


18 Ruud, ‘To create a crowd’; Suykens, Bert, ‘“A hundred per cent good man cannot do politics”: violent self-sacrifice, student authority, and party-state integration in Bangladesh’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 52, no. 3, 2018, pp. 883916CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jackman, ‘Violent intermediaries’; Martin, Nicolas, ‘Corruption and factionalism in contemporary Punjab: an ethnographic account from rural Malwa’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 52, no. 3, 2018, pp. 942970CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kuttig, Julian, ‘Urban political machines and student politics in “middle” Bangladesh: violent party labor in Rajshahi city’, Critical Asian Studies, vol. 51, no. 3, 2019, pp. 403418CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Suykens, ‘“A hundred per cent good man”’, p. 901.

20 Ruud, ‘To create a crowd’, p. 95.

21 Mushtaq Khan, ‘Bangladesh: partitions, nationalisms, and legacies for state-building’, SOAS University of London Working Paper, 2010.

22 Kuttig, ‘Urban political machines’.

23 Khan, Adeeba Aziz, ‘Power, patronage and the candidate nomination process: observations from Bangladesh’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 54, no. 1, 2020, pp. 314336CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Ruud, ‘The mohol’.

24 Ruud, ‘The Osman dynasty’.

25 There are currently 12 city corporations in Bangladesh. Of the seven to elect a non-Awami League mayor in this period, most supported the BNP, one was from the Jatiya Party, and another a ‘rebel’ Awami League candidate.

26 Although city corporation status, along with wider fiscal changes, have brought increased budgets for public works, city corporations are still heavily controlled by central governments for many of their activities such as recruitment, taxation, and planning. See Panday, Pranab, Reforming urban governance in Bangladesh: the city corporation (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Kochanek, Stanley, ‘The rise of interest politics in Bangladesh’, Asian Survey, vol. 36, no. 7, 1996, p. 707CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 The Sheikh family is a political dynasty at the helm of the Awami League. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (known as ‘Bangabandhu’, friend of Bengal), the country's first leader post-independence, is considered the ‘father of the nation’. The current prime minister Sheikh Hasina is his daughter, and a number of wider family members are MPs.

29 The 14-party group is a political alliance led by the AL.

30 Zia Rahman was the founder of the opposition BNP.

31 Nasim previously also had to go into hiding during part of the Ershad regime, after he was implicated in a murder case.

32 A thana is a local police station or the administrative area under the authority of a police station.

33 This was before Dalipur received city corporation status in 2011.

34 In 2014 ‘renegade’ candidates were common and, in fact, many beat the officially selected 14 party alliance candidate. In Dalipur-three and Dalipur-four, for example, independent candidates beat the Jatiya Party candidates who had been allocated the seat as part of its alliance with the Awami League.

35 Previous electoral boundaries had meant that much of the southern part of the city was incorporated into a different constituency, Dalipur-eight, and it was this district for which Sayeed had been MP. In the 2001 general election Haque ran as an independent against the official Awami League candidate, dividing the Awami League vote, leading to victory—with a very significant margin—for Sayeed. As a result, he was reportedly expelled from the Awami League for a number of years, even becoming an Awami League MP without being a member of the Awami League.

36 The formal and informal Bangla pronouns for ‘you’, which imply a hierarchical relationship.

37 A similar relationship between local Awami League and BNP politicians been described in the city of Barisal. See Ruud, A. E. and Islam, Mohammad Mozahidul, ‘Political dynasty formation in Bangladesh’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, 2016, pp. 401414CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Ruud, A. E., ‘The politics of contracting in provincial Bangladesh’, in The wild East: criminal political economies in South Asia, (eds) Harriss-White, B. and Michelutti, L. (London: UCL Press, 2019)Google Scholar. Here, the relationship functioned to the personal benefit of both, to the detriment of their parties, and appeared largely driven by the need to maintain business interests. Ruud describes this in terms of the Bengali notion of a ‘balance’ across powerholders, motivated also by intra-party competition and the sense that ‘your enemy's enemy is your friend and someone to be treated with care’: Ruud, ‘The politics of contracting’, p. 284.

38 A local businessman, and previous Awami League leader aligned to the Shamsul Mollah faction, described contracts for public works going to BNP contractors: ‘Suppose, 100 tender are given, the MP will take 60 of those, the mayor rest 40. Awami League workers are deprived. The MP sells these 60 works he gets to the BNP men. If you take me there, I can show you that BNP men are working every project. I was a class-1 contractor. But for the last ten years I have no work. For ten year! How can I afford to maintain my family?’

39 Vaishnav, When crime pays; Michelutti et al., Mafia raj.

40 Price and Ruud (eds), Power and influence in India; Piliavsky (ed.), Patronage as politics.

41 Ruud, ‘The mohol’.

42 In emphasizing the weight of local politicians in determining these elections, these arguments mirror the wider literature from Bangladesh that is concerned with decentralization. It has demonstrated how the character of governance, services, and developmental outcomes differ dramatically across the country as a result of particular local social and political arrangements. See Faguet, Jean-Paul, ‘Transformation from below in Bangladesh: decentralization, local governance, and systemic change’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 51, no. 6, 2017, pp. 16681694CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 A Bengali proverb.

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