How do MPs in Bangladesh build and maintain support within their constituencies? Dr Zahir Ahmed discusses fieldwork with MPs in rural Bangladesh.
With a crisis in democracy facing many countries across the world, the study of the relations between MPs and their constituents has recently become interesting to many scholars, both inside and outside anthropology. US political scientist Richard Fenno was the first to seek to understand these relationships in depth. Following the time-honored anthropological technique of participant observation, he asked, ‘What does an elected representative see when he or she sees a constituency’? Fenno’s work is innovative because it is not so much about formal political roles but about what the representative symbolises. He studied the variety of processes involved in everyday relations,which allow representatives to win the moral approval contained within trust, getting close to people (or giving the illusion of closeness).
Taking my cue from Fenno, I have also studied constituencies in Bangladesh and questioned pervasive assumptions about how elected MPs fulfill their role as representatives. Taking up Emma Crewe’s point that representation has to be performed in contradictory ways given an MP’s relationships with diverse groups of constituents, I look at how MPs in Bangladesh are involved in endless shape-shifting in heterogeneous constituencies. Through a huge range of informal activities MPs invest significant amounts of time visiting their constituents in order to build up their reputation and win support from very different groups of people.
When watching these visits it becomes obvious that some MPs have already established good relations with their constituents irrespective of their political affiliations, and are perceived as benevolent and having a caring disposition towards the citizens:their moral standing is continually reproduced in people’s minds by the generosity of their family towards ‘the poor’. Whilst the MPs’ benevolent activities are aimed at creating an image of a ‘dedicated’ leader to the constituents, including party workers, the objective of these activities can be described as public performances to win support.
One of these benevolent MPs Mr. M lives within his constituency. He is wealthy, and donates clothes to constituents at Eid; an act viewed as charitable giving beyond his own political purposes. At home, he wears a lungi, like his constituents, making people feel that he is one of them and he is not displaying his wealth. Since his election, he has visited his residence within the constituency at least 2 to 3 times a month, and arranges for feasts to be served at the local inn, available to all. Even his wife helps with the cooking and he pays the fares of some so that they can easily return home. People surmise that the MP is a millionaire, which is why he does not draw his paycheck from public funds. His constituents are satisfied with his work because he has responded to their perennial demand – that is to prevent the sliding of riverbeds that results in people losing their homes.
Some MPs do not see politics as focused on the achievement of apolitical goal and go as far as saying that their concern with politics is primarily social. Seeing political activities in their social dimension is embedded in a moral world for them and a way of improving the material conditions of those their represent.
To give the flavor of what happens when MPs visit their constituents I will give an example of a day-in-the-life of one of a popular local MP. Just as Marc Abeles, who wrote about the President making a visit to a local area in France, was arguing that in French politics ‘the local’ is critically important to national politics, this MP’s visit illustrates the entanglement of the social and political for Bangladeshi MPs. My observation of this visit does not stand alone in a methodological sense, but is one instance of a long experience of doing fieldwork in rural Bangladesh as an anthropologist.
A Day in the Life of a Bangladeshi MP
10:00 The MP arrived in our guest house to pick up the researchers.
10:30 We reached a funeral of a veteran party worker. A number of beggars were waiting for the MP. Before the last prayer to the departed soul, the MP made a short speech in memory of the late leader. After completing the funeral prayer he went to the house of the late leader. The family received him with tears. The MP gave 10,000 taka (nearly £100) as immediate help for them to repay their debts.
12:00 We reached the MP’s ancestral home where he spent some time with his kin and the villagers.
12:30 We followed him to attend Friday prayers. He wore traditional religious dress to take part in the prayer. There was a madrasa (religious school) built by him at the mosque. He delivered a speech to about how the mosque and madrasa should be maintained properly and he promised to continue the expansion work of both institutions.
2:30 After completing the Friday prayers the MP and his motorcade started for a bazaar to inaugurate a new concrete road. He delivered a speech in the local dialect, expressing appreciate for his leader, the Prime Minister, for her commitment to countrywide development.
3:15 We reached a local leader’s home to commemorate the death of his mother. The MP sat in the living room. Different levels of politicians and government officials came to visit him there. A person came with his two grandchildren to receive the MP’s blessings. The MP smiled to them and cuddled the children, who looked very happy. A lavish meal was served as part of the religious feast for the departed soul.
3:45 The motorcade set off to go and meet a distant party worker. On our way we were stopped by local villagers. About 50 people surrounded the MP and presented their demand for the construction of a new road and a school in the locality. The MP asked them, “Why do you ask us? I am simply an MP. Why is not the Minister?” One replied on behalf of them all, “We do not know the Minister, we know you. You are our Minister.” The MP gave a smile, promising to fulfill their demands.
4:30 We reached the destination. Here the MP met the sick party leader. He assured him that he would bear the cost of his daughter, who is studying in Dhaka. He also donated some money for the leader.
5:00 The MP arrived in a school field where thousands of people were gathering in front of a colorful stage, crafted with fancy fabrication. The MP was due to inaugurate a new power connection for the locality. After he reached they cheered with slogans. They called him the ‘icon of development’. We were received with loud chants by the party workers.
The formal role and responsibilities of MPs may be as legislative actors in Parliament, arguing for their constituents’ interests, but their informal role in constituents’ everyday life is conceived in terms of gifts and development. These are based upon the moral nature of discursive practices manifested in help and support;such practices allow MPs to renew their relationships with their constituents with their image as powerful benefactors intact even when politicians in general disappoint them. But this renewed relation does not arise suddenly with a thunderclap and it does not appear through formal political events; it emerges over years of endless informal social interactions across his constituency whether responding to crises, weddings, or funerals.
Legislator and benefactor play qualitatively different roles, even in contradictory ways at times. To address the challenge of representation, it is not enough for a MP to act as a political being; nor to fulfill their legislative duty to the constituents. They have to reach out to the constituents socially, they must respond to their everyday need for gifts and longer-term demands for development. Members of Parliament in Bangladesh are not only revered as politicians but symbols of modernity and development.
Dr Zahir Ahmed is Professor of Anthropology at the Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and can be contacted on email@example.com
The research on which this blog is based was part of a programme about Parliament and public engagement (2014-2017) funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and coordinated by Emma Crewe (SOAS, University of London) and Ruth Fox (Hansard Society).
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