Tea politics and clientelism

Tea, the most popular aromatic beverage in Bangladesh, is clichéd as a warming incentive to motivate the soft soul of folk voters in local elections. Interestingly, almost in every vote campaign station nothing but tea will do. Even when candidates meet the crowd, often at a tea-stall, known as ‘village parliament’, a cup of tea should be offered to make the voters smile and be happy. But here is the indecisive puzzle, with its intellectual paradox. Some political analyst thinks it is an act of traditional courtesy. Elsewhere, critics think of it as a tool to purchase votes. But the buzzing question is: does the tea and money really make an ivory tower?

Perhaps it is perceived that the rural people of Bangladesh are very soft, easily happy with very simple things, even just a cup of tea and a piece of ‘bela’ biscuit, a popularly consumed cookie across the country. Likewise, tea politics with lump sum straight cash, or token money, is a shortcut incentive to purchasing votes, extensively indeed, due to lack of social mobilisation and the voters’ poor status.

Here is not the end of the story. Tea politics is symbolic: an extension of clientelism. It is indeed a verbal agreement between patronage _ the candidates, and the clients _ the voters, in exchange for one’s support, basically money and vote. The outcome of the incentive is a question of ‘did you or will you vote for me?’

Meanwhile, vote-buying jeopardises the legitimacy of polling results, disparages public trust in the democratic system, and adversely influences post-election politics, government accountability, and public appreciation of accountability. Vote selling leads to the selection of lower quality candidates, escalating moral hazard and undermining the principles of representative democracy. Consequentially, the urgency of a candidate’s quality, competency and latent leadership traits are not big determinants. Nevertheless, clientalistic business primarily starts with buying party nomination for high price. And now, due to partisan elections at upazila parishad and union parishad (UP) levels, money-election conjugality has been a competitive bull market. The recent trend of “ruling party’s nomination means winning the election” escalates the bid.

But the humming question is: Why tea politics has become a popular clientalistic incentive in local elections? Here is the key. Firstly, as the American psychologist Abraham Maslow said: A plate of food is a great incentive to him who has no food. The country’s lion portion of poor people live in rural areas with hand to mouth existence. Poverty and illiteracy makes them lame and client of political elites. Secondly, after the elections, representatives seldom come close to local voters during their crucial moments, except during the election period. Finally, their broken road, culvert and drain remain unrepaired month after month. Thus, ‘something is better than nothing’ becomes vital to poor voters.

Interestingly, tea politics does not work well in case of parliamentary elections, where the mainstream political party’s symbol plays the  most predetermining role among voters, instead of the candidate’s quality, competency or personality.

Nevertheless, spending money in recent UP elections, like other local government elections, has gained intense momentum as a competitive ‘money-spending sport’. For instance, a certain union parishad, located in Cox’s Bazar Sadar, is a hallmark of omnipotent money spending competition. It is a hotspot which locals know as a place that can never be conquered without money. In an independent research, a candidate, who was previously two-term chairman, shared that during the last UP election, he had to spend more than Taka one crore, while his nearest rival (defeated) spent around Tk60 lakh. That is very difficult to believe. According to Election Commission rules, a chairman candidate is allowed to spend a maximum of Tk 5 lakh and a member Tk 1 lakh.

However, clientelism or patron-client relation is deeply rooted in all political arena of Bangladesh. Like many other intermediate states, here patrons are the social elites _ derived from rich peasants, ex-bureaucrats, professionals or small traders, and sometimes retired midlevel army officials _ who hold power, social status and wealth. And the clients consist of poor farmers, landless floating people or day-labourers who are illiterate or semi-literate, vending their votes in exchange of money or little material incentives.

The patron-client exercise, the exchange of goods and services, is now more visible at the bottom level of politics, where the petty bourgeoisie, basically the party cadre, comes from lower middle class family, provides absolute political support or mobilises local masses towards the party, and rallies in pursuit of a handsome government job, lucrative tenders or misappropriating public property bypassing formal regulations.

Meanwhile, the clientelism, a growing politico-economic pathology, adversely exploits the rule of law. Alongside muscle politics, vote tendering,  political interference and disorder trigger violence, which leads to bloodsheds in UP elections. Now, the big question is, are we deviating from the spirit of our independence that guaranteed equity, human dignity and social justice for all?

By Mohammad Azizul Hoque, a research fellow of Bangladesh Initiative for Political Development.


The write-up was originally published in The Independent