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Cover Story

The Fight for Chittagong

Ahmede Hussain back from Chittagong
Photos:Zahedul I Khan

When the Chittagonians are going to cast their votes next week to elect their Mayor, the choice will clearly be between Awami League-backed ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury and Bangladesh Nationalist Party-supported Manjur Alam Manju. Mohiuddin is the only Mayor in the country's history to be elected to office thrice in a row. But the Mohiuddin magic is fading as allegations of arrogance and abuse of power continue to dent his popularity. Manju, on the other hand, has been a little-known ward councillor and is relying on the support of a party that is mired in internal feud and factionalism. Has Mohiuddin, who still enjoys mass appeal, met his Waterloo? Or, will the people of Chittagong repeat their choice and re-elect Mohiuddin with an even bigger margin, which the former Mayor thinks is going to happen? Whatever the outcome of the June 17 polls is, it will reshape the future politics of the country, not to mention that of a city, which is the country's economic powerhouse.

Election campaigns in Chittagong have so far remained peaceful

At first glance Rustam Ali will be mistaken for a wrestler. He is six-foot tall with a pair of swelling biceps that heaves up and down as he manoeuvres his rickshaw up the serpentine lanes of Chashma Hill. For him June is not really the cruellest month of the year, even though the sun, at one in the afternoon, is beating down hard on anyone who dares to come out of the shade. The Mercury has shot past 35 degrees and the defiant rickshaw-puller is unfazed. Rustam has no passenger in his three-wheeler, and as he comes across bad traffic, he waits patiently, with the wave of a finger gently wiping beads of perspiration that have gathered on his dark brown forehead. He is full of energy when the traffic thins; he is able to pedal through at last.

The road to Chashma Hill is narrow and winding, as thin as a malnourished child's forearm; it is difficult, impossible almost, for a man to pass if there is a vehicle nearby. As though only to make it difficult for Rustam, the road today is clogged with humans. In the sea of faces, a familiar one greets him and he waves past, tightly holding the steering of the rickshaw in one hand.

From a distance it looks as though the faces, Rustam's included, are lost in deep thought, as though they are performing a strange pilgrimage to an enchanter who has cast his spell on their soul. The silent procession, with Rustam and his rickshaw in the middle, stops at a white building where two narrow lanes merge. The house has been newly built. Its forecourt still bears the signs of the masons who have finished their work and forgotten to remove bags of cement. The garage has no cars, instead there are a couple of bare black tables on which food is served for people who come in their twos and threes to have rice, beef prepared in the mejbani way, chicken with chickpea and rui fish curry.

Rustam sticks to beef and rice and hurriedly finishes his lunch. He, along with fellow pilgrims, wait in the courtyard to get a glimpse of the great enchanter. Critics however say that five years ago, when Chittagong elected its Mayor last time, the courtyard was more crowded, that the charm of ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury's magic is fading fast, and that he has made himself an arrogant megalomaniac who prefers supermarkets to playgrounds, who does not hesitate to think of turning a century-old historic girl's school into a shopping complex.

For a 66-year-old, Mohiuddin looks rather sprightly. Time has slurred his voice, but his tongue has remained as vitriolic and fiery as ever. “Development of a city can't be done in a day,” he says, “If I am allowed to continue what I have started, Chittagong, not to mention Bangladesh, will be a better place to live.”

Donning his trademark white panjabi over a black Mujib coat, he sits in a room the wall of which is covered with memories--the photos of his recently deceased daughter, his first mayoral victory, his England-educated son's graduation ceremony and even a photo in which Khaleda Zia swears Mohiuddin into office.

Both Manjur and Mohiuddin trying to woo the public. ...............................................................Photo: www.mohiuddinchy.com

He lists a legion of achievements that he says would not have been possible if he had not been elected Mayor thrice. “I have set up the only university in the country run by a city corporation,” he says, “there is no instance even in South Asia where a city corporation runs schools, colleges, gas stations, hospitals and a university.” Mohiuddin says that his programmes are primarily aimed at the poor. “I have started a new initiative, in which two modern ambulances, along with a female doctor and two midwives, rush to the slums whenever any pregnant woman goes into labour,” he says.

There are allegations against him that he incites dockworkers at the Chittagong port to be rebellious, detrimental for the port, the lifeline of the country's economy and manipulates the workers for his own political agenda. The great leader laughs; without accepting or denying the accusation, he cogitates and says softly, “This is a strange place, you know. No one thinks about the poor. If one is prospering, one must share it with those who are the main force behind the progress,” he says.

He calls Manju a dummy candidate, who is fighting Khaleda Zia's battle. “Don't forget that it's actually a fight between Khaleda and I. Now the choice is yours,” he has told a group of cheering supporters in downtown Chittagong.

Mohiuddin is not entirely wrong here though, for Manjur Alam Manju, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamat-e-Islami-backed candidate, has been picked up from oblivion by none other than BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia. The process in which she has done it is still cloaked in mystery, but why Manjur, a disgruntled Awami Leaguer who is the founder of Begum Fazilatunnessa Mujib Trust, has been chosen as her blessed candidate is obvious. The BNP in Chittagong is dangerously divided, mired in factionalism, one of the many reasons why in the last general elections it failed to win even a single seat in Chittagong city, which used to be known as the bastion of the party.

Manju, a former Awami League Councillor who served as the deputy Mayor whenever Mohiuddin was abroad or in jail, sought the AL ticket for the last general elections, which the party high command refused to give him. Manju contested independently and embraced an inglorious defeat. He however did not lose hope and Khaleda has found in him an opportunity to unify the different factions of her party in Chittagong.

Manju's supporters are relying on his humility and a 'clean image'. “Ask anyone in this city,” says a BNP worker who sells paan in Dewanhat crossing, “everyone will agree that he is a nice person. He is Chittagong's Mr Clean.”

Sweating profusely and seeking blessings from the young and the old, 'Chittagong's Mr Clean' is the dark horse of the race. He is a soft-spoken modest man, with a thin line of a moustache over his upper lip, Manjur urges his followers in Dewanhat to sleep well on the night before elections. “I would rather you oversleep on the election night and keep a vigil at the polling stations when the counting is going on,” he says.

One of Mohiuddin's achievements has been to keep Chittagong reasonably clean.

He tells his electioneering team to keep their cool and not to be provoked. He launches his central campaign office and when he sits at last in a giant of an armchair in his central elections office in Dewanhat for the first time, Manju is drenched in sweat. A party worker turns the direction of a stand fan to his side and Mr Clean starts to speak to us: “I don't consider myself a major candidate…”

If that is the case, does he think he is fighting a losing battle? Is the war, immediately after it is launched, lost? “No,” replies Mr Clean, “I want to win.”

During electioneering, some BNP leaders in Manju's presence called Mohiuddin corrupt. As Manju has been Mohiuddin's close associate for a long time, and, had served as the acting Mayor in Mohiuddin's absence, should he not also share the blame for the alleged corruption and misdeeds of the former Mayor?

Manjur offers a benign smile in reply and says, “I will answer your questions after the elections.”

Why not now, why when the polls are over? Manjur brushes off the question with another smile.

He is charming and on top of it all, he has shown brinkmanship by reaching out to the Awami League voters by visiting the house of late Awami League leader MA Mannan's house to seek the blessings of his wife. Professor Mahabubullah, vice chancellor of International Islamic University Chittagong who spearheads Manju's campaign, thinks Manju will claim a significant share of non-Muslim votes, the majority of whom have voted for Mohiuddin in the last three elections.

“This time it is going to be different,” Prof Mahabub says, “Mohiuddin has angered the Hindus of the city by calling Binod Bihari a fake revolutionary. He wanted to demolish the Aparnacharan Girls' School, where anti-British revolutionary Pritilota Waddadar taught, to turn it into a shopping complex.” Members of the Hindu community in Chittagong revere Binod Bihari and Prof Mahabub says the incidents are forgiven but not forgotten.

Chittagong is a city of opportunity and it is also a city with many problems.

Mohiuddin, however, has visited the old revolutionary's house in Momin Road to seek his blessings. And he has done something Mohiuddin has never done before--he apologised. At a large gathering in Bakalia, which traditionally votes for the BNP candidate Abdullah-al-Noman in general elections, Mohiuddin has apologised for planning to build a shopping mall in a playing field. In fact, in his campaign Mohiuddin needs to say sorry to many voters for numerous reasons: for building a CNG station on the ground floor of a branch of the Premier University, a move Prof Mahabub says can trigger a major disaster any day; for planning to build a cluster of shops on the bank of the Karnaphuli, near the newly built bridge, blocking the scenic view. The tragedy of Mohiuddin's years in the Nagar Bhaban in Andarkilla is that his bad decisions equal his achievements.

Though Prof Mahabub says Manju is the better of the two, Rustam Ali, who lives near Dewanhat where Manju was a councillor, finds it hard to buy. “He is a turncoat. What kind of person you think changes his party overnight?” Manju, who has not formally joined the BNP, thinks this is not an issue in the elections. “It has happened long ago, the new party has become old,” he says. He probably does not even realise how opportunistic his comment has sounded.

Manju, however, has some popular support among Chittagong's ordinary people. Rofik Miah hails from Bagerhat and in the early eighties he was given a small acre of land by Ziaur Rahman's government in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. His family lives in Rangamati, where he stays with them for six months in a year. He says, “I don't hold any grudge against Mohiuddin, he has done a lot for Chittagong. But I think the city needs a change, we have been under his leadership for so many years, Chittagong has forgotten any other leader.”

Rofik is grateful to the late President Ziaur Rahman for the obvious reasons and he has never voted for anyone but BNP candidates. Even he is all praise for Mohiuddin: “He is a nice person. But I am sorry, I can't vote for him.” Prof Mahabubullah, who masterminds Chatragram Unnayan Andolon (Movement for Development in Chittagong), an umbrella organisation of Manju faithful, does not see a villain in Mohiuddin either. “He is not a bad human being,” he says.

There are reasons why Mohiuddin's popularity at times blurs the traditional AL-BNP-JI boundary of the country's politics. He was a valiant freedom fighter and has been with the masses through thick and thin. But his shot to fame has been a recent phenomenon. In the catastrophic cyclone of April 29, 1991, when hundreds of people died in Chittagong, Mohiuddin was the first person to take the initiative of arranging the burial of the dead. He himself took several dead bodies on his shoulders to take them to the grave yard. Later on, where thousands were dying of diarrhoea, Mohiuddin set up a makeshift hospital in Muslim Hall where he also ran a soup kitchen for the sick.

Bizarre enough, Chittagong's love affair with Mohiuddin has started with a cyclone and the burial of the dead. It has seemed quite enduring when Mohiuddin renamed the sweepers as shebaks (volunteers) and Chittagong looked quite prim and trim for the most of Mohiuddin's terms. Most of the shebaks are untouchables, and Mohiuddin arranges their wedding ceremony on the roof of his Chashma Hill residence. “For the bride I buy a gold wedding ring, and, out of gratitude, these people work even harder to keep Chittagong clean,” Mohiuddin says. He has also made sure the shebaks get a proper dining facility; he has arranged chairs and dining tables for the shebaks in the Nagar Bhaban and has ordered the CCC cooks to serve proper meals for them.

Despite this, there is no denying that his popularity is waning, and Mohiuddin's enemy is none other than his unpredictable temper. He has recently decided to launch a verbal onslaught on a female councillor, who belongs to his own party. He is far from friendly with Nurul Islam BSC and MA Latif, two AL MPs from the city. But Major (retd) Emdadul Islam, secretary general of Nagorik Committee (Citizen's Committee), an organisation that supports Mohiuddin, thinks these are past issues and they are not going to hinder Mohiuddin's victory.

“It's like the river Karnaphuli, which takes the silt and the filth to the Bay. Nagorik Committee is like the Karnaphuli, everyone who is in favour of the development of the city will vote for Mohiuddin,” Major (retd) Emdad says.

Everyone, however, does not agree. Nurul Islam BSC, an AL MP who uses his Bachelor of Science degree as his surname, has not yet turned up in any Nagorik Committee campaign for Mohiuddin and it is not still clear whether MA Latif has forgiven Mohiuddin, whose supporters have allegedly manhandled Latif in the latter's office.

Chittagong is a city of opportunity and it is also a city plagued with problems. Its roads are narrow, unfit for new cars and buses that are being introduced to them every day. The Chittagong Development Authority has planned to build three fly-overs in Muradpur, Sholoshahar and at the GCE crossings. The new plan has already been approved by the Ecnec; but Khatunganj, the heart of Chittagong's business life and Bandel Road, which leads to that heart, are narrow and neglected. A new deep tube-well at Chittagong Jail has caused innumerable sufferings for the people of Patherghata, as water has become hard to come by. People, at times, wake up at two in the morning to store water. Throughout Chittagong, another menace is mosquito, which has made the city its breeding ground. There are also security concerns: Chittagong, which used to be safer of the two big cities, has recently faced violent crimes such as theft and mugging.

Meanwhile, both the candidates are full of promises, some of them are lofty and beyond the purview of the city corporation. Mohiuddin has promised to bring city government about, something he has been talking about for the last 16 years. If elected, he also vows to start a full-fledged science faculty in Premier University. He also promises to bring maternal mortality rate to zero and increase the number of 'home visit delivery ambulance' to six. More pledges include: a marine drive across the Karnaphuli, arming the lamppost with solar panels to save electricity, one playground in every ward, establishment of Kobe satellite city after Chittagong's sister city Kobe, another satellite town in Kalurghat that is being built with Korean help and the introduction of smart card for the citizens to pay tax and utility bills.

The improbable pledges that Mohiuddin makes are: starting a commuter train in the city; a two-lane rail line between Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar; and connecting Shah Amanat International Airport with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Manju, who won Shada Moner Manush (a person with a clean heart) award two years ago, promises to clean the canals of the city. Other pledges are: new roads and flyovers; vocational training institutes for the slum dwellers; a city convention centre that will include a five-star hotel, an auditorium, numerous conference halls, a food court and a gym; a cooperative for richshawpullers, street vendors and the slum dwellers; a city archive and a social-anthropology museum; use of scientific mechanism to stop the breeding of mosquitoes; evening schools for the homeless; new projects to solve the housing problem of the citizens; another university in the heart of the city and a music institute of international standard.

The improbable pledges that Manju makes are: taking the proper initiatives to make sure that the Asian Highway goes through Chittagong; two more bridges on the Karnaphuli and a tunnel through the river and setting up a city-based campus of Chittagong University.

Battle lines are firmly drawn as the JI-backed candidate has withdrawn his nomination in favour of Manjur and the Jatya Party (JP)-backed candidate has thrown his weight behind Mohiuddin. Even though Mohiuddin thinks he will win the elections by an even bigger margin, it will be difficult to achieve. Unlike the CCC mayoral elections that held before, anti-incumbency factors are high and a large number of voters are disillusioned by some of his projects.

Manju, a long-time ally of Mohiuddin, on the other hand, will find his friend's election strategies difficult to handle head on. Mohiuddin is a populist and the masses love it when on his way to work he gets down from his car and asks a street-vendor why he looks so frail. Familiar with Mohiuddin's ways, Manju, like a conjurer, is also pulling up a lot of surprises, doing Mohiuddin-esque tricks. He has gone to all the major Awami League leaders to seek their votes. Chittagonians, like humans across the world, love magnanimity, and Manjur, with his sharp sense of humour and a gentle smile, has proven that he is capable of giving Mohiuddin a run for his money.

Both the candidates have also set up their own websites and the June 17 polls are also going to be the first elections where electronic voting is going to be used. Jesmin Tuli, the returning officer, thinks it will go smoothly. “We have already talked to the experts and everything is in place,” she says. She also says that a mock voting will be held on June 11 and 12 to prepare the voters about e-voting. “Before that, our people are going door to door to make the voters aware about the new voting system,” Tuli says.

As she talks, a councillor candidate from Halishahar turns up with the complaint that the other candidate's supporters have beaten up his men. She accepts the allegations but also spares some advice to the candidate: “We have heard that your supporters are distributing money among voters. You know the rules: no money to anyone before the elections, be careful,” she says, smiles and adds, “After the elections give people as much money as you want. We won't make any fuss.”

The candidate nods and hurriedly leaves the room. Tuli has experience in holding elections under the United Nation's supervision in war-torn countries. She is hopeful that Chittagong will present the country with a free and fair election. “Five days before the elections to the day after the polls the law enforcing agencies including the Army, police, Rab, Ansar and Coast Guard will be deployed in and around the city. On the elections day, judicial magistrates and special teams of the Election Commission will look for any untoward incidents. If everything goes on according to the plan, I am hopeful,” she says.

So far the balance in the CCC elections is heavily tilted in Mohiuddin's favour. Then again there are the silent majority, who decide their choice the night before the elections; there are also half a million first time voters with their own issues with which both the candidates, in their late sixties and fifties, will find it hard to communicate. They are going to call the shots, as it happens in democracy.

Back to Chashma Hill, the pilgrimage finished, Rustam Ali boards his rickshaw, which slowly rolls down the steep hilly lane. He and his leader are confident of victory. At the vantage point of his political career, Mohiuddin is pulling all the tricks to woo back the disgruntled and disillusioned voters, but this time he is finding the road to Nagar Bhaban in Andarkilla as narrow and dangerous as the lane before his house. Whoever wins the elections, the CCC polls, like any democratic election, teach the candidates a hard-earned lesson: When it comes to votes, people are fickle-minded; one can never take people's mandate for granted.




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