For the vast majority of Bangladeshis, politics revolves around the institutions of the village or the union of neighboring villages. Traditionally, the main base for political influence in rural areas has been landownership. During the British colonial period, zamindars controlled huge estates as if they were their personal kingdoms. With the abolition of zamindar tenure in 1950, a new local elite of rich Muslim peasants developed. The members of the new elite owned far less land than the zamindars had once possessed, but they were able to feed their families well, sell surplus produce, send their children to school, and form new links with the bureaucracy of East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Amid the large majority of poor and generally illiterate peasants, well-to-do farmers formed a new rural leadership that dominated local affairs.
Village society is often divided into a number of factions that follow the lines of kinship. At the center of each faction is a family that owns more land than most of the other villagers. In the colonial and Pakistani periods, local leaders were old men, but the trend since independence is for younger men to head factions as well. The heart of the local elder's authority is his control over land and the ability to provide land or employment to poorer villagers, who are often his kin. Land control may be an ancient prerogative, stretching back to the zamindars, or it may be the result of gradual purchases since independence. A village may have only one faction, but typically there will be several factions within the village, each competing for influence over villagers and struggling for resources from local administrative and development offices.
The leaders of local factions exercise their influence in village courts and as managers of village affairs with other administrative units. The traditional means for resolving local disputes is through the village court, which comprises leaders of village factions and other members of union councils. Throughout Bangladesh, village courts address the vast majority of disputes, but it is rare for the courts to decide in favor of a poor peasant over a rich peasant, or for the weaker faction over the stronger. The relative security of village leaders makes it possible for some of their children to attend secondary schools, or even colleges or universities; some factions also base much of their authority on their knowledge of sharia. Education is much esteemed in Bangladesh, and degrees are tickets to highly prized government positions or to urban jobs that give the involved families a cosmopolitan outlook. These contacts outside the village include necessary links with bureaucratic institutions that ultimately bring economic aid and patronage jobs to the village. In these ways, the factional leadership of the village provides vital links to the development process, while retaining its traditional position at the top of village society.
Local leaders who control land, people, and education also tend to control the disbursement of rural credit and development funds through their positions in union and subdistrict government. Studies of the leadership of union council members have demonstrated this dominance of local elites over rural political and economic life. Among the chairmen of union councils in 1984, over 60 percent owned more than 3 hectares of land, with an average of almost 8 hectares. Sixty percent were primarily engaged in agriculture, 30 percent were businessmen, and 75 percent had a marketable surplus each year. Eighty percent had incomes greater than TK40,000 per year, and 50 percent had incomes greater than Tk100,000. Almost all union council leaders took part in village courts as judges, and most were heavily involved in the support of local mosques and madrasa (religious school attached to a mosque) committees. For victorious campaigns for union council chairmanships, winners spent an average of more than Tk1 million in 1978; most of them mobilized at least 25 people for their campaigns, and 20 percent mobilized between 200 and 2,000 supporters. In 1978 only 7 percent of the chairmen of union councils had college degrees, but the percentage of graduates had increased to 50 percent by 1984.
Political elites were more varied in urban environments. The metropolitan areas of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi had large numbers of conflicting constituencies and political machines linked to national parties. In smaller cities and towns serving as district and subdistrict administrative centers, some leaders emerged directly from the local social system, whereas others became politically established as a result of their professional activities. Members of the government bureaucracy and the military, for example, form an important part of a district town's leadership, but they typically have roots, and connections to land, in other parts of the country. Members of the permanent local elite, such as businessmen, union leaders, lawyers, or religious figures, are more concerned with strictly local issues and have strong support from family networks stretching into the nearby countryside. One of the outstanding characteristics of the urban leadership is its relatively short history. In the late 1980s, it was clear that many had emerged from middle-class or rich peasant backgrounds since 1947 or, in many cases, since 1971. Most retained close links with their rural relatives, either locally or elsewhere. Urban elites included professional politicians of national parties, and the entire social group that made up the urban leadership--military, professional, administrative, religious, and business personnel--interacted in a hotbed of national politics.
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