THESE days we are talking of reforms in governance and institutions of governance and very rightly so. We hear of reform of the Public Service Commission, the Election Commission, Police administration, etc. Yet one office at the nerve centre of governance that attained a great deal of notoriety under elected governments and added significantly to the deterioration of governance, the Prime Minister's Office, or the PMO, has so far escaped attention. To bring the point home, this is what happened to the top PMO officials under Khaleda Zia's premiership. She sent her own secretary to jail. At present her principal secretary is accused for corruption; another secretary is in jail for corruption; one of her political advisers is also in jail while another has been convicted and at present a fugitive from justice.
A friend, former officer of the Pakistan Foreign Service cadre, was cleared for promotion to the rank of a Grade B Ambassador/Additional Secretary in 2003 by the SSB chaired by the cabinet secretary. Just after the conclusion of the meeting, a phone call came from a PMO official asking the cabinet secretary not to proceed with the promotions. The case was stuck for the next 3 months. When it was cleared, my friend had retired! Scores of such promotion cases duly cleared by SSB and sent routinely to the PMO for signature were by-passed by low functionaries at the PMO for political reasons. Under the last BNP Government, a political adviser with his staff ran a parallel office at the PMO as an extension of the party office or the 'Hawa Bhavan' often rendering the principal secretary and PMO officers innocuous and silent spectators. We have read in newspaper reports about the principal secretary and a private secretary to a political adviser “fighting” over the latter's alleged corruption but unable to take action against this gentleman for his political linkage. The charge against this official was that he had acquired property illegally at Gulshan worth crores of taka.
The PMO was established in 1991 when Bangladesh adopted the parliamentary system. It replaced the President's Office where two Presidents with military background had created a very powerful secretariat. It was expected that with change of system, the PMO would lose a lot of power with Ministers sharing executive authority with the Prime Minister. That did not happen because the Prime Minister assumed almost all the powers of the President, helped by the failure of the Parliament to evolve as a meaningful branch of Government. Also, unlike other parliamentary governments, Article 55 (2) of Bangladesh Constitution stated that “the executive power of the Republic shall, in accordance with this Constitution, be exercised by or on the authority of the Prime Minister “that in effect made the system Prime Ministerial instead of a truly parliamentary one where the Prime Minister is ”the first among equals”.
The Prime Minister's dominance was reflected in an un-healthy manner in the way the PMO became a government within the government, to the exclusion of the rest of the government. The Rules of Business and Allocations of Business were suitably amended to legalize the dominance that ran contrary to the parliamentary system and kept the ministers from playing their role in governance. Ministers were vying for attention of not the Prime Minister but bureaucrats at the PMO and were busy building their “power base” by closeness with those bureaucrats who found key posts at the PMO for political reasons as the elected governments politicized it.
In a parliamentary system, political parties play a crucial role in getting a government elected. However, once it is chosen, they are not expected to have any role in governance for once in government; the party in power has to appeal to the nation that has to include everybody, including the supporters of those it has defeated in the elections. In Bangladesh, this did not happen and the parties even when in power seldom overcame narrow party interests to appeal to the broader national constituency. Thus bipartisanship and consensus around national issues never evolved in our politics. At the PMO this play of narrow party interests over broader national interests was played out in the worst ways imaginable. Party officials were brought into governance as political advisers and given offices at the PMO to perform functions “relating to Political Affairs” as entrusted by the Allocations of Business. Career bureaucrats were brought to the PMO on political considerations rather than on merit. Between the political advisers and the bureaucrats, it was just not the PMO that was politicized; together they spread the virus to the entire administration. In the last BNP era, the political advisers with the politicized bureaucrats helped the party take over the PMO and through the PMO, the entire government. Ministers were spending more time to get attention of one political adviser in particular and the “political” bureaucrats there who worked as the party's men at the PMO. The Prime Minister's son at the party office or the Hawa Bhavan encouraged the nexus and the PMO became the front for the party. This nexus became the real power at the PMO leading the ministers to seek the attention of this political adviser more than her secretariat staff including the principal secretary because the blessings of Hawa Bhavan decided most crucial issues of governance. During the last BNP government, a private secretary was the PM's nephew that helped him gain influence way out of proportion to what he deserved and helped in the PMO to evolve as an obstacle to good governance.
During the AL Government, when the PMO had not fallen to such low depths, a senior retired CSP officer who was entrusted to review the administration had called for dismantling it. In a BBC talk show a few years ago, the editor of TDS had said something extremely valuable. While acknowledging that Bangladesh had made good strides towards democracy he felt that for further evolution down the road of democracy Bangladesh would have to find ways to make the Prime Minister accountable in between the elections. That would need a lot of things falling into place, like making the parliament truly functional. If we are seeking to restrain our Prime Ministers from assuming dictatorial powers, as they have done, we could also look into whether we can amend Article 55 (2) of the Constitution and re-invest executive powers in the cabinet. Those issues notwithstanding, the reform of the PMO has become essential and critical for achieving good governance of future elected governments.
The reform of the PMO must start by addressing a major issue, drawing a line between the party and the government. The Prime Minister's role as party leader and his/her need to lead it is undoubtedly very important. But that function must be performed at the party office and not at the PMO. ROB should then be amended and the PMO should be relieved from its role in dealing with political affairs. That would not allow the political advisers to sit at the PMO and free it from party interference. The provisions under schedule V of the Allocations of Business that sets aside cases that ministries must refer to the Prime Minister should also be trimmed so as not to burden the PMO with cases that are routine. As an example, cases of promotion of Deputy Secretary should not be referred by the Establishment Division to the PMO. In trimming schedule V, the spirit should be to free the Prime Minister to concentrate on more serious affairs of the state at the policy level and correspondingly allow the Ministers to play their proper role in governance. The personnel at the PMO must be chosen strictly on merit and the chain of command there under the principal secretary should not be broken by outside interference. On the conflict of interest issue, no close relative of future PMs should be appointed to any post at the PMO.
The most important objective of reform of the PMO must be to free it from political interference and bring professionalism to it. Towards the end of the BNP Government, public confidence in government was all but shattered because of the unholy nexus between the PMO and the Hawa Bhavan. That nexus should not be allowed in the next elected government. The reforms would create that environment but whether the nexus would not be repeated would depend to a large extent upon the next Prime Minister who we hope would come reformed as a consequence of developments in our politics since 1/11. While the PM's choice would be made by the election, the principal secretary would be selected. That selection should be made with great care keeping in mind that he would be the individual on whose personality and leadership qualities a reformed and professional PMO would like to make a new beginning where it would be the cause of removal of people's sufferings instead of being the cause of it.
Bangladesh's potentials are immense; we are the envy of our neighbours because of our history and our homogeneity. Yet we are languishing, hovering between hopes and despair because we have failed to establish bipartisanship in our politics. The PMO is not a party office, and by re-establishing that through the reforms suggested, Bangladesh could make a long awaited start towards bipartisan politics whose impact on the country could be the beginning of the realization of the dreams for which we had established Bangladesh through immense sacrifices.