Saturday, October 9, 2010

Who is a government servant answerable to?

Published in The Independent, October 9, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

It is time in Bangladesh to emphasize the importance of political science in public life. Listening to our ruling party politicians and civil society leaders in the media, one can perceive a gap in the understanding of such individuals about the basics of political science. I was awe struck by a statement made by the MP from Pabna during the now infamous Pabna incident. The MP said that “the DC is not a good person … he doesn't work for me or for the party [Awami League]”! The statement went unanswered and uncontested as if it was the right thing. In fact, the MP’s statement was accepted by the Government as correct and the DC and those who protested, were withdrawn from Pabna.

A Member of Parliament is a high elected official who has powers that demand respect from all, including the DC. However, it is not respect that the MP was demanding from the DC of Pabna. He was expecting him to work as his subordinate and more importantly, for his interest and that of the Awami League. The MP’s statement, if accepted as the position of the government, could be the beginning of the end of district administration that we have inherited and that has withstood the test of time. There is also the issue of democratic governance that the MP’s statement has directly contradicted.

In the good old days when communism was in favour, the communist party was more important than the government. The dictates of the party would always prevail over the decisions of the government. In fact, in those days the position of the communist party in governance also influenced the political parties in democratic systems as well. In India, for example, the famous Kamraj Plan took out important people of the Congress Government and placed them in the Congress Party in a failed attempt to manifest the dominance of the political party over the government.

The dominant role of the party over government has been diluted substantially in communist regimes since the end of the Cold War. In democratic systems, the political party today plays many roles but none that says it has any authority over the government. The nomination and presentation of candidates in the electoral campaign is the most visible function of a political party in democratic governments today. In other words, the political party has the most dominant role in electing governments but very little after the governments have been formed.

The political party chooses the individuals for elections who eventually become Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers. After these leaders get elected and the elected government takes charge, the role of the political party is one played out behind the scene. Over those who help run the government, the civil bureaucracy, the political party has no direct role in the way they work and operate except in aggregating public needs, grievances and demands for incorporation into the decision making process. In fact, even in such spheres, the political party interacts with the elected leaders of the government rather than with the civil servants to influence policy.

The MP from Pabna’s claim that the DC is a “not a good man” because he did not work for his interest and that of the ruling party is contrary to the principles of a democratic government. In fact, the DC acted correctly because the law does not permit him to take orders from anyone or any group not in government (meaning the executive branch) and in his chain of command. As the DC, he is obliged to listen to the MP (and the local AL leaders) but the decision he takes cannot be dictated by either. As far as the local AL leaders are concerned; they have no more legal influence over the DC than the leaders of the other political parties in the district.

Due to indifference to the principles of democratic governance by the politicians while in power, certain undesirable patterns have been established that could eventually destroy democratic governance itself. The elected political leaders in power have encouraged their party members outside government to influence the civil bureaucracy as an election dividend since the fall of General Ershad in 1991. In the beginning, the party was not well organized in considering the civil bureaucracy as an extension of their sphere of influence till the BNP came to office in 2002 and established the so-called Hawa Bhavan. In its present term, the AL cadres have made such claims as a rightful one. The criminalization of the public educational institutions by the BCL and now the Pabna incidents are very clear signs that the ruling party cadres are now well organized to exert political power on their own where there interest is less to serve the public or the party and more to serve their own selfish ones, particularly those related to making quick money from the government’s development funds and by extorting money from business and students seeking admission in public educational institutions.

The Pabna incident was a wakeup call for the government to correct extremely serious misperceptions that have become deep set in the minds of the ruling party cadres; that they can directly intervene in governance even though they are not a part of it. There were of course faults on the part of the government officials led by the DC that should have been dealt with by an inquiry by the relevant government department. Instead, the government withdrew the DC and the other officials that will only encourage the ruling party cadres to believe that they are also the government.

Our district administration is in a mess where the officials are not as talented as district administration officials of the past. The structure of district administration has also become fragile from infighting within the civil bureaucracy itself. The conflict between the elected local government officials and the members of parliament for power has not been resolved that has also weakened the effectiveness of the district administration. To give a wrong signal to the district administration at such a critical time would leave the government with no option but to turn it fully political where all officials must be loyal to the party in power or allow the party cadres to use the district administration as and when they please. In fact, the district administration is unfortunately going in those directions.

The above are bad tidings for democracy as defined in political science. The political leaders of the present government and leaders of civil society must either re-write important concepts of political science such as democracy and democratic governance or must educate themselves on these concepts, assuming that the contradictions are unintentional. Let it not be misunderstood. Government servants are answerable in a democracy to elected politicians in parliament through the due process but not the way being defined in Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached by email

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