Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Independent, February 26th., 2011

On a politically committed bureaucracy
M. Serajul Islam

During my tenure as an Ambassador in Japan, I had an interesting conversation one day with a senior official of JETRO. A current debate in our politics on our civil bureaucracy reminded me of the conversation. Before coming to this, let me put the conversation in perspective.

Japan has a very strong bureaucracy. Its politics is also developed and matured. The period I am talking about was the time when Japan was government by the Liberal Democratic Party that had been then in power for over 5 decades except for a brief period in 1993. The JETRO official in reference was once posted in Dhaka and that was his reason for meeting me in my office. That was also the time when then Prime Minister of Japan Mr. Junichiro Koizumi had called for an early election that many even in his own party expected him to lose badly. Japan was showing the signs of coming out of one party to a two-party political system.

Mr. Koizumi was quite a character; loved passionately by many and disliked by many with equal passion. That is the essence of democracy because a leader can be only passionately loved where people have no choice. This JETRO official was one of those who did not like Mr. Koizumi. Soon we were talking politics and the prospect of Japan emerging as a two-party democratic political system. This gentleman thought the LDP would lose and was extremely critical of the Prime Minister. I was curious about the way he was criticizing Mr. Koizumi and I expressed my curiosity to him, reminding him that Mr. Koizumi was still the Prime Minister. The JETRO official was quite firm when he told me that since the Prime Minister was again seeking his vote; it was his democratic right to express his views about him and his party. Then he told me equally firmly that if Mr. Koizumi returned, he would serve him as loyally as those who were cheering him because that is the way the Japanese bureaucracy was supposed to be under the law, neutral but 100% committed to the elected leadership.

In Bangladesh and rest of South Asia, the bureaucracy is based on the British model where political neutrality is its soul and substance. One need not look beyond India’s development to evaluate the contribution that its politically neutral bureaucracy has made to India’s emergence as a major world power. In fact, when Pandit Nehru was giving shape to his vision of India immediately after independence, he turned for nation building to the very ICS officers who were instruments of India’s colonolization. Neither Pandit Nehru nor India regretted this because the ISC officers served their Indian leaders as faithfully as their British masters because they were trained to leave politics to the politicians.

In recent times, leaders of this government are talking about the bureaucracy in a manner that is a worrying one. These leaders are calling for a politically committed bureaucracy to translate the policies of the political party in power. In other words, they are suggesting that the bureaucracy must follow the dictates of the political party in power. One Minister has suggested that the top level of the bureaucracy should come and go with every new government and those below them should be retired after 10/15 years in service. In making the suggestion, the Minister has given the US example, perhaps referring to their so-called “spoils system”. That however does not explain why senior civil servants should retire after 10 to15 years nor does it properly reflect the US system.

Such a perception about the bureaucracy is laden with very serious consequences for a number of reasons. First, it conflicts with the basic principle upon which the present bureaucracy is based, namely political neutrality that had encouraged Pandit Nehru to depend on the ICS. In fact, this is the principle upon which bureaucracies in all democracies are based. Second, it upholds the principle of supremacy of the political party over government; a principle that is followed only in communist regimes as China or regimes that have no opposition political party. In other words, the principle of a politically committed bureaucracy is a contradiction of democracy. The bureaucracy is there to uphold the policies of the political party in power as well as those of those who lost the election to make the government national.

In the context of Bangladesh, the principle of a politically committed bureaucracy is a prescription for suffocating it. Politics divides the country half and half everywhere into those who support the Awami League and those who oppose it. The bureaucracy is no exception. Further, the nature of politics the parties represent is conflict prone and negative. Notwithstanding this, the bureaucracy has served the country well but only when Governments respected their political neutrality. The bureaucracy’s ability to deliver deteriorated when the BNP politicized it in their last term and has worsened with the AL doing a better job of it in this term.

The USA had at one time politicized the civil bureaucracy under the “spoils system”. After Mr. Andrew Jackson became President in 1829, he removed 919 civil bureaucrats and placed in their places, those whom he had promised positions for political support. That was 10% of the civil bureaucracy’s strength those days. Successive Presidents carried on with the spoils system till the Pendleton Act of 1883 that mandated recruitment to federal jobs based on merit and not political connections. The Hatch Act of 1939 further diluted the spoils system by prohibiting civil servants from engaging in partisan political activities. Nevertheless, the spoils system has remained in a much scaled down manner and these days restricted to a few very senior civil service appointments but hardly in the manner that is being advocated for Bangladesh.

Thus what Bangladesh government leaders are advocating does not exist in any democratic country. The concept is also a self contradictory if our belief is in democracy as it must be. If the AL Government was to implement the concept, all officers serving in senior positions would have to toe the political line of the party. In other words, they would have to be political activists of the party. Given the nature of conflict prone politics in the country, it is not hard to imagine what would happen with so many AL activists in Government.

Likewise if the AL lost the next election, all the senior bureaucrats left by a departing AL Government would have to be asked to leave because they would all be self-acclaimed AL activists. Where would the BNP find such a large number of senior bureaucrats to fill the positions? Retiring all officers after 10 to 15 years would mean that the Government would leave a large number of trained civil servants without jobs at an age where they would find it almost impossible to get jobs elsewhere. And would a civil bureaucracy with a career span is only 10-15 years attract worthwhile talent?

The questions defy logical explanation. The concept of a politicized bureaucracy is one out of tune with time as well as democracy. It is better for everybody and most of all for the country that we reassert the policy of a politically neutral bureaucracy. Otherwise, we will only succeed in paralyzing a bureaucracy that is close to such a predicament because of this misplaced preference for a politicized bureaucracy.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

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