As I See It Column
Saturday, 2nd., July, 2011
Constitutional Special Committee Vice Chairman Mr. Suranjit Sengupta is changing his position so often that it is difficult to focus on what he is saying at all. Immediately before the committee submitted its report, he said that the report would not include anything on Caretaker Government and it would be decided by the parliament. When the report was submitted and released to the media, the annulment of the Caretaker Government provision was the top item in the report’s list of recommendations!
Now Mr. Sengupta is harping on the concept of an Interim Government as an alternative to the Caretaker Government. He is selling the concept as if it is something innovative in a parliamentary system. He has suggested a more powerful Election Commission to make an election under an Interim Government democratic and acceptable to the public in place of elections under a Caretaker Government.
In the first place, there is nothing innovative in what Mr. Sengupta has said. In truth, when a parliament in a parliamentary system completes its term, it automatically stands abrogated. The executive, that is the Prime Minister and his/her Ministers continue with the day to day functions of the government while the authority responsible for holding elections, in our case it would be the Election Commission, holds the elections to elect a new parliament. The party that has the majority in the parliament forms the next government to which the Interim Government hands over power.
The problem of elections under an interim government is well documented in the history of most developing democracies. We need not go very far to find an example. In next door India, the interim government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi was accused of using the government machinery for winning the 1971 elections by unfair means. Mrs. Gandhi herself was accused of using her official power illegally to win her own seat to Parliament.
The rest is history. In a historic judgment in 1975, the Allahabad High Court declared her election null and void as she was found guilty of using her official position as the interim Prime Minister unfairly and illegally to influence the result of the election in her party’s favour. She was also banned from contesting in an election for six years but serious charges such as bribing voters and election malpractices were dropped.
The court’s verdict pushed India towards civil disturbance across the country. In the face of serious unrest, Mrs. Gandhi declared emergency in June 1975. For the next two years, she ruled the country under a virtual dictatorship with massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition.
She used the emergency and the 2/3 majority she enjoyed in parliament to impose her will on major political issues facing the country. In January 1977, she called for fresh Lok Sabha elections and lost to the Janata Party of Mr. Moraji Desai by a thin majority. In the process, India and Indian democracy were saved but it came close to being turned into a fascist, autocratic government.
It is such a prospect towards which Mr. Sengupta is pushing Bangladesh. India returned from the brink because of the institutional strength of its democracy. In contrast, and a very sharp one too, we have none of the institutional strength that helped bring India back from the brink of dictatorship and arbitrary rule. The Awami League, since coming to power with a 3/4th majority, has shown no signs of accommodating the opposition, either in parliament or outside it.
The other dangerous signs that the ruling party has shown that makes the possibility of elections under an interim government to be headed by the ruling party perilous for democracy are its perception of the party and government. In dealing with the bureaucracy, the ruling party has obliterated the distinction between the two.
In other words, it has in no uncertain terms made bureaucrats’ loyalty to the ruling party as a condition for their serving in the civil bureaucracy. Half-baked theories on what type of bureaucracy the ruling party is seeking are hazardous for a parliamentary democracy. In such theories, political neutrality of the bureaucracy that is a basic pre-requisite for parliamentary democracy has been destroyed totally.
In fact, in key positions of the civil bureaucracy, it is just not mere loyalty that is a criterion for placement. Key positions have been given to bureaucrats who are no less party activists as those who have been recruited by the party and working in the party.
The Election Commission has shown its intent to be strong and independent. Unfortunately, both in structure and design, like the rest of the civil bureaucracy, it is also fragile to the will of the ruling party. Except for the Chief Election Commissioner and the Commissioners who are theoretically independent, the rest of the EC is not by any remote stretch of the imagination neutral enough to hold a free and fair election under an interim government that would be formed by the ruling party.
To make matters worse, the three commissioners in the EC who were recruited by the last Caretaker Government would be gone by the time the next elections are held. They would be replaced by new commissioners who would be selected by the ruling party.
To expect that the ruling party would choose neutral and competent people who would dare to act as the Election Commission in, for instance, India would be a very fond wish but very unrealistic. In fact, it is only likely that the new members of the Commission would behave as the senior secretaries of the government these days.
That would leave the courts as the last hope to keep an interim government from following in the footsteps of what the Congress did in 1971. Unfortunately, the courts’ recent handling of political issues has deeply worried the public. In a number of instances the desires of the ruling party and the rulings of the court on constitutional issues have shown unusual similarities.
It would therefore be unrealistic to expect that the courts in Bangladesh will act anything like the Allahabad Court did in the case of Mrs. Gandhi in the event the opposition moved to seek its support on election issues.
Hence elections under an Interim government in Bangladesh could bring results even worse than what followed in India under Mrs. Gandhi’s interim government. In India then, at least, there was a politically neutral bureaucracy, a superior courts held in high esteem whose impartiality was above question and an Election Commission independent of the executive and powerful.
In Bangladesh, the ruling party has ensured that in the structures that are essential to hold a free and fair election, there are only those who are activists and loyalists of the ruling party. Hence an election under an interim government of the ruling party is but a blueprint for its return to power.
Unfortunately, the opposition in Bangladesh is formidable in the country despite its 34 seats in Parliament. The attempt of the ruling party to return to power under an interim government and civil bureaucracy that is now in its favour will surely lead to civil unrest where the prospect of elections and peaceful transfer of power would be the surest casualties.
Mr. Suranjit Sengupta would have done himself and the country a great favour if he would have considered some of the issues raised here rather than trying to predict the Prime Minister's thinking to make the recommendations of the Committee he co-chaired. The Committee has in fact helped the country move closer to an impending political impasse of a serious nature.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt.