Many people have been pointing fingers at the landslide victory the Awami League secured in the national elections in 2014 and 2018 with the “help” of the administration though all of them knew about this that time too
Tofail Ahmed, a senior parliamentarian of ruling Awami League and a former cabinet member and Firoz Rashid, also a former minister and a leader of Jatiya Party, the opposition in parliament, recently expressed their grievances about the “government’s dependency” on bureaucrats during their speeches in Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) on 28 June. The politicians are no longer important, they said. Instead, administrative officials have extended their supremacy to the local and national level.
The media has been reporting the matter as a stance against “dependency on bureaucrats” as the two MPs talked about secretaries and deputy commissioners. Earlier, in 2020, JaPa chief GM Quader said, “The bureaucrats are playing in the field of politics. Politicians are watching the game from the sidelines.” This clearly is a process of depoliticisation and that is why many have drawn attention to it.
Many people have been pointing fingers at the landslide victory the Awami League secured in the national elections in 2014 and 2018 with the “help” of administration though all of them knew about this that time too. In a meeting on 19 October 2019 in Barishal, Workers’ Party leader and a former minister Rashed Khan Menon said, “People of our country did not cast votes for those of us who have been elected including the prime minister and me because the voters could not come to the polling centres.” (Daily Jugantor, 20 October 2019). Later, Rashed Khan Menon withdrew what he said. But that did not change what happened. Did the ruling party politicians think about its consequence that time?
The reason and source of the matter will not be understood if this discussion in parliament is seen only as a conflict between the ‘bureaucrats’ and ‘politicians’. It is not that the situation arose from putting secretaries in charge at the district level in fighting the Covid-19 situation or for development work. Such tensions ere there at the local level for long. On 14 January 2018, online news portal amadersomoy.com ran a report that said local level leaders of the ruling party put unwarranted pressure on the local administration; on 19 September 2020, a Bhorer Kagoj report described the tension between local government and administration as “conflict of power at the field-level administration.” On 1 January this year, another newspaper (Khola Kagoj) published a report under the heading “Dependency on administration increases in politics.”
A comparative analysis of allocations in public safety and order, defence and health sectors in this budget (FY 2021-22) in the time of Covid-19 pandemic would reveal which one gets importance to the government
Administrative officials blame politicians for such conflict. Quoting a former secretary, a Bhorer Kagoj report (19 September 2020) said, “Criminalisation in politics has begun in the country. They (MPs) want to get work done by putting pressure on the administration. Problems arise when the officials do not abide by them.” Another former deputy commissioner said. “An MP seeks power like the prime minister in the district. Conflicts arise when his directives are not followed. And, this disturbs implementation of work.”
Instead of considering this merely as a conflict between the bureaucrats and politicians, this needs to be considered as recognition of the changes that took place in governance throughout the last decade. There are two inter-dependent sides of this change in governance — firstly, centralisation of power in the executive, and secondly, introduction of new political settlements among social and political powers. The main symptom of the centralisation of power in the executive is that decision making on anything has become dependent on the prime minister.
According to the parliamentary system, though the prime minister is also an MP and s/he is accountable to the parliament, at the same time, the prime minister is the main chief executive officer. The prime minister depends on different institutions under the executive for implementing the power. But its constitutional, political and ethical grounds and longevity were supposed to be dependent on parliament. There are provisions in the constitution of Bangladesh that such centralisation is possible. Above all, Article 70 of the constitution has made accountability almost non-existent.
The type of political arrangement determines the character of a state. For example, the army remains at the centre during the time of direct military rule. When the military dons civilian garb, it keeps the political elite at the centre or just at the outer edge
The rate and amount of raising salary and allowance of almost 1.3 million government employees in the last decade gives us a hint on how much the government puts emphasis on appeasing them. According to a Prothom Alo report published on 25 June 2020, salary of government employees was raised by 221 per cent between 2011 and 2020.
Not only is the civil administration a part of the executive, the law enforcement and defence agencies are also part of it. In many cases, they have been empowered with excessive power through a legal framework. The expenditure in these sectors in the last few years indicates that the power and influence of those institutions have increased. A comparative analysis of allocations in public safety and order, defence and health sectors in this budget (FY 2021-22) in the time of Covid-19 pandemic would reveal which one gets importance to the government. The speeches of a number of officials of the executive does not seem different from that of the ruling party leaders. It is not being possible to draw a line between the state, the government and the party.
Despite a few AL leaders’ grievances against this increased power of the executive, there does not seem to be any discontent within the party. Gradually weakening the institutions that would oversee the executive is the reason of this increased power. It is the parliament that passed a law with a provision that says an approval is necessary for detention of the government employees. Besides, the way the ruling party MPs expressed their grievances against the judiciary in the past, passing the 16th amendment of the constitution and giving speeches on the subject in and outside parliament and the way a chief justice had to leave the country – nothing of this empowered the judiciary. Rather, everything has placed the institutions under the executive beyond accountability.
Power has been centralised with the executive because of a major change in the political arrangement. This arrangement is an unwritten agreement between the political and social forces of the society. It’s about understanding of who will have how much power and who will use how much of it and about the distribution of opportunities and pecuniary rewards. The aim of this is to maintain the status quo, avoid violence and accumulate more wealth by maintaining economic continuity. In such a system, there could be one or more powers at the centre. In the capitalist system, politicians remain at the centre of power but the capitalists remain just at the outer edge of the centre or as associates.
The type of political arrangement determines the character of a state. For example, the army remains at the centre during the time of direct military rule. When the military dons civilian garb, it keeps the political elite at the centre or just at the outer edge. Since 1990, politicians and the growing capitalists were at the centre of power in Bangladesh; bureaucrats, law enforcing agencies and the army were as associates just at the outer edge of the centre. But, since 2009, a change appeared as civil bureaucracy made a place inside the power centre. Since 2011, the institutions of the executive that could maintain “status quo” at any cost, and it is tough to question their legal jurisdiction.
The new rich and business class are supporters of such a system as they could achieve what they want because of this prevailing system. But, when JaPa leader Firoz Rashid sarcastically calls the business people ‘Jagat Seth’ (“merchants of the world” – a term used in medieval Bengal) and claim that they have been running the affairs in the country, then they are given a more important role than they are actually playing. According to a TIB (Transparency International Bangladesh) report, 61 per cent of the MPs of the incumbent 11th parliament are businesspersons.
It should be kept in mind that the political parties have selected them as candidates. Money helps them wield their power but the sources of their power are their involvement with the ruling party, complying with the existing political arrangement and their help to continue such a system of governance. That is why it is important to understand the grievances of politicians against the bureaucrats in and outside parliament and the criticism of politicians by administration officials against the backdrop of the existing system of governance in the country, instead of considering it on a limited scale.
* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of politics and government department at Illinois State University, USA and a non-residential senior fellow at Atlantic Council and president of American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.
* The article originally published in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for English edition by Shameem Reza