While Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – after his first cabinet meeting held on 23 May 2018 – vowed to cut the national debt amounting to one trillion ringgit (251.67 billion dollars) and take austerity measures reducing ministers’ salaries by 10 percent, our government made a decision/policy in the latest cabinet meeting held on 22 May 2018 that the ministers and the secretaries would get 75 thousand taka to buy a mobile set with an unlimited allowance for the monthly use of mobile phone (previously they used to get 15 thousand taka for mobile set). What a stark contrast!
This is a bureaucratic tangle prevalent in Bangladesh. We all know that our bureaucrats are the privileged group in the society because since 1991 all the elected governments have tried hard to cling to power either by misusing/misleading bureaucracy or by relying on it excessively. Bureaucracy – according to the German Sociologist and Philosopher Max Weber (1864 – 1920) who was the first to coin and describe the term at the end of 19th century – is an organizational structure that is characterized by many rules, standardized processes, procedures and requirements, number of desks, meticulous division of labour and responsibility, clear hierarchies and professional, almost impersonal interactions between employees.
Very recently Bangladesh has graduated from a least developed country to a developing country, but its bureaucracy is yet to come out of colonial mindset. Still many of our civil servants consider them to be the rulers or masters and treat the commoners/citizens as the subjects. Such decisions – offering car loan without interest (minimum 30 lac tk.) with 50 thousand tk. for car maintenance allowance, home loan (minimum 75 lac tk.), cook allowance (32 thousand tk.) and etc. to the bureaucrats (from senior secretary to deputy secretary) – made in the cabinet meeting are a manifestation of “master-subject” rule existing in the name of civil administration in Bangladesh. But as the civil servants they are supposed to serve the people.
As per the article 7(1) of the constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, “All powers in the Republic belong to the people, and their exercise on behalf of the people shall be effected only under, and by the authority of, this constitution.” If it is so, how come the state spends public money so extravagantly! Even the cabinet can’t make such decisions hastily without scrutinizing the financial feasibility or justifying the reason of giving such special facilities/privileges to the civil servants.
As per the article 21(2) of the constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, “Every person in the service of the Republic has a duty to strive at all times to serve the people.” Such a proposal - when giving privileges to a particular group of government employees - is supposed to be placed at parliamentary committee or Ministry of Finance or ECNEC and also be discussed overtly in the parliament before the government decides to spend taxpayers’ money indiscriminately. In many developed countries, there are ample examples of resignation of ministers due to misappropriation of public money. Because of massive corruption, some of them were ousted, and some had to step down in the wake of mass movement.
This is a pertinent question- is our bureaucracy democratic? Seemingly answer will be NO. Rather our democracy depends on the unaccountable bureaucracy, not on the power of people. When democracy turns fragile, bureaucracy becomes intimidating. If democracy is not institutionalized, bureaucracy can’t work for the welfare of people. Sometimes partisan bureaucracy, when politicized nakedly, weakens democracy because people’s participation in the development process remains absent. Nowadays, country’s development seems to take priority over democracy. Professor Amartya Sen, an internationally renowned economist, identified four essential elements for institutionalizing democracy. He put stress on four Ds – debate, discussion, democracy and development. Unfortunately in our society debate is at times viewed as disobedience; discussion is often discouraged; development - according to some of our political leaders – is akin to democracy; and democracy is practised only through the holding of national election every five years.
US president Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) defined democracy as “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democracy is the antithesis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. When there’s a lack of democracy prevailing in a state, people’s freedom is hampered, and the press is also gagged. Absence of effective democracy or limited democracy – dubbed as “more development, less democracy” uttered by a few of the ruling party ministers these days – leads to a kleptocracy. Kleptocracy is defined as a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth. Such a government is usually manipulated by foreign (corporate) interests, and functions mostly as ceremonial government that is unaccountable to its nation.
Currently the unbridled financial scams and pervasive loot in banking sector are tantamount to kleptcocracy. This is happening because good governance is totally absent in the financial sector. People perceive that corruption is rampant in all sectors; bribery has become a way of life in government offices. Citizens hardly know what they are supposed to get from a public office because they don’t have any citizen charter which must be made public and accessible.
Notwithstanding, I want to believe that the present government will take serious actions to practise effective democracy; institutionalize it by letting the constitutional organizations work independently and effectively; make development sustainable by curbing corruption in all sectors; and enhance efficiency of bureaucracy by introducing reward & punishment system in government sector. And the government should manoeuver to face these challenges ahead of the national election to be held at the end of this year.
In conclusion, I want to quote Professor Amartya Sen – “Throughout the nineteenth century, theorists of democracy found it quite natural to discuss whether one country or another was “fit for democracy.” This thinking changed only in the twentieth century, with the recognition that the question itself was wrong: A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.”
Sheikh Nahid Neazy, Associate Professor, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh.