Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

Straight Line
Degeneration of the caretaker concept

There is no denying that few Bangladeshis could be credited with positive innovative ideas that have beneficially determining economic impact on the society. It was, therefore, not unnatural to see many Bangladeshis experiencing a euphoric feeling in the not-too-distant past in the wake of the awarding of Nobel prize to Professor Yunus and the Grameen Bank. A thinking Bangladeshi and scores of diligent and ethical Bangladeshi women demonstrated with resounding confidence that the poorest of the poor could be creditworthy without the constraint of collateral. Non-descript folks proved that trust begets trust and that this trait coupled with sense of responsibility was not conditional upon heredity or wealth.

In the bigger canvass of our body-politic, however, the uniquely Bangladeshi dispensation of non-partisan Caretaker Government to oversee a national election thereby ensuring the passage of a peaceful and orderly transfer of political power, has undergone a rude jolt. This novel constitutional arrangement that could also be described as scathing indictment on the unreliability of our political classes was still a welcome device in our volatile political transaction. A reactive polity while paying glowing tributes to the virtues of the Caretaker system was perhaps unaware that our patriotic politicians were slowly but surely undoing the very arrangement. Little did we realise that the success of any election related constitutional arrangement depends very largely on the cooperation of the regulatory organs of the State that are constitutionally pledge bound to serve the republic.

It is a tragedy that institutions that are required to provide meaning and substance to the Caretaker system have painfully faltered in their solemn duties. To start with, the arguments put forth by some quarters in defence of Professor Iajuddin's assumption of the office of Chief Adviser of caretaker government do not hold much water. Leaving aside the untenable legal stance in favour of the politically selected President's assumption of the office of non-partisan Chief Adviser, we are unfortunately not realising that while the nation is divided into parties, the President is of no party. The President's apparent separation from business is meant to remove it both from enmities and from desecration thereby enabling it to combine the affection of conflicting parties to be able to retain the visible symbol of unity. The role of the President is largely formal and ceremonial.

If the role of the President is to remain respected by parties of differing political persuasions and the nation, it is only axiomatic that the President be seen formally to be immune from party-political differences and to fulfil duties in an even-handed manner. So when a largely formal and ceremonial President assumes a predominantly executive position as has happened in our case, we have invited confusion and confrontation. That the delicacy of handling awesome political issues in a perilously polarised polity was not realised by the President has now been disturbingly made clear.

Major political parties have questioned the neutrality of the civil service and have cited the same as one of the grounds to boycott the general election. Such accusations cannot be summarily dismissed when ground reality is that the immediate past top civil servant joins the party that ran the immediate past political government and is found active in the corridors of power. Such association and affinity cannot be a sudden and instant affair howsoever one may try to justify the propriety of the process.

The golden rule is that since the civil service has to serve governments of all political persuasions, it is imperative that civil servants, whatever their private political views, must not be seen to be politically active in a manner which would inevitably compromise their neutrality under one political party or another. Our ground reality is far from that and many public servants have often become willing partners in the motivated patronising acts of the political masters to serve narrow political interests. As a result, the development of expertise and the natural growth of a Civil Service 'ethos' have not been possible. Not many seem to realise that such expertise needs to be available to all governments for the stability of democratic culture. No wonder, therefore, that the integrity of many civil servants who would perform the very important job of 'Returning Officers' in the national election remain suspect. This definitely does not augur well for the nation because very clearly doubts are expressed in the integrity of the District Magistrate.

A Returning Officer performs functions which are judicial or at least quasi-judicial in character. He is expected to apply his mind to the problems judicially with the sense of detachment and impartiality of an official performing function of judicial character completely unmindful of, and uninfluenced by political, personal or other extraneous considerations and influences. He has to keep himself discreetly insulated from the effect of power politics, political controversies and their harmful influences.

Recent events show that officials who served as private secretaries to the Ministers of the immediate past political government were posted as Deputy Commissioners of the districts shortly before the term of such government expired. Such postings were obviously made with a view to taking undue advantage from previously known pliant officials at election time when such officials would act as 'Returning Officers'. A senior judicial official acting as District Judge was actively involved in party politics and his resignation came only after there was uproar in the concerned quarters including the apex court. Confidence and trust in the guardians are on the decrease.

We need the benefit of proper and lawful caretaker government for a good length of time to nurture and sustain democracy in our reactive environment. However, the greater need is the resilience and responsibility of the institutions that ensure the upright functioning of the caretaker government. Our socio-political polarisation has been greatly responsible for the unsatisfactory performance of the vital State institutions. The degeneration of conscience of the political classes has brought us to the present mess which if not appreciated for corrective action carries the risk of throwing us in a stateless society.

The narrowing and stifling purposes of politics cannot be allowed to decapitate us and arbitrary exercise of power should not be permitted to use the garb of constitutionalism. Our democracy needs the aristocracy of talent, of knowledge and character and this aristocracy has to take to public life, however distasteful it may be. The constitution has not failed the people while the chosen leaders appear to have failed. Concerned Bangladeshis should be willing to take a continuous and considered part in public life.

Muhammad Nurul Huda is a columnist contributor to The Daily Star.