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       Volume 11 |Issue 38| September 28, 2012 |


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Beyond Advising

Tamanna Khan

"All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

One wonders how the king's horses could possibly put the broken egg together. At best they could have carried the king's men there. The parliamentary system of governance in Bangladesh appears to be afflicted with such ambiguity. When people vote a party or an alliance to power, they expect their elected representatives to run the government. The chief executive of the government forms a cabinet, with 90 percent elected representatives while the remaining 10 percent can be non-elected persons or technocrat ministers, who are also answerable to the parliament. It is also understood that the chief executive can seek the advice of any individual or organisation regarding any issue to run the government efficiently.

Having advisers to the prime minister is nothing new. However, during the tenure of the present government, it appears that the advisers are carrying out more functions than just advising. Though there is no defined scope of an adviser's work, their prominence in government raises concern, when allegations of corruption against two of the prime minister's advisers become news headlines. This raises the question about their accountability. Who are they accountable to? What is the domain of their function?

Former caretaker government adviser economist Dr Akbar Ali Khan explains that the advisers are answerable only to the prime minister since she appoints them directly. “There is no regular sanctioned post of adviser in our administrative set up. It is not an administrative post nor is there any mention of the adviser in the constitution. So it is not a constitutional post,” he says, “These posts are sanctioned on an ad-hoc basis by the prime minister depending on her need. There is no defined work of the adviser, because that also depends on the wishes of the prime minister. So the very existence of the advisers depends on the discretion of the prime minister.”

Chief executives of governments often appoint advisers to use their expertise and special knowledge on politically sensitive issues which regular civil servants may not be well-equipped to handle, explains Dr Khan. He gives the example of Indira Gandhi's appointment of P N Dhar in 1971 to make use of his expertise in the sensitive diplomatic dealings with Pakistan.

On the other hand, Dr Syed Anwar Hussain, professor of history, at the University of Dhaka, feels that having eight advisers with no political background, alongside an elected cabinet, is redundant. He asserts that a tussle of power initiates between the adviser and the minister concerned whenever such a situation occurs. He perceives that this situation has become more prominent recently in the present government's Ministry of Finance. “Whenever there is an adviser alongside a minister, what is the warrant of precedence between the adviser, the prime minister and the minister of the concerned ministries?” he asks; questioning whether the adviser is above the minister or vice versa.

Besides, he says that most of the eight advisers in the present government are former bureaucrats, who spent most of their professional life in an environment totally cut off from the general public. “How a person who does not have any idea and experience relating to public sentiment could advise the prime minister on public affairs?” he asks.

Civil society member Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, General Secretary of Shushanor jonno Nagorik (Sujon) however feels that advisers do not necessarily have to be politicians. “Everybody does not have to be a politician. There are technical matters that may command some advice,” he says, adding the qualification of the prime minister's advisers in the present government is far better than the advisers appointed during the tenure of the last Bangladesh Nationalist Party regime.

Nevertheless, there are several disadvantages of having advisers in the ministers' rank, notes Dr Khan. He points out that in the past the advisers were not allowed to sit in the cabinet meetings. Only ministers who take the oath of secrecy and government officers who are bound by the Official Secrets Act and by the government servant's contract rules are allowed to attend the cabinet meetings.

“The advisers are not bound either by the oath of secrecy in the constitution nor by the government servant's contract rules,” he says, “So in the past the practice was that, if a subject was discussed in the cabinet, they (advisers) can be requested to give their opinion on that specific subject and they were supposed to withdraw after giving the advice. After they left, then the cabinet would take the decision.” Bringing the present situation into light, Dr Khan says, “What we hear from the newspapers now, the advisers are attending the cabinet meeting like other ministers. There is a serious legal problem with that.”

Dr Majumdar agrees with Dr Khan. “We hear rumours that some of the advisers really run the ministry,” he says, “They over-rule the ministers. They impose decisions on the ministers. Obviously the prime minister can do that but the advisers cannot do it. If they do that and there is widespread rumour about it, then we have a problem.”

Lawmaker, Rashed Khan Menon, President of Workers Party of Bangladesh also claims that the advisers attend the highest policy level meetings of the government. “Not only are they sitting there, they are also taking decisions,” he says. Mentioning the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources he says that although the prime minister is in charge of the ministry and the state minister, lawmaker Muhammad Enamul Huq is supposed to carry out the executive functions, in reality the ministry is run by the adviser. Interestingly, during the tenure of the last BNP government, this particular ministry was run by the then prime minister's Power and Energy adviser Mahmudur Rahman, who enjoyed the status of a state minister.

Though advisers have been used by heads of government in the past, according to Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University, it was not in such prominence.

Referring to the use and status of advisers in other countries, Menon says “There are advisers to the prime ministers in all countries, but they do not go beyond their dotted line. They do not cross the line. But it is happening here. This is a weakness of our parliamentary democracy.”

Dr Ahmed also feels the same. He says, “In developed countries this is not possible because there, democracy is a collective institution. The prime minister plays a role there but his/ her role is first amongst the equals, not above the equals. They (ministers) are all equals.” He claims that, this principle is not followed here. Though ministers are well aware of their jurisdiction they do not have the courage to say so. “Bangladesh is after all a parliamentary system not a presidential system but the prime minister behaves almost as if s/he is the president,” he adds.

Besides the ambiguity regarding the warrant of precedence between an adviser and a minister, the appointment of an adviser may also create administrative problems in the ministry. Dr Khan explains that since the adviser is not a regular post in the hierarchy, if advisers start looking at the files of the ministries then the work of the ministries will be delayed. “Decisions will be delayed. Also the ministers will not have access to the prime minister, because ministers are supposed to be equal partners in the cabinet. But by appointing the advisers, the ministers are made subordinates to the prime minister and prime minister's office. This impairs the functioning of the cabinet form of the government and it delays the decision making in the government,” he explains.

Dr Ahmed alleges that one or two advisers have dual citizenship. Opposition can bring up such issues in the parliament, but this issues should also be raised from within the party. Dr Majumdar also mentions party roles in making the chief executive accountable, since s/he is the one who appoints the advisers and should take full responsibility for their actions.

He says that the ownership of the election manifesto belongs to the party. “It is the party which framed it, developed the election manifesto, went to the people and nominated candidates. The party will have to put pressure on the government and also hold the government accountable to the party because it is the party's promise to the people,” he says. “The mockery of our system is that the party head and the head of the government is one and the same. So the party does not have a separate entity as such. Party cannot and does not play that role,” he adds, saying that in the chief executive should be asked to account for his/her activities in the party conventions. If that had happened there would have been some kind of 'checks and balance' hopes Dr Majumdar.

Even though advisers' role in the government are raising concerns, Dr Khan believes that the chief executive of the government should not be constrained by limiting his /her discretion of appointing people who may help run the government. He rather suggests that while appointing the advisers the prime minister must ensure that they do not interfere with the working of the ministry and do not delay the disposal of business in the government. They also must not have access to everything as the ministers would do under the laws. “If the prime minister feels that a particular adviser should work like a minister, she should appoint him as a minister, rather than keeping him as adviser. That would ensure that person will also be accountable to the parliament,” he suggests.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2012