The new army chief, politicians, and elections | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 29, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 29, 2012

The new army chief, politicians, and elections

General Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan has taken over charge as the new Chief of Army Staff. In well established democratic societies, appointment of the new army chief is a routine administrative affair that does not evoke public interest more than a matter of general information on an important institution of the country. However, in case of Bangladesh, the appointment of the new army chief is observed closely due to special circumstances. The particular case being the next parliamentary elections expected to be held by the end of 2013. Historically, the army has played an important and positive role in holding free and fair elections. Given the degree of partisanship that the political parties have injected into important branches of governance like civil service, police, and judiciary -- army is looked upon as one of the very few public institutions that have remained above partisan interest.
Here, comes the question of responsible behaviour by the politicians and professional and non- partisan role of the army in the function of a democratic state. Over the decades, Bangladesh army has transformed itself into a well-trained and internationally acclaimed professional institution which now is the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. The army's UN operations results in foreign remittance to the country to the tune of more than $ 1 billion. Unfortunately, during the same period, the quality of both politics and politicians has been seeing a downward spiral with rich, corrupt, and muscled people sidelining honest, patriotic, and grass root level political leaders and activists. There are not too many Matia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid, and Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury with track record of competency and integrity.
The 1/11 and subsequent events are still fresh in people's mind. The entire country saw how democracy and elections were jeopardised by confrontational politics. While nobody desires that "undemocratic" or "third force" captures power, the nation would have benefited if our leaders did some soul searching as to what kind of reckless acts in the past had catapulted the nation into such undesired state. What also is true is that in the aftermath of 1/11, some army officers did bring harm to the reputation of their institution through overzealous activities and irresponsible code of conduct. The then Army Chief, General Moeen emphasised army's role as "supportive" to the caretaker government, while he kept on making public appearances and statements inconsistent with the role of an army chief. He sounded like a "State Patron" giving sermons on wide range of issues from politicians having done nothing for the country to why we should eat more potato and less rice.
However, in the end, by ensuring a free and fair elections and preparing a quality voter list, General Moeen could recover the credibility of the institution that he otherwise undermined through his shortsighted acts and poor leadership. The new Army Chief, General Bhuiyan, who was at that time the Chief of General Staff, second most important position in army, reportedly fell out of favour with General Moeen due to his opposition to some of the decisions of General Moeen, and as a result he was transferred to the Defence Staff College.
General Bhuiyan is known to be a disciplined, competent, and professional soldier who has stayed out of any political colour as most of the army leadership. Although the government took a rather long time to make decision as to who would be the new army chief, it is encouraging to see that seniority and competency were more or less respected as opposed to the previous precedence of superseding in an unprofessional manner and for wrong reasons. The retiring Army Chief General Mubeen did a commendable job by successfully leading the army during one of the most difficult times the institution had faced after 1/11 and the BDR tragedy. For the inordinate delay in appointing the new Army Chief, General Mubeen had to be given ten days extension so that he could finish the required formalities before General Bhuiyan could take over.
At this stage it would be wise for all to learn lessons from history. The army is a monolithic organisation with a pyramid hierarchy. Both the chain of command and rules of engagement are well defined whereby from foot soldiers to the generals, everybody functions within set of pre- determined boundaries. It would be rather naive for any sensible person to expect an army chief to play any partisan role on national issues like elections. The question is not whether the chief wants to, the question is whether he actually can play a partisan role during important national events like the elections. Those who have some basic knowledge about army, know that the very nature of the organisation precludes the possibility of such an undesired role being played by either the army chief or the organisation he heads. Hence, the hope is that the new army chief and the army will be allowed to function with professionalism, competency, and integrity free from any undue influence or interference.
Similarly, unless politicians can resolve their differences amicably within themselves, they risk pushing the nation again into unchartered territories, which we can hardly afford at a time when even countries like Myanmar are overtaking Bangladesh in terms of their strategic importance to the international community and foreign investors. The politicians can tighten the nuts and bolts of the constitution as much as they want to make unconstitutional measures difficult and punishable. What will be naïve is to lose sight of the abnormal situation that sometimes our leaders end up plunging the nation into, leading to undesired state of leadership that neither the constitution envisages nor the people want. If there has to be a free and fair elections participated by all, our leaders have to lead from the front with honest intent as opposed to spending time and energy hurting their rivals, from both front and the back.
With elections next year and the current impasse on the issue of under whom elections would be held, the dark clouds will only gather momentum if our leaders follow their same old path of obstinacy and confrontation. They will do so by disrespecting the sentiment of the democracy loving people of Bangladesh who continue to remain as helpless as ever to the whims and wishes of the leaders. Historically, the time spent and analysis done by the ruling parties on who can do what from what position of power to ensure electoral victory would have been better spent on what can be done to win people's confidence to be returned to power with a transparent and honest mandate. Tricks and dishonest means have never helped any ruling party in the past, nor will they in the future. We hope that the ruling party learns from the mistakes that the opposition made in the recent past, and what kind of price it ended up paying in the polls. Unfortunately our history is that of not learning from history.

The writer is a Professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.

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