Perhaps time for a people's charter
The AL held a conference of Mohajote inter-parliamentary bodies last week, its first ever in two years. That by itself was news, but there was infinitely more -- sycophantic, spiced, bitter-sweet and strident flavour of it all. It began on a minimalist note of expectation as a ruling party office-bearer observed that "it was a big thing" having face-to-face talks with the prime minister.
Jatiya Party chief's pleasantry sounded like making amends for his earlier observation that some of the criticism against the government has got stuck to his party. He said, apparently to ingratiate himself: "Just call us up for five minutes every month over tea and that will do." He even pledged to keep unfaltering company with the Awami League.
Nevertheless, the hugely belated Mohajote meet stood in stark contrast to the regular frequency of formal engagements that coalition partners in Britain and India have even in normal circumstances, let alone to deliberate on an emerging national issue. Basically, coalition governments do operate on an agreed minimum common programme.
Unfortunately, our Mohajote government or the preceding BNP-Jamaat coalition for that matter, have had little use for any agreed common programme once they had ascended to power. They would have just had common understanding (maybe on some vague principles) but that solely centered on seat adjustments keeping in view a general election. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the practice of coalition governments has not struck any roots in the country, and the dominant two-party political culture is an inherent weakness of our democracy.
Overall, the Mohajote conference's outcome couldn't be viewed through any prism of resolutions since there were none adopted through a formally issued declaration or statement. Actually, what the whole show boiled down to were three emphatic observations coming out of the plenary: First, the distance between the ruling party and the government is growing (perhaps happily!); secondly, the 1996 Awami League government with much less number of MPs was strong while the current one having the largest number of seats in parliament is weak (that again is explicable!); and thirdly, the Mohajote coalition is on a sickbed, gasping in the ICU (this to be sure, is a reflection of their felt weight vis-à-vis the reality of the AL's overpowering and self-clinching majority).
Understandably, the ruling party MPs were raring to ventilate their pent-up grievances, emotional as well as material. Some samples: party people are not getting government jobs, especially those of teachers -- with 30,000 vacancies on the platter. They complained of ministers insisting on taking written tests by candidates to qualify (rather than doing outright favour); local development activity being at a standstill, the ministers neither listening to them nor doing their work (read their bidding) and to add insult to injury they have to be met through "slips." One MP voiced the ultimate in frustration: they would have perhaps liked us to be assistant private secretaries (APS) rather than party MPs.
This is not to trifle with the complaints of indifference on the part of some ministers. But then as far as nurturing constituencies goes, some conflict of interest could occur making all the difference between yes" or "no" or yes-no tantalisation or between patronisation and self-expediency.
The MPs needn't have been all that critical; they too have their prerogatives in the local bodies; but of course, it is the release of funds for development work that is awkwardly gingerly even though procurement policies have been relaxed. On a serious note, public spendings are still at a low ebb as the poor utilisation of the annual development project would suggest.
But the "distancing" between ruling party and the government should be music to ears of those who believe that the line between the government and the ruling party has blurred as party government has morphed into partisan government. The local party leaders are increasingly meddling in the day-to-day administration and shielding criminalities. The casualty is governance, whether taking law into one's own hand, free-for-all-wheeling and dealing, guaranteed impunity by flaunting connections on terrorisation by abusive law enforcement. More to the point, service deliveries are severely affected through absenteeism, lack of accountability and absence of supervision.
Given poor service deliveries across the board and denial of rights to the vulnerable and the unconnected, it is time we have a people's charter handed to all agencies of public service -- secretariat, police stations, courts, financial houses, utilities, educational institutions, healthcare, local bodies, even private sector -- by way of a new social contract. They should set for themselves specific tasks and goals and deliver accordingly. This should be workable if conceived in microcosms and effective decentralisation of authority and power is provided. Each office should display score cards quantified in measurable terms for public knowledge and satisfaction. RTI could be of some help but all the same it should be mandated through an appropriate legislation.
In all fairness, some ministers like Motia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid, Abdur Razzak, Dilip Barua, G.M. Quader have set goals to work towards. Accordingly, secretariat officials, directorate chiefs and outlying agencies under them feel tasked to fulfill specific targets. But most other ministries don't have specifically set goals so that their subordinate offices are working perfunctorily and listlessly. The foreign minister stands out for the frequency of her overseas trips without any visible commensurate benefit to the country. The home, communications, commerce, shipping and energy ministries have had their share of criticism The finance minister started out on a methodical note, but seems to have lost his way.
Several important ministries are notorious for corruption; it is all in the public domain -- thanks to media exposure. But just how much gets reported is the question. That is where regular submission of verifiable wealth statements, which the finance minister has called for, can be an aid to transparency. But just, so much more would be needed!