Let us be frank about the whole issue. The caretaker system of government is an idea which continues to arouse the most passionate of responses from people across the spectrum in Bangladesh. There are those who believe, and for very good reasons, that a caretaker government in the interregnum between the departure of a government and the inauguration of another is a constitutional anomaly. Indeed, no words are minced on this score. Such a government, by any stretch of the meaning, is unconstitutional in that it is not elected and therefore is not answerable to the people; its decisions are or may be arbitrary and therefore not to be questioned before a court of law.
Perhaps the most telling argument against a caretaker government is that in conditions where people duly elect a government through adult franchise every five years, the operations of a caretaker or interim government of the sort we have been witness to since December 1990 not only militate against the spirit of democracy but are also the strongest evidence that democracy remains a tentative affair in Bangladesh.
That is one aspect of the caretaker debate. There is then the other, which is that politics has slipped to such abysmal depths in the country that those who happen to be in government at a given point in time cannot be expected or trusted to deliver a fair election. You might argue that a fair election is surely possible if there is a powerful Election Commission.
The bigger reality, however, is that a powerful Election Commission remains a matter of theory owing to the absence of resources that such a commission needs in order to have its presence felt. In the long history of electoral politics in Bangladesh, only three chief election commissioners -- Abu Hena, M.A. Syed and A.T.M. Shamsul Huda -- had too much of self-esteem to allow themselves to be intimidated by the powerful political forces arrayed against them. Such men are few and far between, which only makes the case for a caretaker government that much more credible in our socio-political circumstances.
In a very large sense, caretaker regimes in Bangladesh have presided over a smooth transition to power. Now, of course that is no argument that the system should stay on. And yet the manner in which the present Awami League-led government has done away with the system, without considering the ramifications of the move, is clearly indefensible. In pluralistic politics, it is only fair and politically expedient that before such significant issues of constitutionalism are handled, all shades of political opinion should be taken into consideration. But let that be, for it is a question that can and ought to be probed in some other context.
Retracing our steps back to the efficacy or necessity of a caretaker system of government, one will at the outset recall that the progressive destruction of democratic order in Bangladesh -- and you go back all the way to the Fourth Amendment to the constitution in early 1975 followed by the gory series of military coups d'etat and thereby unconstitutional commandeering of state authority all the way up to 1982 and the nine years that followed therefrom -- is what in a bizarre way planted the seeds of the caretaker formula toward the end of 1990.
And that was not too bad a thought. Here is the plain and simple reason: the caretaker government headed by Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed successfully turned the country away from the ugly legacy of extra-constitutional authority, even if that authority was often sought to be legitimised through sham elections and through the rise of political parties beholden to the dictatorship of the day. In its time, the Shahabuddin interregnum was looked upon as a second beginning for Bengalis, the first of course being the national armed victory over Pakistan in December 1971. Justice Shahabuddin's caretaker administration gave the country its first free and fair elections since 1973; it oversaw the inauguration of a parliament untainted by any whisperings in the dark; and it smoothened the restoration of a political government, together with a parliamentary opposition, and so opened new doors to newer possibilities for the nation. And let us not ignore the truth that the Shahabuddin government returned the country, within six months of the elections in February 1991, to a parliamentary form of government. That was significant, for it brought to an end a powerful, almost always authoritarian presidency first set into motion in January 1975 and then refined through the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad.
That is the unvarnished truth. There is the other truth, which is that the caretaker system, unless judiciously forged into shape, can turn out to be a recipe for disaster. The pretty careless and rather unconstitutional way in which President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed himself chief advisor, without exploring the four other options that came before the fifth in the constitution, namely, that of the head of state assuming charge of a caretaker administration only after the four earlier options have been exhausted, nearly pushed the country into civil war between end-October 2006 and mid-January 2007. Iajuddin remained beholden to the newly departed Bangladesh Nationalist Party and was, as has since been revealed, in touch with political figures whose record of corruption even today remains a subject of serious concern for citizens. The Iajuddin caretaker outfit cheerfully prepared for general elections on 22 January 2007 on the basis of a voters' list notorious for containing the names of non-existent voters; and the Election Commission was peopled by men who showed nary a thought to the principles of decency and integrity.
All of which takes us to the administration which replaced Iajuddin's. Of course, the Fakhruddin Ahmed caretaker government was backed by the military and so was not exactly free to have its writ run free across the country. It was powerless to prevent the outrage caused by the soldiers at Dhaka University. The arrest of students and academics by that army-backed regime remains a huge scar on the reputation of this country. And similar is the tale of the cavalier disdain with which the caretakers treated the political classes. In its frenzied mood of changing the political dynamics of the country, the Fakhruddin-Muinuddin outfit quite failed to distinguish between the corrupt elements masquerading as politicians and individuals genuinely drawn to thoughts of a liberal political atmosphere shaping up in Bangladesh. Its shoddy treatment of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, together with the humiliation it heaped on politicians detained and placed on remand, took away much of the charm that originally came to be associated with it.
And yet in Fakhruddin times there was much to cheer about. The reconstitution of the Election Commission, through sending those who had presided over the false voters' list out to pasture and replacing them with well-meaning individuals, convinced the nation that it did not have to go over the cliff. A new, energising empowering of the Anti-Corruption Commission, with former army chief Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury at the top, for the first time sent the fear of the law into the hearts and souls of the corrupt and politically profligate. Yes, the Fakhruddin caretaker administration went beyond the constitutionally mandated period of ninety days through the instrument of a state of emergency. That was unfortunate, as unfortunate as the dark circumstances which forced it into existence in January 2007. So, with any assessment of the Fakhruddin caretaker government, you have a mix of the good and the bad, the necessary and the dispensable.
But how many doses of caretaker medicine can you really take before they actually stunt your aspirations for genuine, in-built, deep-rooted democracy? It is certainly not a system citizens can be proud of, seeing that it is reflective of the failure of a people to give themselves a democratic system the durability or enduring power of which they can ensure. Given such a sordid reality, you understand -- and even accept, much against your wishes -- the importance of a caretaker system.
Life is not fair, the gods are not just and the universe is cold and cruel. And when you add to that heart-wrenching complaint the sinister perfection to which Bangladesh's politicians have promoted anti-politics to keep themselves and their dynasties going, you are stranded at the crossroads of grave uncertainty. The caretaker system might not go away, at least at this point. Is that a good thing? Or bad? How beautiful is it? Or how ugly?
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.