The president of Bangladesh, while addressing the 51st convocation of Dhaka University, has implored to leave politics to politicians. He says that “Only the politicians who do politics since the early years of their life will do politics” and adds that “It is not right to try to be a politician overnight without an early orientation.” The president laments that “There has been no qualitative change in politics, as professionals are making direct entry into politics.”
The president's apparently sarcastic comments about professionals joining politics in an “unseemly” manner cannot escape the attention of discerning citizens and thus it might be appropriate to understand and appreciate the distinctive imperatives of a politician's call. Surely, politics is a noble profession of high order that caters to public service and our president has rightly pointed to the necessity of training and experience in the formative years of one's life in order to become a useful and mature politician. The question is: What kind of credentials and training should a budding or an aspirant politician have, at least in the sub-continental parlance?
On the above subject, it might be interesting to note the observation of distinguished Indian lawyer-cum-diplomat and academic Nanabhoy Palkhivala. While delivering a convocation address at the University of Madras on September 28, 1979, he observed: “When, at this convocation, you see degrees conferred upon engineers, doctors, surgeons, lawyers and other professionals, you cannot fail to be struck by the grim irony of the situation where the one job for which you need no training or qualification whatsoever is the job of legislating for and governing the largest democracy on earth. You need years of training to attend to a boiler or to mind a machine, to supervise a shop floor or to build a bridge, to argue a case in law court or to operate upon a human body. But to steer the lives and destinies of more than 650 million of your fellowmen, you are not required to have any education or equipment at all!”
It may also be pertinent to recollect what former Indian President Dr Rajendra Prasad said in the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949. While formally adopting the constitution, Dr Prasad observed: “I would have liked to have some qualifications laid down for members of the legislatures. It is anomalous that we should insist upon high qualifications for those who administer or help in administering the law, but none for those who make it except that they are elected. A law-giver requires intellectual equipment but, even more than that, the capacity to take a balanced view of things, to act independently and above all to be true to the fundamental values in life—in one word, to have character.”
In our situation, the qualifications for a person who seeks to stand for election to parliament are: a) he or she must be a citizen of Bangladesh and b) he or she must be at least 25 years old, amongst others. The first qualification is usually an accident of birth, and the second is inevitably the result of the inexorable passage of time. We have mostly prescribed only disqualifications. It is time to advocate some positive qualifications for aspirants to a political career for ushering in the qualitative change as desired by our honourable president.
Incidentally, we also need to know how willing our political parties are to maintain audited accounts of all its receipts and expenditures. “The greatest source of corruption in public life is the total immunity of political parties from accountability while the small baker, butcher and grocer are expected to keep accounts. It is but fair and equitable that political parties should be disciplined by the same requirements of the law which apply to citizens at large.” For ensuring quality in politics, this definitely is not a tall order.
Insofar as restricting or discouraging professionals from embarking on a political career, it might be advisable to examine if doing so would not be incompatible with the provision of Article 40 of our constitution that says: “Subject to any restrictions imposed by law, every citizen possessing such qualifications, if any as may be prescribed by law in relation to his profession, occupation, trade or business shall have the right to enter upon any lawful profession or occupation, and to conduct any lawful trade or business.”
On the issue of businessmen's preponderance in politics, I am of the view that this development should not be looked upon with disfavour if indeed we agree that creation of wealth is a virtue. Surely, an entrepreneur is, by habit and experience, an innovative person whose wisdom and foresight our society stands to benefit from. Gone are the days of a historically necessary anti-establishment when politics was the predominant preserve of lawyers and trade union leaders. The emerging imperatives of balanced economic development require the active participation of enlightened captains of industry and commerce in politics. What we need to do is to take adequate measures to prevent conflict of interest in such a scenario by means of appropriate legal interventions as has been done in other countries.
I understand that the honourable president's worry relates to ensuring quality in politics and if indeed the entries of professionals have made a corrosive impact on the tone and tenor of politics. In retrospect, one would find that the military interventions in 1958 during the Pakistan period and in 1975 in Bangladesh were largely responsible for requisitioning the services of the so-called professionals in active politics. As to who is responsible in what dimension for this state, it would not be possible to indicate such without the benefit of an in-depth dispassionate study. Some would say that the bureaucrats conspired to discredit the politicians while others would blame the politicians for not adequately matching the service calibre and not providing purposeful leadership in managing the affairs of the state. Consequently, the bureaucracy continued operating only to guarantee societal inertia.
Politics must not belittle greatness and corrupt goodness. The politician should not be the sordid amalgam of lack of intellect with lack of character and lack of knowledge. Our democracy needs to have an aristocracy of talent, knowledge and character. This aristocracy has to take to public life.
Standards of ethics and decency in public life are less easy to enforce by law than by public opinion. Obedience to the values which is enforced not by the machinery of criminal justice but by the national ethos is the ultimate guarantee of a clean public life. For the rebirth of morality in our politics, the period of gestation will prove lengthy and the delivery promises painful but one cannot dedicate life to a greater cause.
Our politicians must not have any pretensions to infallibility and should not appear to be under a promise never to become wiser. The compulsions of the party system could be understood and the grievous toll it takes upon a member's independence, individual judgment and freedom of action could be appreciated. The system, however, brings about coherence and unity of purpose in the actual working of democracy.
While man is a political animal and politics is all-pervasive, it is queer that politicians do not figure high in popularity ratings throughout the world. Perhaps it is a natural weakness to revile that which we cannot do without. We, however, need to bear in mind that in the hands of a committed politician, the affairs of the state would represent the application of reason to noble and purposeful ends. Alternately, politics can be debased to low ends; it can be a mean pursuit, instead of a high adventure. It can be used merely as a means of livelihood instead of being pursued in the grand manner so as to afford opportunities for a full and fulfilling life.
We must learn to subordinate ourselves to a caring and enlightened political leadership because in doing so we will be ensuring “...effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels.”
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.