What's at stake with a politicised bureaucracy
In 1996, as the Awami League's crippling Dhaka oborodh campaign went on in full swing against the BNP government, a platform of government officials dubbed as "Jonotar Moncho" also gained traction. This platform, led by the likes of Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, echoing AL's demands with unabashed partisanship, was perhaps the first concerted move to politicise the country's bureaucracy. Although a controversial move, it was not questioned at that time since, similar to other instances of legal impropriety, it was acceptable. The people actually wanted a fair election and, as is the case now, it was proven that it would not be possible under the stewardship of the ruling government. AL, who is seeking office for the fourth consecutive time this election, has reportedly exhibited partisanship in recruitment at all levels of the republic during its tenures. And now the servants of the republic appear to be confused as to where their allegiance must lie. They appear to be torn between the state and the party, which poses a challenge for the Election Commission (EC) in conducting a free and fair election come January.
The EC has reiterated its commitment to hold a free and fair election, but for that it needs assistance from all stakeholders – political parties, the administration, law enforcement agencies, and obviously the voters. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal has said on several occasions that deputy commissioners (DCs) and superintendents of police (SPs) – chiefs of district administrations and district police forces, respectively – should perform their duties as government employees during elections, not as party workers. "You should not behave in such a way that the general public may think you are biased, that you are not neutral. You must act impartially. You as a public servant should understand the difference between the government and the political party," he said last year.
This issue came to the fore again on September 13 when the now former Jamalpur DC Md Imran Ahmed urged people to re-elect the AL government to continue the country's development work, in the presence of local AL MP Mirza Azam. Imran was transferred as the EC sent a letter to the cabinet secretary to take action against him. A video clip of Imran's speech went viral on social media, and the state minister for public administration remarked that a DC cannot make such a comment.
This type of statements by government officials in the run-up to the election is not new. On August 15, the officer-in-charge of Dewanganj model police station in Jamalpur, Shyamal Chandra Dhar, drew flak after he termed the ruling Awami league his "own party" and sought votes for its symbol, the boat. He was withdrawn from his station later. In July, a senior secretary of the government named Khaja Miah was made OSD after he reportedly said he wanted to contest the election from his constituency in Narail. We can also recall when the OC of Nangalkot police station in Cumilla, Faruk Hossain, "earnestly requested" people last month to re-elect Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal in the polls, following which he was withdrawn from the police station.
The EC has said the election schedule will be announced in November, and the election will take place in early January. In this circumstance, such comments are damaging to an already tenuous election atmosphere. Seeking votes for a particular political party while holding a government post is a serious violation of the government service rules. Government officials know it very well, yet they keep making such comments. The opposition side – no matter which parties – have always alleged that the government has politicised the administration and law enforcement agencies to stay in power or to repress the opposition. And none of the political parties can deny it. Even ordinary citizens have come to accept this practice. The administration's neutrality seems to be lost, and a number of bureaucrats and police officials seem to have become desperate for personal gains.
When trust deficit over the election is high among the political parties and voters, such comments surely widen the gap and make it challenging for the Election Commission to hold a free and fair election. But this "culture" did not develop in a day. The role of police and civil administration in the last two elections was controversial. There were media reports that police aided ballot stuffing at the polling centres in the 2018 polls.
There is another factor pertinent to this partisan attitude: many of these bureaucrats and police officials were engaged in politics in their student lives and are alumni of the ruling party. Perhaps they could not forget their affiliation or were reminded of that allegiance through lucrative appointments and cushy postings. It may be why they think they might get in trouble if the regime changed, and that's why they show loyalty and take risks. For violating the job rules, one may be demoted, sacked and sued, if found guilty. But in recent times, we have not seen any such action for showing loyalty to the ruling party.
In the national elections, DCs, SPs and OCs will play a crucial role. They will be involved directly in the election affairs. If they are found to be campaigning for the ruling party publicly, how can the EC be expected to hold a free and fair election with the assistance of these very officials? Yes, it is easy to identify those who seek votes for the ruling party publicly and keep them away from the field come election day. But there are hundreds more who harbour the same partisan feelings and would go out of their way to favour the ruling party without being vocal about their political inclination. The challenge lies in identifying those officials.
It would not have been such a headache, had this EC shown more resilience and resolve towards holding a free and fair election. It would not have been such a huge problem if the ruling party had not blatantly sought partisanship among the bureaucrats. Now that people's trust wavers, the EC is burdened with this additional challenge to allay doubts in the public's minds that it is indeed going to make sure that the field-level officials are neutral and committed to ensuring a just outcome of the election.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is chief reporter at The Daily Star.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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