The significance of bureaucracy is undeniable to run the administration of any government. It is a setup of public servants mandated for people, institutions and enterprises to comply with a set of rules for public good.
It also plays a pivotal role in policy formulation, implementation, and catering public services to citizens. Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian American economist, treats bureaucracy as not an obstacle to democracy rather an inevitable component to it.
Intriguingly, politicians and bureaucrats as two distinct actors are always indivisible and crucial to each other. History unveils that from ancient civilization to the ongoing globalized age, both are at the heart of public discourse. Which sect is less corrupt or has more public trust- politician or bureaucrat may involve another discourse. However, most people, especially young generations in developing countries including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh hate politicians and have apathy towards the present version of politics. Consequently, many political functions including relief distribution are being carried out by civil and military personnel in many countries including Bangladesh.
Arguably, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is considered as the still frame of Indian democracy. There is a pithy quote of an Indian wit that Pakistan got the generals and India got the bureaucrats. In India, bureaucrats are placed at the highest realm of all state apparatuses and even retired ones are appointed as Vice Chancellors (VCs) of universities. Critics say bureaucrats are the ruling class and have largely captured the state power to rule India as their birthright. Here, the bureaucrats are compared with the Brahmins. Kaushik Basu, a professor of Cornell University in his recently published memoir titled Policymaker’s Journal highlighted how India’s bureaucracy operates. He shared his experience of working with Indian bureaucrats and found that a bureaucrat uttered ‘sir’, 16 times in a minute in the presence of a minister.
Bangladesh is not lagging behind as the retired bureaucrats are occupying the highest posts in state bodies like Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Cabinet Division (CD), Bangladesh Bank (BB), Anti-corruption Commission (ACC), Public Service Commission (PSC), Election Commission (EC), Information Commission (IC), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), etc. Retired bureaucrats are appointed as treasurer in some public universities, sparking dissatisfaction among teachers. These posts work as gifts for government obedient bureaucrats.
Veteran politicians including Tofail Ahmed, Kazi Foroz Rashid, Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Rashed Khan Menon termed the country as a bureaucratic regime under political rule. They also blame the failures of politicians for the present bureaucratic dependency. Dhaka University Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury says politicians especially Ministers have become too dependent on bureaucrats giving all power to the bureaucrats who are controlling everything.
Bureaucracy envisages both an efficient mechanism for attaining institutional goals and the danger of personal whims to rule in disguise. Sadly, in any bureaucracy, paper work increases as bureaucrats spend more and more time reporting on the less and less they are doing. Moreover, elitism, red tape, procrastination and despotism have gripped bureaucracy. The present condition of civil administration is worryingly dismal in Bangladesh. Political partisanship, nepotism, endemic corruption and inefficiency are controlling the bureaucracy which is likely to be a spearhead of democracy and saviour of public interest.
As per constitutional mandate, the legislature is empowered to make law but the irony is that laws are drafted by administrative and judicial bureaucrats at the legislative drafting wing under the Law Ministry and the role of the legislature is limited to shouting in the parliament in the name of discussion and debate engaging in voice vote of yes or no. There is very little role the legislature plays during scrutiny of laws under the parliamentary system.
Lack of qualified politicians with pragmatic political vision and prudent commitment as well as absence of right people in the right place have aggravated the situation. There should not be over dependency on bureaucrats but the truth is that professionals from other sectors are failing to deliver on many occasions. Sometimes, it is heard that few politicians are criticising bureaucrats as it is a populist tool to safeguard them from their questionable image and lip service towards people.
On bureaucratic politicisation along with hiring and firing practices, India ranked highest in the world. Unlike in India, Pakistan’s political class never built a partnership with the civil bureaucracy to push back interference from the military. In fact, Pakistan is influenced by military bureaucrats in most times of her governance system. Bangladesh copied the bureaucratic trends of India which is the chest-thumping biggest democracy with so many inherent loopholes. Nonetheless, Bangladesh may learn from the Election Commission (EC) of India for free and fair elections amid a level playing field.
A World Bank (WB) study conducted in 2017 found that the higher the level of dependency on bureaucracy, the higher the level of corruption is in the government. When retired bureaucrats are posted at the top positions of major institutions, there is less hope for reforms and innovations. Many developing and developed countries are disinterested towards rehabilitation practices of retired bureaucrats terming it sluggish and backward-looking. This backdated practice must be stopped to rejuvenate state institutions in a dynamic, innovative and time-befitting manner. Lessons can be learnt from Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China, proven models for economic growth and political stability.
A skilled and efficient bureaucracy is a fundamental pillar of democracy. Lastly, bureaucratic choice depends on meritocracy along with political partisanship while political choices are dominantly based on a spoils system. However, the pivotal role of bureaucracy in the rise and fall of a country cannot be undermined. Stacey Abrams, an American politician, lawyer and voting rights activist in his book While Justice Sleeps published in 2021 professes that always be kind to the folks who make the world run, including security guards and secretaries.
The writer, ex. asst. prof. in Law, Southeast University, is independent researcher and freelance contributor based in Dhaka. E-mail: [email protected] and Twitter @emdadlaw. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.