The Future Implications of The Rivalry Between Politicians and Bureaucrats

Mahtab Uddin Chowdhury | 09 April 2022
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“The way bureaucrats speak, it seems MPs don’t have any value”- this astonishing statement was made by Nazim Uddin, a Member of Parliament from the Awami League. He made this statement during one of his parliamentary speeches. He went on to say, “We are being held hostage by the bureaucracy. We all need to be vocal to escape from the hands of bureaucracy. I urge the members of parliament to please be strong and get rid of the bureaucracy.” The latter words provide an idea of how members of parliament have been outplayed by bureaucrats and highlight their continuous failure in maintaining the integrity of the national parliament as an important state institution.

As far as depoliticization is concerned, Bangladeshi politics has been going through one of its worst periods in the last 15 years. In the previous two elections, we have witnessed how the majority of legislators were either unopposed or used illegal means to defeat their opponents with the support of multiple state agencies. This, of course, ignores their acceptance among the general public as well as those in the legislative branch. In a meeting on 19 October, 2019 in Barisal, Workers’ Party leader and former minister Rashed Khan Menon said, “People of our country did not cast votes for those of us who have been elected, including the prime minister and me, because the voters could not come to the polling centres.” So, many of those pointing fingers at the current government’s landslide victory would not be wrong if they claimed it was because of the administrators who allowed law enforcement agencies to broaden their support for power holders.

The government’s efforts to persuade bureaucrats, on the other hand, are neither incidental nor unintended; rather, they are part of a long-planned and ambitious strategy. Indeed, the government’s growing reliance on administrators is evidenced by the massive growth in benefits provided to them. According to a report, between 2011 and 2020, the wage of government employees was increased by 221%. In fact, during this pandemic, which caused significant financial damage to the country and resulted in job losses and economic hardship for people in various sectors, government officials’ incentives, including festival bonuses, were fully considered. 

However, the range of conflict between bureaucrats and politicians is not limited to the central government. It has become a long unsettled dispute in the functioning of the local government as well. The competition in power practice and conflict of interest between local government representatives and local administrators is practical and theoretical. At a press briefing in the capital, The Bangladesh Upazila Parishad Association, the platform of 1,476 Upazila chairs and vice-chairs, accused Upazilla Nirbahi officers of depriving the rights of the rural people. There were records of local representatives physically harassing the local incumbents. Therefore, the Mayor vs UNO and Upazilla Charman vs UNO are becoming common scenarios at the local level. 

Let’s assess the future consequences of such disputes. The excessive dependency of the government on the administrators is doing more harm than good. First and foremost, the absence of the opinions of MPs in the policymaking process means that the common people’s choices are not represented. On top of that, Bangladeshi bureaucracy has long been criticized for its delayed and inadequate service delivery system. The reliance on administrators confers more authority on them. Additionally, legislators’ silence has resulted in an abuse of power by the executive branch, particularly the law enforcement agencies, which frequently stay unaccountable for their wrongdoings.

Secondly, the absence of cooperation between these two major stakeholders keeps government institutions from becoming effective. For instance, as far as different projects are concerned, it expands the timeframe of a particular project, weakening the monitoring and evaluation system, which later brings faulty results. Eventually, many people who happen to be the beneficiaries are affected. Also, due to the blame game culture between them, accountability and transparency continue to be absent.   

The recent debate over the issue drew nationwide attention after veteran politicians Tofael Ahmed and Kazi Firoz Roshid expressed their concern in the parliament in the last budgetary speech. They showed frustration and anger over the government’s dependency on the bureaucrats without importance being given to the politicians’ voices. However, the type of political arrangement presents here in Bangladesh changes from time to time. Overcoming the dispute between the politicians and bureaucrats in the existing structure would be very difficult. 

Addressing this problem, Political Scientist Professor Ali Riaz emphasized the importance of understanding the confessions of the politicians instead of considering them on a limited scale. Additionally, the government ought to understand the necessity of meaningful opposition in the parliament. It increases the effectiveness of the parliament and, to some extent, the accountability of the government’s legislators, which will eventually increase their legitimacy among other relevant stakeholders. Furthermore, a co-relation exists between a fruitful legislative branch and an accountable administrative system. A balance in the power practice is crucial for establishing this relation. 

Mahtab Uddin Chowdhury, Research Assistant, Centre for Governance Studies. 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.