The argumentative oligarchs

Syeed Ahamed

Published in Forum (July, 2007)

It is only where political parties seriously challenge [the] relative autonomy and, along with it, the mediatory role of the bureaucratic-military oligarchy that conflicts arise in which, so far, the latter have prevailed.” Hamza Alavi (1972)

The ruling power in Bangladesh, when viewed in its historical context, essentially rested with three intermingling oligarchies: politicians, civil bureaucrats, and the military. While the first exhibited a disputed liaison with the others, the other two have demonstrated a reasonably steady companionship.

The oligarchs that emerged during different epochs have now appeared at a critical crossroad where the destiny of Bangladesh will be chosen for many years to come. In this vital juncture, this piece re-examines the evolution and inter-relations of these oligarchs in Bangladesh’s internal power politics.

In Bangladesh, civil bureaucrats were the founding members of this oligarchs’ club, though in theory politicians were granted the legitimacy via the “social contract.” The fundamental structure of bureaucracy was established during the two hundred years of colonial rule without any national political guardianship.

The post-colonial military rulers found the administrative skills of the civil bureaucrats indispensable to effectively administer the country. Then again, the support of successive military rulers was also essential for the civil bureaucrats to safeguard their dominance. For the same reason, civil bureaucrats remained the common comrade, while the military and politicians constantly replaced each other. Bureaucrats continued to hold many vital state positions even during the political regimes. However, the comparable chain of command, protective nature and organisational professionalism entrenched in both civil and military bureaucracy facilitated them to become the willing participants of a civil-military oligarchy.

In several instances, politicians came in confrontation with the civil-military oligarchs and challenged their legitimacy. In the end, politicians either joined the oligarchs as the third member of the club, or simply compromised with corruption. In the latest instance, it was the political catastrophe that called forth the military to step in.

In the current context, can a legitimate political force be revived to effectively challenge the prevailing oligarchs’ club? Can the interim government, with its talk of reform, bring any meaningful change in this system? The answer would require a vigilant examination of the prevailing power in the hands of existing oligarchs and the pattern of relationship it maintains with the state apparatus.

Colonial legacy
The British rulers established an elite bureaucratic society where only the members of the highly educated rich families could hope for a career. The post-colonial Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) continued this status quo. Studies showed that 66 per cent of the civil bureaucrats and 70 per cent of the military bureaucrats in the united Pakistan came from families with a tradition of working for the government.

Bureaucrats had to work with politicians in the post-colonial Pakistan, but only for a brief period of time. When the political government of Pakistan was overthrown by a military coup in 1958, bureaucrats restored their lost command under the military rule. However, this controlling attitude of the bureaucrats did not go unchecked by politicians. Several opposition movements occurred during that period, culminating in the 1969 uprising that demanded the reform of administration, particularly changing the ruling orientation of senior bureaucrats, reducing the overall power of the bureaucracy and building a less class-oriented civil service.

The civil-military oligarchy was also facing internal fissures as the dominance of West Pakistani bureaucrats infuriated the deprived Bengali civil servants. Bengali bureaucrats, moving against their Pakistani counterparts, supported campaigns such as the Two-Economies theory, and the Six-Point movement.

Post-independence confrontation (1971-1975)
The newly born Bangladesh began with a politicised bureaucracy owing much to the contribution of civil and military personnel who worked together during the Liberation War. Many top positions of the civil service were filled with former CSP officers, but new recruitments were also made from the partisans. This ignited the post-liberation conflicts in the civil and military administrations.

The Awami League quickly took control of the bureaucracy and made it oblige to politicians’ political will. The government enacted President’s Order No. 9, 1972 which empowered the president to dismiss any civil servant without a right of appeal. In an attempt to eliminate the colonial hang-over of the bureaucracy, an administrative and services reorganisation committee was also established, which recommended the abolition of the elite cadre from the bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats started to feel uncomfortable as politicians were challenging their entrenched position in the system. In the face of strong opposition from the bureaucracy, the recommendations of the committee could not be implemented. The relationship between the senior bureaucrats and the political leaders rapidly worsened.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could not ignore the prowess of the bureaucratic elite. When he constituted Baksal as the only constitutionally permitted national party in the country, he nominated 21 senior bureaucrats as members of its central committee. However, the ascendancy of civil and military bureaucrats continued to be checked by politicians. At this point, it is very pertinent to recall what Hamza Alavi apprehended in 1972 about the fate of AL government: “It may yet be that a new bureaucratic-military oligarchy with outside aid will consolidate its position and power in course of time in Bangladesh.”

On August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujib was assassinated along with his family members and the brief period of political dominance came to an end.

Marriage of convenience (1975-1990)
With Bangladesh stumbling from coup to coup after August 15, Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman assumed the presidency in 1977. While the managerial skills of civil bureaucrats became essential to run the country, the support of military government also became indispensable for civil bureaucrats to reclaim their lost power. Thus the civil-military bureaucrats formed a “marriage of convenience” to dominate the decision-making structures of the state apparatus.

Though Zia later on took a political camouflage by establishing the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, martial law regulations essentially weakened the Parliament and consequently made the civil and armed bureaucrats the controllers of state machinery. The military ruler famously “made politics difficult for the politicians.”

Zia was assassinated in 1981 by a military group and in 1982 the BNP government was ousted by Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad. During the Ershad regime, the civil-military amalgamation reached its zenith. Bureaucrats dominated the highest policy making bodies including the Council of Advisors for the President and the National Economic Council. They even enjoyed the ranks and status of cabinet ministers. On the other hand, the higher echelon of the administration was occupied by a large number of serving or retired military personnel. During this autocratic period, civil servants developed a sense of superiority over their ministers, as in many instances the president preferred the decisions of the bureaucrats to those of the ministers.

The civil-military oligarchs became an elite and independent social class, a governing force by itself, rather than the aide of the political class.

The legitimacy of the dictator was seriously challenged and at the height of a people’s (mostly students) movement against the regime, the civil-military bureaucrats also withdrew their support from Ershad, which ultimately forced the dictator to quit.

Dilemma of electoral democracy (1991-2006)
After the fall of the dictator, the bureaucrat-politician relation took a new twist during the fifteen years of electoral democracy. The political shift threatened the position of the bureaucrats. Political patronage and nepotism fragmented the cohesiveness and unity of the civil service. During this period, politicians started to challenge the power and legitimacy of the civil-military oligarchs.

The political governments took repeated initiatives to bring reform in the prevailing administrative system. Half a dozen committees/ commissions were established in this regard. However, lack of commitment among the political leaders in brining any meaningful change to the existing system remarkably failed these initiatives. In addition, the bureaucrats also continued to resist any attempt to expose themselves to more scrutiny and supervision.

To survive this political dominance, the bureaucrats adopted a new tactic — being loyal to the ruling politicians during service and joining the politicians on retirement. Political parties became willing participants to this arrangement as they needed the support of the bureaucrats to run the government while in power and to protest the government while in opposition. The politicisation of the bureaucracy however chipped away the unity of the bureaucrats and weakened their already threatened position.

AL, being the then-opposition, used the disgruntled bureaucrats in 1996 during their movement against the incumbent BNP government. These rebel bureaucrats were also rewarded by the AL when it came to power in 1996. When BNP returned to power in 2001 it decided to get its revenge on the rebelling bureaucrats. In addition, it went for an all-embracing politicisation of the bureaucracy.

As an alternative to end the civil-military oligarchy, politicians decided to politicise the existing oligarchs. In doing so, the last political government filled every possible position in the central and local administration with its supporters to rig the national election. This across-the-board politicisation ultimately back-fired and eventually revitalised the civil-military bond.

Bangladesh at the cross-roads
A swift but silent take-over ended the political impasse on January 11. Former bureaucrat Fakhruddin Ahmed was appointed as the head of the government. Most of the members of the new cabinet also came from civil and military bureaucracy.

The interim government has vowed to reduce corruption in the country. Hundreds of senior politicians along with other professionals have already been arrested on suspicion of graft and other crimes.

It is highly unlikely that the military will opt for a complete take-over. But this would only mean a higher dependence of the military on the bureaucrats in helping run the country. Keeping in mind the failure of the previous civil-military ventures to implement any meaningful reform in the public service, it will be interesting to witness the performance of this rejuvenated alliance in reforming the politics and administration of the country.

A reform in the political system that aims to replace the corrupt merchants with real grass-roots representatives can restore the true spirit of the “social contract.” In the long run, a functional and representative political system is irreplaceable with the civil-military oligarchs who hold the dual role of an interest group as well as an institution, which often creates conflict of interest. Hence, to make Bangladesh a functioning People’s Republic, the ruling power of the country must be entrusted with a legitimate body of people’s representatives.

The mutual loathing of political parties has brought Bangladesh to this cross-roads. Bangladesh might revert to its pre-1991 condition with a more authoritative civil-military oligarchy. However, we can also hope that the incumbent government will truly reform and sterilise the prevailing corrupt administrative and political system and then return the power to a democratic order, as they have promised.

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