Back Issues
The Team
Contact us
Volume 6 | Issue 10 | October 2012 |


Original Forum

Truth, a Casualty of War
-- Irfan Chowdhury
On the Notion of Tolerance
-- Shakil Ahmed
Violence -- Reversing the culture of impunity
-- Manzoor Ahmed
Lessons from the Troika of Non-Violence:
Gandhi, King and Mandela

-- Ziauddin Choudhury

Institution-Building or Rebuilding Institution?
Focus on Bangladesh
-- Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley

Rethinking 'The Fear'
--- Tapas Kanti Baul and Sultan Mahmud Ripon

Photo Feature

The Gift of Old Age

No Respite for Rohingyas
-- Shudeepto Ariquzzaman

Politics Not for the People

-- Syed Ashfaqul Haque

Marriages: Made in Heaven,
Living Hell for Many

-- Aruna Kashyap

Fighting a Lone Battle
-- Naimul Karim
The Story of the Rise of Modern China
-- Ashfaqur Rahman
Che: The legacy endures
-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Graduating Out of Exclusion
-- Shayan S. Khan
The Dream Team


Forum Home

Institution-Building or Rebuilding Institution? Focus on Bangladesh

DR. MIZANUR RAHMAN SHELLEY suggests a thorough overhauling of our political culture towards establishing a true democracy.


Healthy institutions are the virtual heart of a thriving society. The states of the institutions reflect the stage of political development of given societies. Successful states are built on the bases of functioning institutions. State-building is, therefore, coterminous with competent institution-building. In states which inherit coping institutions the demands of moving times called for adjusting these anew. Bangladesh is a postcolonial state which belongs to this category. Here, as in other similar cases, leaders do not need to create all institutions afresh, on the contrary, they require to build some institutions to meet new demands arising and modify others. Most of the institutions as inherited are better left alone. As we will see later in this analysis, Bangladeshi leaders during the past decades have not succeeded in responding thus to the requirements of reality.

Dictionaries define Institution as: “An organization whose purpose is to further public welfare, learning etc.; the building or group of building used by such an establishment; the act of instituting something; the investing of a clergyman with his spiritual charge; an established law or custom; a person who is a familiar sight in a locality; a collection of rules or laws”. Thus defined, institutions are of central importance in the implementation of public policies which are as good as their implementation. Institutions are intimately linked with the processes of modernisation and political development. Modernisation is the impact of the new on the old rather than the replacement of the old by the new.

The changes issuing from modernisation lead to various problems of state-building (e.g. legitimacy), nation building (e.g. the crisis of identity), participation and distribution (how socio-political benefits in the society are to be shared), penetration (effective governance) and integration (of particular government functions). Political development can be viewed as a political society's ability to effectively solve these problems. Narrowly defined, political development is “increased differentiation and specialization of political structures and increased secularization of political culture” -- the significance of such development is in general to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the performance of the political system, to increase its capabilities.

In Europe, from the time of the Roman Empire to the 20th century “the state passed from the form of traditional subordination to that of conscious institution”. Underdeveloped power became hereditary right which became responsible and finally elective authority. Governmental power grew steadily to massive proportions. Expertise increased, specialization and integration went hand in hand and “Government . . . became truly a profession”.

As the despondent viewers of the darkness of political societies of the less developed kind such as Huntington hold, the “desirable and needed” expansion and consolidation of government power has not occurred in the post-colonial modernising societies -- in many of these. Their “problem is not to hold elections but to create organizations. The primary problem is not liberty but the creation of a legitimate public order. Men may, of course, have order without liberty but they cannot have liberty without order. Authority has to exist before it can be limited and it is authority that is in scarce supply in those modernizing societies where government is at the mercy of alienated intellectuals, rambunctious colonels and rioting students”.

The major agents of political development in developing societies have been described as (i) political leaders, (ii) political parties, and (iii) the military. In some instances labour, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia may demand special attention as significant factors.

The dangers of personal leadership remaining too personal may be overwhelming. Political institutions may not grow under such a personal system. Legitimacy and legitimising succession may become a challenge that cannot be successfully faced.

Political parties, as instruments of mobilising new groups into politics and as entities not easily controlled by a single leader, may act as useful and effective balance to the shortcomings of personal leadership.

Well-established competitive parties with sound organisation and effective spread can successfully aggregate diverse interest, specific groups and bring broad unity. A well-developed party system -- whether dominant, multi-party or even single, capable of absorbing new social forces and offering consideration to new demands arising -- is an effective component of political stability. Such an arrangement is a safeguard against the weakness produced by instability which invites military intervention.

“If leadership and organized political parties fail to provide political leadership, the one force in developing countries that can, and will take over power is the military”.

Bangladesh, like pre-1971 united Pakistan (of which it was a part), experienced periods of military rule. Failures of the civilian political and state institutions were partly, if not entirely, responsible for such undesirable happenings. These experiences in the context of political instability and institutional disorder put the need of institutional reforms high on the agenda of the nation.

As noted earlier, state-building for political development in Bangladesh requires responding to unique demands. These demands call for understanding and appreciation of the ground realities as shaped by history.

Bangladesh did not emerge out of the wilderness of institution-less existence. The territory had experience of quality governance during centuries preceding British colonial-imperial rule. The people of the area had a rich heritage of competent local governments at the grassroots, such as the 'grams' (villages). These were built in the context of a society that encouraged and sustained toleration of diverse religious beliefs and customs. Again, from both the British colonial and post-colonial times, it had inherited an elaborate, transparent and well-organised system of justice, a fairly competent and well-trained public administration, a coping law and order machinery and legislatures that worked.

Over the years it has evolved a strong and articulate civil society, a bold and skilled media and the most active NGO system in the world. In addition, it has a homogeneous population with a millennium-old syncretic culture marked by community of language and heritage. It also has a remarkable record of religious and ethnic tolerance unblemished through untold centuries. All this has been competently enshrined in the democratic and secular Constitution of the Peoples' Republic of Bangladesh.

The Constitution of 1972 was the first and the most significant act of institution-building undertaken by the founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Unfortunately, as with other institutions this too was modified and amended several times. Some of these amendments, starting with the fourth amendment in 1974, distorted it, departing from its essence and sprit.

As with the Constitution, in cases of other institutions, too, distortions and degeneration were caused by considerations of personal, party and group interest combined with political exigencies. Among the institutions which have been distorted and dwarfed during recent decades are the legislature, the executive, especially the civil service and public administration, judiciary and local government.

The legislature even under overtly parliamentary system has been rendered ineffective by a personality-dominated Priministerial system, a virtual continuation of the Presidential system that ruled the country from 1975 to 1991.

Although the lower judiciary has been separated from the executive from 2008, its independence is still to be fully realised. Recruitment too and appointments in judicial posts have been influenced by considerations of partisan politics.

The executive, centred round exceedingly powerful personalities and dominant leaders, has also been largely politicised and reduced in independence and quality.

Public administration, especially the civil service and the local government institutions, are sought to be brought under the sway of the party in power. The result is politicisation, fractionalisation and dwarfing of the bureaucracy. Key positions are filled by officials with a track record of loyalty to the ruling party. With every change of government, large scale forced retirement and transfer of public servants is a familiar drill. In recent decades, this has resulted in the excessive politicisation of the bureaucracy, which, over the years, has in large measure lost its independence, efficiency, neutrality and detachment. Consequently, administration has become considerably weak and governance inadequate.

Although politicisation of bureaucracy is sometimes defended by its architects as a positive measure to secure the services of committed officials for implementing priority policy matters, the practice has resulted in the obliteration of elitism and attendant competence of the Bangladeshi bureaucracy. The politician-bureaucrat nexus, as it has developed over time, has distorted a traditionally independent and fairly competent bureaucracy into a playground of patron-client networks.

At its birth Bangladesh inherited a well-structured and working system of local government. The system had its roots in pre-colonial days, when the 'Panchayet' (the Council of Five) worked as the village government. During British colonial rule the Union Boards constituted the lowest tier of representative local government since the close of the 19th century. The Union Parishad (Council) of pre-1971 Pakistan era, along with elected district councils, formed the local government system at the union and district levels. As it emerged into sovereign independence, Bangladesh gave priority to local government. Article 59 of the Constitution of Bangladesh clearly stressed the necessity for setting up local governments with a representative character. It also underscored the need for participation of people in elections and management of local government bodies. The article also stressed importance of role of these councils in planning for public services and economic development. Article 60 emphasises the need for local government bodies to have the power to impose taxes for local purposes, to prepare their budgets and to maintain funds.

These well-intentioned provisions of the Constitution have been honoured more in breach than in observance. Centralisation and concentration of power have played havoc with local self-government in Bangladesh.

There were, however, concerted and promising attempts to build strength of the local government system during the rule of President Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and President HM Ershad (1982-1990). Zia tried to go deeper into the grassroots by initiating “Gram-Sarker” or village self-government. The system was stillborn. His assassination in 1981 also marked the end of endeavours to extend the reach of local government institutions.

HM Ershad, who like Zia was a military leader turned civilian-politician, built a new tier of local government called the upazila parishad (sub-district council) erected around the traditional administrative unit, the thana or police station. The Upazila Councils headed by a directly elected chairman, were invested with hitherto non-existent autonomy and wide financial and administrative powers and functions. After the fall of Ershad in consequence of strong civil uprising in 1990 and the resurrection of parliamentary system, the upazila parishad were abolished. These were later revived by the Awami League government lead by Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001). In reality, the system could not function as designed because of the counter-veiling influence of members of the parliament. The situation remained unchanged during the successor BNP government headed by Khaleda Zia (2001-2006). At present under the current government of Sheikh Hasina dating from 2009, the upazila system is virtually under the domination of the members of parliament.

Another institution which has been reduced in strength after the regeneration of parliamentary cabinet system of government is the presidency. In 1991 consensus among contending political parties resulted in an amendment of the Constitution which dwarfed the presidency. The president is described in the Constitution as “the highest person in the state [who] cannot take any decision without the prior approval of the Prime Minister”. Thus, the President of Bangladesh does not have the power usually vested in presidents nominally heading parliamentary governments.

The four-decade long history in Bangladesh is thus replete with instances of reducing rather than building institutions. The root cause of this damaging process is deviation from and distortion of the original political culture of democracy. For historical reasons, Bangladesh from the very beginning has been a haven of personal leadership. Its politics and government have been ruled by charismatic leaders who became more dominant than the system. Such dispensations inevitably stand in the way of building and strengthening institutions. What is needed to rectify this undesirable situation is a thorough overhauling of the political culture in favour of true and unalloyed democracy. Democratic political parties practising democracy both within and outside can alone arrest degeneration of the splendid institutions Bangladesh inherited at its birth.

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly “Asian Affairs”, was a former teacher of political science of Dhaka University and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh.


© thedailystar.net, 2012. All Rights Reserved