Who Rules Whom? Structural Instability and Governance Patterns in Bangladesh

The contest for power between ruling political parties and the governing administration shapes the governance pattern of Bangladesh. It is a contest marked by structural instability. Structural instability occurs when the formal governance structure produces its own anti-form, bringing about organizational erosion stretching from the central bureaucracy to local government. Politicians have developed a mechanism to subjugate and control bureaucrats. Since 1990 the two ruling parties, Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with their respective tribunes, have alternately shared political power. The domination of political parties by tribunes, their kin and primordial loyalists, transform them into extended political families and dynasties. This dynastic formation of ruling political parties has deep implications for the administration of government. Politicians demand that public servants express loyalty to the kin and families of tribunes. It is the loyalty rather than the professional expertise and skills of public servants which results in career advancement. Over the years, political interference in bureaucracy has contributed to a polarization of the administration towards partisan politics. The political maneuvering of the administration often creates a condition of structural instability with twin manifestations. Firstly, a formation of an unstable factionalism within the administration may lead to revolts against the ruling parties in favor of opposition parties. Secondly, there is a tendency within the extended political families to produce opposing factions which result in a dysfunctional state that is unaccountable to its people. The instability of the administration can also be partly attributed to the reproduction within the formal administration of the use of traditional culture to define norms and nuances.
Main Article: 

1.0 Introduction

An active pattern of governing relationship has evolved in Bangladesh in which political parties form governments whose decisions and policies are implemented by the bureaucracy. The political dynamics that occur in an interface between political party as government, and bureaucracy as a part of state shapes the governance discourse. Governance perspective

explains the inter-relationship between the state and the society, and also government and governed, that focuses more on process and outcomes than on formal institutional arrangements (Talukdar, 2009:26). This paper explains how democracy enables the ruling political parties to reign supreme over bureaucracy that in turn triggers instability and structural anomalies within the institutions of the state.

The present governance structure is indeed based on the inherited colonial edifice. A representative model has evolved in which political representatives, both partisan and non- partisan, place themselves over the bureaucrats and administrators. In this model, two layers national and local governance divide political representations. In national governance, the central government deals with matters concerning the nation as a whole. The partisan politics takes place through the representation of political parties in the parliament and politicians operate in their capacities as Members of Parliament (MPs) and ministers. Ministers become the leaders of around 53 ministries and divisions with over 1,000,000 staff (REF). The local governance model is structurally problematic because the government appoints MPs as leaders or advisors to local government whose structures are designed wherein local bureaucrats tend to control non-partisan politicians. Administration at the district and lower levels are mostly left to the local government bodies. However, tension brews between the bureaucracy and political parties, as the latter attempt to run local governance by partisan representatives. The convergence of two principles of partisan politicians’ control of central bureaucracy, and bureaucratic control of non-partisan representatives in post-colonial Bangladesh has a complex political history of over 125 years.

2.0 Analytical Frame

The problem of governance is that both political parties and bureaucracy rely on inherited colonial administrative

structure that fail to address post- colonial reality of governance. Time and again, these colonial administrative structures are modified to define the post-colonial reality, instead of the evolution of new structures and institutions. The governance structures in which political representatives participate were created first by the British colonial authorities to perpetuate its rule, but political or military regimes mutated structures to justify the governance realities of post-colonial state. When political agencies participate in the structures, structures tend to dominate them resulting in tension with dysfunctional effects. Chatterjee’ s observation is quite illuminating: “Here lies the root of our post-colonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community but our surrender to the old forms of the modern state. If the nation is an imagined community, and if nations must also take the form of states, then our theoretical language must allow us to talk about community and state at the same time. I do not think our present theoretical language allows us to do this” (Chatterjee, 1993:11).

The Bangladesh model of governance is similar to that of the Indian model of democracy, but Bangladesh, unlike India, clearly lacks a strong and enlightened ruling elite (Mannan, 2008). The governance is seen as a factor in the making of a ruling political class and elite rather than delivering welfare to the people. As political elite tries to manipulate state institutions, it introduces contradictions into paradox causing structural instability. Structural instability occurs when the formal governance structure produces its own anti-form. The anti-form is manifested in the process, wherein democratic election produces despotic political tribunes and democratic dynasties (Mannan, 2011), which pulverize bureaucracy into unstable factionalism. Structural instability also hastens organizational erosion in both the central bureaucracy and local government administration.

3.0 Ruling Political Party and Bureaucracy

In democratic politics, political parties hold the lever of parliamentary form of government. Indeed, democracy has produced democratic dynasties with two distinct characteristics. First, the leadership of political parties is given by political tribunes who rely on their dynasties, primordial loyalists and kin instead of rules and regulation (Mannan, 1993). Secondly, tribunes discourage inner party democracy resulting in the transformation of political parties into extended political families (Mannan, 2011). The tribunes as the head of extended political parties accommodate both on kin and retinue of non-kin party loyalists. The tribunes balance power between loyalists and kin. Both loyalists and kin in their turn expand their support base and network with their loyalists and kin. This pattern is reflected in the party structure that spreads from national power structure to local power structure (Mannan, 2011). The members of extended political families extend their reach into the bureaucracy and cultivate relationships

with bureaucrats of both the central bureaucracy and the local government.

Since 1990, the two ruling parties, Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), with their tribunes alternately shared political power. When tribunes form and rule government, they interfere in the internal management of bureaucracy, only to blur the boundaries between the legislative, executive and judiciary. Politicians have developed a mechanism to subjugate and control bureaucrats. Tribunes continuously made attempts to use bureaucrats to strengthen their party. In the process, the politicians attempt to nurture and reproduce the kinship values in the various strata of democratic institutions as a mechanism to promote primordial loyalists inside bureaucracy. The increasing influence of the tribunes, their family members and party loyalists puts pressure on the public institutions of state and civil society. The dominance of political families and their loyalists at the hub of power center produce a negative impact on the healthy development of achievement- oriented state institutions. When tribunes form a government, they insist public servants at state-institutions must express their loyalties to kin and extended political families rather than to people (Mannan, 2006).

Often bureaucrats and public servants give way to political pressure. They express their loyalties to tribunes to enhance their career advancement. In other words, the future career of public servants depends not on the application of professional performances, judgments, skills, expertise and experience, but on the degree of loyalty to the tribunes and their families. This has, in turn, deeply polarized bureaucracy into partisan politics.

4.0 Bureaucracy and Factionalism

Overall, the governance of country faces two deep problems. First, since 1972, Bangladesh’ s democratic and state institutions have systematically gone through politicization. The partisan politics polarizes the whole gamut of civil bureaucracy with the rise of partisan bureaucrats and civil servants (Choudhury, 2010). They serve the political parties rather than the state and the people. The second problem is linked with the first problem. The dominance by partisan civil servants causes an erosion of the ‘conditionality’ of governance. This is why civil servants who represent the upper echelons of state institutions become politically susceptible, and questions could easily be raised about their professional integrity. Since Independence, Bangladesh has experienced how successive political or military governments manipulated the recruitment and promotion process of the Public Service Commission (PSC) to fortify the public administration with loyalist bureaucrats. Political considerations have corroded the vitality of the ‘merit’ based system of the PSC. It is widely believed that one can bribe the commission to secure a job, irrespective of one’s merit. Moreover, allegiance to the political party in power, at any point in time, turns out to be the most important criterion for selection in government service.

The politics of tribunes, with their emphasis on individual loyalty and by- passing of the formal rule of law of the state, has created a faction-prone administrative system. As the rules of meritocracy are eroded, mediocre bureaucrats with the right political connections gain advantages over more meritorious ones. Often, inefficient but loyal public servants with appropriate political connections are rewarded. Importantly, when a bureaucracy does not organize on the basis of achievement, rules, regulation and discipline, it is bound to produce factionalism within its ranks and file. Indeed, this factionalism is organized by reproducing the culture of samaj (traditional village associations) in governing, in the formal administration. Modern educated bureaucrats reproduce the traditional samaj culture to emphasize stability, promoting the belief that any deviation from the system may bring about its collapse (Jamil, 1998:403). The instability of the administration can also be partly attributed to the reproduction of traditional culture within the formal administration to define administrative norms and nuances.

The factionalism is centered round the respective tribunes. The implication of this form of politics is that state power is exercised only to atomize individuals and destroy public and political institutions. Moreover, it has given rise to a situation whereby the family politics based on loyalties and kinship ties co-exists with the personification of the institutions of the state. The tribune’s kin and party members use the loyalty of bureaucrats to protect their wealth that they accumulate by manipulating development activities of the state. The continuous interference makes state dysfunctional and unaccountable to its people. The state's major institutions become indebted to banks, corruption encompasses the police and the judiciary. In this way, the moral authority of the state and government to rule the country is questionable.

The nature of the current political crisis suggests that there is considerable agreement among competing political parties on the “election process” itself; but questions were raised on the “moral authority” of the incumbent public servants, who bear the responsibility of governance. The political party, after winning the election forms the government, and its immediate task is to reorganize bureaucracy with loyal bureaucrats. The politicians would like to make sure that the bureaucrats who were close to the erstwhile government are removed from power. The whole body of ruling party gets engaged in identifying loyalist officers and intensive lobbying take place to recommend whom to promote or whom to replace from important administrative position. Aspirant officers also become busy in lobbying with influential party members, MPs or ministers in order to secure their promotions.

Basically, the ruling party takes two strategies. The first strategy is to promote bureaucrats en masse who are deprived of promotion by the immediate past government. This promotion aims to win the loyalty of officers. At the same time, they demote the beneficial officers of the erstwhile government by

making them “Officer on Special Duty” (OSD). OSD is an official position where officers are not given any administrative portfolio, but they enjoy full salaries and other administrative facilities and privileges. In 2010, around 400 Secretaries, Joint Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries were made OSD. The State spends Taka 3 crore 7 lakh and 34 thousand ($439060) every month as their salaries (Islam, 2010). On both occasions, promotion or demotion results in frustration. The political government of A wami League faced typical phenomenon when it promoted bureaucrats to higher ranks. Instead of giving them progressive responsibility, promotion made many officers OSD. For example, there are 126 additional secretaries against 108 posts, 408 joint secretaries against 355 posts, and 1,330 deputy secretaries against 830 posts. Promotion without vacant posts at various levels left many officers without work or many did not get new responsibilities and remained in the same position (Azad, 2010).

The second strategy is to appoint contractual staff from retired bureaucrats in different ministries. In 2009, the A wami League government appointed 200 retired bureaucrats in different ministries on contract resulting in the frustration among the bureaucrats who see bleak prospect in their career (Azad, 2011). The political strategy of party government to mass promotion through rampant irregularities and nepotism deprived many qualified officers, without necessary political connections, of career advancement. Many desperate officers either file appeals with the establishment secretary for review or go to court for their protection and promotion of jobs (P A, 2009).

The political maneuvering of the administration often creates a condition of structural instability with twin manifestations. Firstly, the formation of an unstable factionalism within the administration, in extreme case, may lead to revolts against the ruling parties in favor of opposition parties. For example, prior to 1996 election, pro- A wami League bureaucrats revolted against the ruling BNP government in favor of Awami League, or, in 2010, the

the one hand, and among the politicians on the other.

The local government system now has three tiers--Union Parishad, Upazila Parishad and Zila Parishad (see table 1) after revisions, trial and error of its structure by different governments. However, these tiers may change with the change of government. The local government’ s administrative structures evolve through a complex political history that started with the establishment of local government by British colonial authority up to the present post-colonial phase.

In 1882, Viceroy Lord Ripon adopted a resolution to construct a responsible local self-government so that people of Bengal could represent their interests and administer their own affairs. Ripon’s aim was to form a network of local bodies to prepare them for local administration. Ripon’s resolution was passed as Bengal Local Self- Government Act by the Bengal Council in 1885. The Act approved a three-tier system for rural areas: a District Board in each district, a Local Board in sub- division of a district, and a Union Committee for a group of villages. The Act of 1885 advised the civil administration to allocate their time to impart political education to the rural people through newly-created local bodies. This also increased the exigencies of local bureaucracy. However, the British rulers brought a number of changes to the original Act over the years till 1919.

bureaucrats of Pubna administration organized a conference and threatened resignation against the interference by local politicians of A wami League. Secondly, there is a tendency within the opposition extended political family to encourage factions loyal to it, against the dominant faction loyal to the government party, but tussles among factions have dysfunctional effects on state administration.

5.0 Structural Anomalies in Local Government Structure

The local government is an important wing of governance. The control of local government by political parties is of critical importance. Historically, both political and military regimes have always manipulated the local government to solidify their grassroots support base. However, the local government is an arena of tension between politicians and bureaucrats on

district press mass


Tier Colonial British


A yub Regime

Mujib Regime

Zia Regime

Ershad Regime

Representation Type


Ex-Officio Representation & Nomination

Election, Nomination, Ex-Officio Representation

Ex-officio M

Thana Parishad

Thana Devt Committee

Union Parishad

Swanirvar Gram Sarkar (GS)

Presiden tial

Zila Parishad

Upa Zila

Union Parashad

Palli Parishad (PP)


Meanwhile, the Morley-Minto Reform introduced the Indian Council Act 1909, which was modified in 1919. This Act introduced separate provincial election and laid the foundation of parliamentary democracy in the Indian sub-continent. The Government of Indian Act, 1995 broadened parliamentary politics, and election was held in 1937. In 1947, two separate countries Pakistan and India were born on the basis of the election in 1946. Present Bangladesh was known then as East Pakistan.

The major thrust to local government came from General Ayub Khan when he imposed military rule in 1958, as Bengalis posed political and economic threat to the rule of West Pakistanis (Mannan, 1990). T o offset the growing Bengali nationalism, and give legitimacy to the military rule, General A yub Khan promulgated the Basic Democracies Order in 1959 to establish a four-tier local government system with union, thana, district and divisional councils. In January 1960, polls to union council were held and elected a total of 80,000 councilors. A presidential referendum was held in February 1960 giving the right to franchise only to the councilors. A yub Khan was the lone candidate, who claimed to have secured 95.6 percent "yes" votes. He declared himself as President of Pakistan after the referendum. In 1969, A yub Khan resigned as he was unable to withstand the massive Bengali nationalist movement.

In 1971, Bangladesh became independent, and local government politics took a new discourse. In 1972, the new Bangladesh government abolished the Pakistani union council system and formed Union Panchayets. The government nominated members from Awami League, and engaged them in Union Relief Committees to distribute relief materials and carry out construction and rehabilitation works. The new A wami League government, in the very first year of its rule, made attempts to replace the traditional local leadership with the rank and file of its party. The A wami lawmakers picked up party members to run two bodies of Union and District Councils. This process of appointment dented the image of the government as lawmakers and party members were involved in widespread corruption. The party corruption, soaring prices of essential commodities, etc., coupled with strong opposition from the Union Council members of A yub beneficiary caused the massive defeat of Awami League candidates in 1973 union council elections.

The experience of 1973 Union Council defeat has a long lasting impact on later course of politics. First, massive

corruption of the ruling party invigorated the social and political forces that were created by Basic Democracy of A yub Khan. All successive government, since then, adopted the policy to neutralize political layer created by immediate past government. Secondly, ruling party had to organize election of the local bodies after the National Parliamentary election, as it provided opportunities to the government and MPs to install their loyal party cadres and members in the management of local bodies. Finally, it is a risky venture for the ruling party to rely on the party for grassroots mobilization; rather the party leaders feel comfortable to rely on local government bureaucracy to mobilize the people in favor of the ruling party.

The post-colonial politics became volatile as Awami League lost its grip on politics, followed by famine in 1974. The Mujib government brought the fourth amendment to the constitution to impose a one-party rule, that is of Bangladesh Krishak Sramik A wami League (BAKSAL). BAKSAL was designed to enmesh colonial governance structure, and formed district and thana administrative councils with nominated representatives from BAKSAL. However, Sheik Mujib was assassinated on August 15, 1975 in a military coup.

In 1976, General Ziaur Rahaman ascended to power. Zia followed similar strategies like President Ayub Khan, and relied heavily on the bureaucracy to give political legitimacy to his regime. General Ziaur Rahman promulgated a local government ordinance providing for Zila Parishad in each district, which would be run by elected representatives for a five-year term. He quickly organized Union Parishad election, and allocated money to local government bodies to win the support at the grassroots. In 1977, Zia organized a referendum and was the only candidate. He bagged 99.5 percent of "yes" votes, from a voter turnout of 85 percent in favor of his Presidential rule, and eventually floated the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). BNP required strong grassroots political base, but being completely aware of the chaos in the Union Parishad which had resulted from the tension and tussle between the Union Council leaders of A yub regime and Awami League leaders, who felt the need to introduce a new structure of rural institution. In late 1980, Zia regime introduced SwanirvarGramSarker (Self- reliant Village Government) - a lower tier below Union Parishad in 68,000 villages. The Gram Sarkar had created a totally new grassroots leadership in support of BNP that marginalized Union Parishads. BNP MPs took the chairmanship of district and thana level Gram Sarkar coordination committees to ensure control over the rural areas.

In 1981, Ziaur Rahaman was assassinated in a military putsch, and General Ershad took power in 1982. He too followed similar strategies like his military predecessor A yub and Zia. With an aim to float a political party, Ershad regime followed two strategies. First, he introduced Upazillas - a level between District and Union Parashad. The Upazila created a new layer of political leaders. Secondly, he renamed Gram Sarker into Palli Parishad not only to accommodate the newly found identities of grassroots leaders, but also

to create a politico-myth of himself as Palli Bondhu (friends of village). He needed to assert himself as Palli Bondhu to countervail the image of the father of the nation Sheik Mujibur Rahaman as Bangabonhu (friends of nation). Like the Zia regime, Ershad regime also relied on the bureaucracy to establish control over rural affairs. The Ershad regime held two upazila elections--one in 1985 and the other in 1990. In 1985, General Ershad organized a referendum where he was the lone candidate, and obtained 94.14 percent "yes" votes in his favor as the President. Afterward, he commissioned his political Jatiyo Party, which won the majority in the third parliamentary election in 1986.

The Jatio Party Members of Parliament (MPs) prompted conflict when they tried to curb the power of Upazila Parishad chairmen for several reasons. The MPs did not have formal control over local administration nor over the budget allocated to Upazilas. They saw the rise of Upazila Chairmen as potential MPs – a threat to their leadership in the constituencies because the chairmen could muster their direct grassroots connection with state’ s financial support and power. To offset the rising power of the chairmen, the MPs made alliances with Upazila Nirbahi Officers (UNO) – local bureaucrats who orchestrated administrative non-cooperation with the Upazila Chairmen. This conflict flared up between educated UNO and uneducated demagogy political Chairmen. The MPs sided in favor of UNO. As tension brewed, to pacify the MPs the Ershad regime invoked the Zilla Parishad Act in 1988 that made MPs Chairmen of the District Parishads to coordinate all development activities in the districts. This Upazilla formation had deep implication for all democratic government since 1990.

budget by the MPs ,who are made advisors to UP. The MPs, on the other hand, to make the Chairmen dysfunctional, are collaborating with Upazila Executive Officers, who are secretaries to the Parishads, and advising them to run the Upazila Parishads. All Chairmen since then are demanding the government allow them to exercise their legitimate right of public representation by disempowering the MPs. Against this backdrop, Upazila Parishad chairmen and vice-chairmen are preparing to launch a movement against making the parishad dysfunctional (TDS, 2010).

Against such politicking, in 2011, Awami League decided to appoint-not election-MPs to run the Zila Parashad. The district officials now implement the projects at the behest of MPs. This policy is reversed to what the BNP government pursued in 2003, where chief executive officer managed the districts development activities (TDS, 2011).

An important institution at the lower echelon of local government is the Union Parishad (UP). A UP covers an average population of 25,000. UP elections were held in 1973, 1977, 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2003 and 2011. The state has expanded its administrative reach to the rural areas aiming, among other things, to develop grassroots democracy and promote the representative character of local political organs. A proper electoral representative body is seen as necessary to administer state-sponsored development activities. A position in UPs provides access and linkages to the local government bureaucracy, and also allows political

6.0 Politics of Government Since 1990

A popular upsurge ousted Ershad regime from power in 1990 to establish multi- party democracy. BNP won the election in 1991. BNP abolished the Upazila system and formed Thana Unnayn Samannay Committee at the Upazila level, of which MPs were made advisers. On the other front, BNP government immediately removed the Zila Parishad chairmen, most of whom were MPs from Ershad's Jatiya Party. Instead of appointing MPs, BNP made Deputy Commissioners (DCs)as ex- officio chairmen. However, lawmakers continued to dictate DCs in running the activities of Zila Parishads. In 2000, the Awami League government repealed the Zila Parishad Act of 1988, and framed a new law providing for direct elections to the Parishads. But, till date, no election has been held, thereby allowing the bureaucrats to run the Parishads.

BNP lost the election to Awami League in 1996. In 1998, the Awami League government reinstated the Upazila system and enacted a law that made MPs advisers to the Upazila Parishads. In 2009, the Awami League government organized the Upazila election in which most party candidates win (Talukdar, 2009:101). Now, the party Upazila Chairmen enter into a serious confrontation with MPs that pose to destabilize the dynastic ruling party. The rift is related to the allocation of Upazila elites to widen their power-base from micro-village to meso-village higher forums (Mannan, 2005).

Two important policy changes in the 1990s have put further spotlight on this organ. First, the government streamlined the representational base of the UPs by demarcating a Union into nine wards instead of the previous three, with each ward having its electoral representatives. The new system broadens the base of political representation, as members are elected from constituent villages within the boundary of respective wards. Second, the government has made the representation of women mandatory in the Union Parishad, each Parishad having to reserve three seats for women (Rahman, 2001:2). Although MPs are advisers to district and upazila councils, they are not advisers to Union Parishads.

7.0 Conclusion

The complex historical evolution of both political system and bureaucratic structures resulted in a contest wherein both try to influence and manipulate each other. Military ruler HM Ershad introduced a three-tier local government system in 1982, BNP-led government made it two-tier in 1992, A wami League-led government turned it into a four-tier one in 1997, and the immediate past caretaker government restored three tiers in 2008. But, none of the governments or regimes made the system operational through holding polls to those bodies as per their decisions on the tier of the local government. It also depends on which political parties form the government,

and how it employs bureaucracy to serve the changing political and economic need of the tribunes, and their extended political families. The interference of politicians in administration, and mutation of bureaucratic structures have created a condition for structural instability.

It is often said that with the change of government every five years, legal becomes illegal, and illegal becomes legal. The old colonial institutions and structures that are reproduced in post- colonial independence Bangladesh are designed to control people and opposition parties in particular. It seems that politicians like to master the bureaucracy to strengthen the political control base of tribunes, and their political families over political process and democracy, but the post-colonial reality demands the reformation of bureaucracy to address development and market imperatives.

All governments, political or military, introduced contradiction into paradox. The creation of governance structures evolves through a process, wherein political governments ignored the constitutional obligation to promote local governance or military rulers abused the system to gain power base at the grassroots level. Successive government policies unleashed local forces at various tiers of local government. The successive government faces the daunting task in evolving strategies and mechanism on how to accommodate these forces at all levels, as one tier opposes the higher or lower tier.


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