Willy Brandt was not an East German mole in the West German chancellor’s office in 1974. One of his aides was. Brandt was chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. When the presence of the mole was discovered and splashed across the newspapers, the chancellor resigned. He was taking moral responsibility for the scandal having happened at all.
He did not tell the media that he did not have to resign because of the presence of the mole in his office, for as chancellor he had committed no sin. He simply turned his back on power and walked away. His respect for democracy was on a higher level than his continuance in office.
In the early years of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in India, in the mid-1950s, Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as union railway minister when 140 people died in a train accident. He did not tell people that he had had nothing to do with the accident, that he was not the driver of the train and so did not have to resign.
But he did resign because as railways minister it was his duty to make sure that trains ran smoothly. If mishaps occurred, democracy demanded that he take responsibility and leave. No one asked Shastri to resign, but he quit voluntarily in what remains a beautiful instance of a public servant taking responsibility for an infraction.
In the US in the mid 1970s, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign not because he had personally spied on the opposition’s meeting in Watergate. He was compelled to leave office when it became clear that he had tried to violate the constitution by lying about his attempts to subvert the course of justice. He lied that he had had no involvement in Watergate, for he was unwilling to leave office. In the end, the evidence against him was too strong for him to go on being president. He resigned.
French President Charles de Gaulle walked away from power in April 1969 because he wished to keep the promise he had earlier made to his people. If he lost the referendum he had called over a constitutional amendment, he would resign. He lost the referendum, but if he had wished, he could have conveniently ignored his promise and carried on as president. The integrity in his character was enough to inform him that he could not and would not retreat from his promise. He resigned and went off to his country home outside Paris.
No, in present-day Bangladesh, no one is even remotely suggesting that Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid has been leaking questions relating to school or other examinations. Neither is the secretary of the ministry of education the individual who has been handing out question papers to students before their examinations.
But what is surely the bigger truth is that, on the watch of Minister Nahid, the education system has been on a relentless, steep slide downwards. Question papers are leaked at every level of education and yet the minister will not resign.
The prime minister says that the minister is not the person who revealed those question papers and so is not guilty of any transgression. She is right on this score, to a point. But that prime ministerial defense of the education minister does not let him off the hook. Education has been collapsing. And yet the minister will not take responsibility for the damage that has been and is being done to education.
Let us move on to other instances of people refusing to do justice to the high offices they hold.
Much wrong is committed in the administration. Yet no one calls up the courage to bear responsibility for the sordid and growing mess
We will not suggest that the minister for disaster management is responsible for the crime allegedly committed by his son-in-law. Mofazzal Chowdhury Maya did not order any individual’s murder. But modern politics being what it is, it should have been for him to resign from the cabinet once it came to public notice that his son-in-law had been made an accused in the seven-murder case in Narayanganj.
He did not resign.
When the judicial judgment eventually made it clear that his son-in-law was one of the individuals guilty of the heinous crime, citizens expected the minister to bow out of the cabinet, finally.
That did not happen. And the prime minister did not ask him to leave. Nor did she exercise her authority to remove him from office.
We will not suggest that Food Minister Quamrul Islam was singularly or individually responsible for the bad food grains imported from abroad not so long ago. But it should have been his responsibility to ensure that the quality of the food grains did not raise any eyebrows.
When, indeed, the public outcry over the nature of the imported food item became rather too loud to bear, the minister should have informed the prime minister that he was taking full and absolute responsibility for the scandal and was therefore tendering his resignation. That did not happen.
Accountability demands that individuals in high office adhere to the norms of democracy. Ethical questions related to governance can only be ignored at peril not only to those around whose performance such questions arise but also -- and this is important -- to the government of which they are a part and which government they have patently embarrassed in no small measure.
Citizens expect finance ministers to take moral responsibility for the collapse of national financial sectors and do what democratic transparency demands of them. By the same measure, when a law minister says the chief justice is ailing, to be contradicted within days by the chief justice himself to the effect that he is indeed in good health, the public expectation is a statement of contrition from the minister.
A statement of resignation would certainly be a better proposition.
A culture of voluntary resignation has not grown in Bangladesh. Much wrong is committed and many transgressions occur in the administration. Yet no one calls up the courage to bear responsibility for the sordid and growing mess.
This refusal to resign, this determination to hang on to office, this propensity to look the other way drills large -- and larger -- holes in the edifice of what is still a fledgling democracy in this country.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.