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OP-ED: Scholars, scribes, and clerks

  • Published at 12:44 am August 26th, 2021
bureaucracy
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Once the distance between politician and electorate widens, it all goes for a toss

The stupendously comic series Yes, Minister shot to overnight popularity in the United Kingdom with almost real-life examples of how the bureaucracy moved matters to their will rather than that of the politician. 

The secretary was portrayed as being “smart,” and the politician not so. The UK’s democracy being such, phrases in certain policy statements, media comments, and strength of views would often override whatever had been committed to the electorate. All of such in the “greater national interest.” An overarching factor was the short memory of the populace and the intricate nature of decision-making.

It wasn’t always this way. Through the ages, as politicians became lazier, corrupt, and focused on populism, the “greater good” got lost. Kings, queens, and emperors from feudal societies took decisions from true scholars, scribes wrote them down, and then implementing authorities waded in to action. 

Islamic rule was masjid-based, Greeks depended on scholars and the supposed direction of the Gods. Italy or Rome produced a semblance of democracy in creating the Senate, where majority votes decided issues. Palace intrigues, corruption in the church, dependence of Hindu rulers on the pundits for favourable timings -- the list goes on.

The United States constitution’s description of democracy looked at from today’s perspective sounds miserable. Megalomania has by-passed the people’s adult suffrage. Afghanistan and Myanmar are the latest examples of how elected governments, puppets or not, can be overthrown militarily. They are also examples of how so-called seasoned democracies can bring themselves to accepting such changes. 

In some cases, informed views are ignored. In most other cases, they prevail. The declining quality of political leadership has led to the overruling of scholarly opinion. The scribes were elevated to clerical staff, and then dangerously, bureaucracy. There was a time when some of the best brains and straight backbone individuals were identified for the bureaucracy. 

As thought-delinquent politicians held sway, and democratic processes were compromised by state and non-state actors, it all turned into a free for all mad race for the ultimate power. The bureaucrats joined in, initially covertly then overtly. Unable to prevent local level so-called public representatives with political muscle for engaging in unbridled corruption, they joined in. 

There was always a danger that politically imposed impractical decisions would result in mayhem. This has happened. The British mastered the art of creating a clerical generation to be at their bid and command. They instilled a false sense of pride in subjects privileged to have a form of education -- the Babu class. Their offspring were as delighted and inspired to such status. Thus began the dreaded culture of red-taped files. That has become outdated, except that the sense of pride comes with certain powers.

So when a tearful Tony Blair expressed remorse at the attack on Iraq, he cited evidence of the time. That evidence came from the bureaucracy who had no compunction about sexing it up. Decisions require thought and time, both of which run short these days. There’s always too much on the plate. Meanwhile, the power of business entities has wriggled in significantly in the decision-making process. 

Seeking self-dependence, India fought for decades to keep global entry into its markets till it didn’t have the fight left anymore, especially with the newly-emerged globalization political proponents gaining the upper-hand. Worse was to happen as they found ways of becoming involved in politics without ever understanding the holiness of it. 

We do have the Angela Merkels who live in rented apartments, buy their own groceries, pay their bills and taxes, and run the country. We have the Jacinda Arderns who can quietly wait in queue for their table at restaurants. And we have the Saudi monarchs who travel with their fleet of vehicles, food and everything else.

Scandinavian countries are electing younger, less pretentious leaders to office. Their law-makers get small allowances, perks, and offices. David Cameron was even questioned for over-spending on a foreign visit. Second and third-tier politicians tend to follow the leaders. 

Respect for the sovereignty of local administration is also respected. Once this distance is compromised, once the distance between politician and electorate widens, it all goes for a toss.

In independent Bangladesh, there were efforts to change the colonial mentality. It didn’t work.

Political goonery put paid to the basic, honest local leadership. The result is friction such as that in Barisal recently. Cases have been filed on both sides. Law should take its course. The spanner in the works is the statement released by the bureaucracy’s association that describe the charge on the Upazilla Nirbahi Officer as being akin to terrorism. 

That puts a different spin to it all. The pessimists will assume this is governance in the pits. Optimists will look at it as an opportunity to make some aggressive changes. Others will see it as a temporary hiccup in the trundling ahead of the usual. They are the ones that miss out on the fact that this is the age of quantum physics.        

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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