I t is a game that foreign affairs analyst and roving journalists love to play from time to time. They look at the kaleidoscope of nation states and give their judgement on the status and quality of governance in different countries, particularly those which are known as ‘developing’ or ‘least developed’. Using criteria that are impressionistic in nature and often subjective by predilection, they categorise countries as a ‘failed state’ in a descending order. Their pseudo-intellectual exercise is often misleading because a state cannot fail. If it did, it would disappear from the map of the world, or give rise to total anarchy. It is the government that may fail in governing the country. In such cases the government is changed through ballot by the people or through revolution. The state continues to exist because it is more than the government. A state cannot fail unless it is invaded and occupied by another country. But it can become dysfunctional which, through oversimplification, can be said to be synonymous with failure.
Bangladesh has been labelled as a ‘failed state’ by international journals like News Week, Far Eastern Economic Review in the recent past. More recently, the ‘Foreign Affairs’ published in America has joined the chorus. Their analyses have looked at the state of politics, law and order, human rights etc. and on the basis of these they have come to the conclusion. But the area of inquiry has been too narrow to encompass the totality of state. Even in respect of governance, the reference is partial and limited. If there is no anarchy and total lawlessness, a government cannot be said to have failed. At the most it can be described as governing in a way that does not promote the maximum welfare of the maximum number. If the govt. fails to govern reasonably and this coincides with weakening of the other organs of state, then a serious situation can be suspected to be developing. There may or may not be a linkage between failure in governance and the erosion of the strength of the other organs but the simultaneous malfunctioning of all the organs of state can be more than a case of simple coincidence. Though one of the three organs of the state, the government is often more powerful, particularly when checks and balances on its use of power become weak or are reduced to insignificance.
In Bangladesh the three organs of state can be seen as functioning. Parliamentary sessions are being held as per schedule and laws being passed. The Judiciary is hearing cases and giving judgements. The government is carrying out routine and development activities through ministries and agencies under them. Among the informal organs of state, the print media is thriving with numerous dailies and journals. The civil society is very active and expanding the scope of their activities. Bangladesh, as a state, is definitely kicking and alive. But is it well? The answer will indicate whether it is functioning in good health or becoming dysfunctional. Becoming dysfunctional is not the same as having completely failed. But it is neither equal to making steady progress. Without sustained progress the welfare of maximum number of people cannot be promoted. The state will continue to exist, but for the benefit of the few fortunate. Governance can be judged in the short term but functionality of state is a long term phenomenon.
Reverting to Bangladesh, one finds the three organs functioning. But actually they are functioning under serious handicaps and strains. The constraints on them are such that their functioning is not producing the critical mass through synergy. It is this critical mass that enables a state to become truly functional. Looking at the organs of state it is not difficult to see why these are not able to contribute their bit to the production of critical mass. The parliament sits in sessions as per the calendar but it is not fully functional because the opposition is not participating in it as they are expected to. Long boycotts and frequent walk-outs have rendered Parliament weak. It is through parliament that democracy can thrive, holding the govt. accountable and reflecting the views of the cross-section of people, irrespective of class, creed and ethnicity. Absence of opposition means the section of population represented by it is unheard and unrepresented in Parliament. Democracy is not simply rule of the majority but also rule for the entire population. Otherwise it becomes a plutocracy. Apart from the absence of the opposition the other factor that has undermined the Parliament is the lack of quorum for which sessions cannot be held regularly. Members of the treasury bench don’t feel much interest to attend because the opposition remains absent. The presence of opposition is thus important for ensuring the presence of members from the ruling party. The members of treasury bench are also discouraged by the constitutional bar from voting against govt. on any issue. Being restrained by this constitutional provision, the members of treasury bench even refrain from criticising the government. This makes discussion in the parliament less lively and not very conducive to ensuring accountability. Thirdly, the parliamentary committees have been rendered ineffective by lack of adequate response of ministries to resolutions passed by them. Far from being watchdogs, the committees have become mere discussion groups. The absence of opposition makes the committees even more ineffective. Under various governments the opposition party remained absent on the alleged ground of not getting enough time allotted for discussion. This is a grievance that can be redressed easily without any harm done to the ruling party (parties). As long as this continues to be an obstacle, Parliament as an organ of the state will suffer in strength and effectiveness.
Judiciary is not only important for enforcing rule of law. It also oversees the activities of the executive branch through decisions given on actions taken by the latter. Judiciary also checks and balances the power of the parliament in its capacity as the interpreter of constitution. Apart from redressing grievances that are brought to courts, judiciary also takes initiative through judicial activism. In recent years public interest litigation has broadened the scope of judiciary. To perform in an atmosphere free from interference and influence there has to be separation of power between judiciary and the executive. Though the Supreme Court asked the government to bring about the separation giving a timetable, nothing has been done so far. This not only undermines the authority of higher court but prevents judiciary from being independent. Till this happens the lower courts may have to work under constraints of influence exerted by government in certain cases. The prestige of higher courts has recently been undermined by legal practitioners who have been agitating against it on the alleged ground of working under political influence. Lawyers, who are considered as officers of court, have themselves become politicised and holding demonstration and protest meetings within the premises of the Supreme Court. The working relation between courts and the lawyers has suffered a blow which does not auger well for smooth functioning of courts. Allegation of corruption and lack of required qualification brought against some judges have tarnished the image of judiciary. Irrespective of the merit of the allegations, the confidence of public in judiciary is gradually eroding. If unchecked this can be a severe blow to the state because judiciary is the last refuge of public for justice.
Government or the executive branch touches the everyday life of individuals more than the other two organs. It wields extensive powers given under law. There is frequent allegation of politicising the bureaucracy which has deleterious effect on efficiency and integrity. Being politicised, officials remain busy keeping the political bosses happy and may also have to work in a partisan manner. On the other hand, there are allegations of some officials defying the decisions taken by higher authorities. In taking decisions in important matters, particularly having financial implications, rules and regulations are alleged to be ignored. In development activities, delay in project formulation and implementation has become chronic. Last but not the least, corruption is perceived to be endemic. These failures in governance did not start with the present govt. but can be said to be gaining momentum, which is worrying. Though it is only one of the three organs of state, government having the maximum executive power and control over funds, has influence over the other organs. Its proper functioning, therefore, is of crucial importance.
Among the informal organs, print media is reasonably independent in Bangladesh. But murder and intimidation of journalists for telling the truth is causing scare and may circumscribe independence. Criticism against free press made by prominent public figures from time to time also does not contribute to press freedom. Some of the journalists and papers, on the other hand, are guilty of blindly supporting particular ideology and political parties. If print media presents a mixed picture, the electronic media is very much under the influence of the government and enjoys little freedom. It is disturbing because this media is very popular with the public.
The civil society in Bangladesh is engaged in both advocacy and active participation in socio-economic development of the disadvantaged groups. The performance of some of the NGOs in Bangladesh has been acclaimed internationally. Politicization of some of the NGOs has, however, been a cause of worry in recent time, as is their branching out into commercial activities.
The brief review of the performances of the organs of state in Bangladesh indicate that these leave much to be desired. If the present trend in the functioning and working environment of the three organs continues, it will be very difficult to stop the downward slide. The result will be, not a failed state, but a dysfunctional one with all the egregious consequences. God forbid, if that happens every actor involved in the affairs of the state will be responsible. There is still time to respond to the wakeup call.
New Age, August 14, 2005 (Published under ‘Sunday Column’).