Former Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda has come forth with a suggestion that calls for serious and purposeful discussion. The names of individuals shortlisted for the positions of CEC and Election Commissioners, he has said, should be publicized through the media in order for public scrutiny to be applied to an examination of the ability or otherwise of the nominees for the Election Commission. Coming from a person whose high reputation as CEC under the last caretaker regime remains impeccable, the idea must not be ignored. Men like Huda do not make frivolous statements. On his watch, in company with his colleagues Sakhawat Hossain and Sohul Hossain, a properly fair and transparent election was gone through by Bangladesh’s people in December 2008. That is a record not many in the history of the Election Commission have been able to equal.
The suggestion that the names of all nominees for the top positions at the Election Commission, as they appear on the shortlist, be made known to citizens has some clear advantages. In the first place, if and when the principle of a publicizing of names is accepted, it will become incumbent on the President and on the party in power to ensure that only individuals with proven careers in probity are considered for the EC. Again, once the names appear in the media, a rigorous procedure can be applied, both by the media and citizens across the board, in examining the suitability as well as the background of the individuals named on the shortlist. An additional advantage that could accrue from such a process would be a guarantee that those being considered for positions in the EC will not be swayed by their individual political preferences and will not be ready or willing, voluntarily or otherwise, to kowtow before the powers that be. In simple terms, Huda’s proposal aims at a promotion of ability and professionalism in the Election Commission.
The former CEC’s ideas quite predictably propel one into a consideration of the changes that are required in other areas. A particular region is the Anti-Corruption Commission. The general discipline and professionalism which underpinned the working of the ACC when it operated under Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury ought to be given a rethink. Since it is not in our democracy for candidates for high office to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny or hearings before their appointments can be confirmed or rejected, the best option one can fall back on is, yes, again the media. But, of course, the media too will need to be scrupulous in their assessments of the persons considered for positions in the ACC or EC or in such organizations as the National Human Rights Commission. Journalists, like everyone else, certainly have their personal take on national politics. But if it clouds their judgment in critical areas of policy, it can only exacerbate matters.
But, of course, in all these reflections relating to Shamsul Huda’s proposal and all the good that can come of it, we are speaking of an ideal situation. We notice that not much comment has been generated by the proposal; and the major political parties have maintained silence on it. That, however, does not detract from the thought that a wholesale fresh approach to the formation of bodies such as the Election Commission, given the suspicions which continue to govern ties between the major political parties, is in order. For democracy to dig deeper roots, it is important that changes take place constantly, that reforms come in all the time. And in our particular circumstances, where pluralism often remains hostage both to semi-feudalism and a culture of silence, change is the mechanism that can give democracy a meaningful push.
And where else, other than the Election Commission, do we need change? Do note that the globally accepted norm of regular cabinet reshuffles has been as good as non-existent in Bangladesh. Yes, in the tortuous course of our fragile democracy over the years, sometimes a minister or minister of state has been dropped; sometimes new ministers have been brought in. But large-scale changes, such as through shifting ministers from one office to another, have not been there. All too often, the impression has been one of ministers entering upon office for five years, and handling the same portfolio, until the next election. That is dangerous, for two reasons. First, ministerial experience is limited to just a single ministry. Second, without reshuffles, incompetent ministers preside over departments with nothing to show for it, other than platitudes, at the end.
Cabinet reshuffles testify to the dynamism of a government in the parliamentary system. Finance ministers may be moved to foreign affairs; foreign ministers may be asked to take charge of planning; agriculture ministers may be directed to take over the home ministry; local government ministers can be asked to try their hand at education. And so on and so forth. Reshuffles also do the necessary job of winnowing out the incompetent and those who have developed unsavoury reputations in the public mind. In the end, cabinet reshuffles prepare ministers for greater and wider levels of leadership through the cumulative experience they gain in presiding over different ministries. That has been the norm in the West. That can be the norm in Bangladesh.
Other changes, all in the larger public interest, can be brought into the nation’s political system. The scrutiny by parliamentary standing committees of the performance of ministries through grilling the relevant ministers will serve a definitively larger purpose if the proceedings are aired direct through the media, especially the television networks. In parliament, taboos need to be broken. All specifics related to the national budget, including the component of it earmarked for the defence sector, ought to be discussed in the public domain. Has anyone wondered, by the way, that in Bangladesh we have never had a minister holding independent charge of defence? The tradition of the head of government being in charge of the ministry of defence has always precluded the possibility of an individual minister of defence becoming part of the cabinet. It is a tradition the country should be doing away with. There surely can be no reason to think that a senior figure in a ruling party cannot be trusted to administer the ministry of defence when he can be considered for any one of the other ministries on the platter of the head of government.
And perhaps we can also begin to think in terms of amendments to Article 70 of the Constitution? To allow lawmakers to exercise their individual options, where necessary, in voting on issues relating to the public weal?
ATM Shamsul Huda has given us food for thought over the constitution of the next Election Commission. Observe what that has done to our imagination.
Imagination bodies forth, as Shakespeare told us long ago, the forms of things unknown.