About the election commission

Syed Abul Maksud | Update:

Sweet treats are a part and parcel of Bengali culture. If you pass in the exams, you treat everyone to sweets. If a marriage is arranged, sweets are exchanged among the two families. If someone gets a new job, a big chunk of his first month’s salary is spent on celebratory sweets. Diabetes be damned, its sweets all the way!

So in this society when a person is appointed as head of a constitutional institution, it can hardly be expected for anyone to wait patiently for him to take oath before bringing on the sweets.

When KM Nurul Huda was appointed chief election commissioner, a few local people’s representatives and Awami League leaders went to his home in Baufal, Patuakhali, to treat him to sweets. The newly appointed CEC told Prothom Alo, “None of them came on behalf of the party. They are local representatives of the people. Some are my close relatives, some are of my village or union. It was nothing political.”

Politics and sweets are indirectly linked, not directly. If fact, politics has an indirect link with biriyani, tehari, mutton rezala, khichhuri and all such delectable dishes. Where politics is concerned, it’s quite the norm of have all that on the eve of the election.

There is nothing wrong to treat anyone with sweets on auspicious occasions.

The sweet treat of the newly appointed CEC proves something very important. Just as it was ‘not a political matter’, it also points out the fact that none of the CEC’s close friends and relatives are of the BNP camp. That is a ‘political’ matter and significant in the political culture of the land.

Hypothetically speaking, would he be happy to partake of rasagollah and kalajam if they were brought to his home by leaders of the BNP, Jubo Dal, Chhatra Dal or JSS? The way things stand as of today, there are many persons under 50 years old who hesitate to acknowledge their father if he is a BNP supporter. On the other hand, there are others who do not hesitate to identify their anti-independence collaborator razakar fathers as valiant freedom fighters. Personal relationships, human relations, have been eroded in our society by toxic political pollution.

The events over the past two and a half months pertaining to our election commission are unprecedented anywhere in the world. What never took place in the 800 years since the king of Britain signed the Magna Carta in 1215, occurred in Bangladesh in the year 2017. The farmer in his fields or the young college boy may imagine that the election commission is something of great magnitude. There are very few people on earth who have the competence to run it. And also if the person, or anyone even among his ancestors, has any relationship whatsoever with any political party or leader, then he is disqualified.

When the search committee was frenziedly rushing hither and thither with a searchlight, I was lying in hospital. Since over the past two decades or more I have been shouting myself hoarse for fair elections, the media found it fit to ask me my views. I told them there was no dearth of wise and knowledgeable persons in the country. I was not well and who knows what nonsense I might utter, so they should excuse me. I had to pay attention to fixing my own physical health rather than that of democracy.

On a personal note one of the journalists asked me whether I would have joined the search bandwagon if summoned. I said that as citizen, that was not my responsibility. The government is to do the government’s work. If they err, a conscious citizen can point that out. But at the end of the day, it is the government which must perform its duties.

Even so, if the government consults citizens for the sake of transparency, it is the duty for those citizens to extend their cooperation. But there should not be an iota of secrecy in selecting the candidates. Had I been given the responsibility, I would have combed through the résumés of 200 or 250 retired and in-service civil, military, administrative and judicial officers. I would scrutinise their past, talk to them and then submit a brief to the president and the prime minister. It really wouldn’t matter what the ruling party or the opposition had to say about our list.

Running the election commission is not rocket science. Anyone can run the commission if they have integrity, moral strength and administrative competence. Armed with these qualities even a close relative of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, or of Khaleda Zia or Tareq Rahman, can hold a free and fair election. That might sound like an exaggeration, but I can say with all confidence that despite the shortage of competent officers, there are at least 300 civil and military officers with whom at least 60 election commissions can be formed.

An election in any country calls for a massive amount of work. And in a populous country like Bangladesh, the task is all the more onerous. But frankly speaking, there are many deputy secretaries and even upazila nirbahi officers out there who would be able to hold a good election given the chance. They have proved themselves in running many upazila polls. If an upazila election or a city corporation election can be free and fair, why not the national election?

There are obstacles in the way, but it is a good election commission’s task to remove those obstacles. It is their responsibility to make sure those musclemen on motorbikes can’t get into the polling booths to cast as many votes as they want. Five commissioners cannot ensure a fair election. They supervise it. They must keep watch on the 600,000 officers and employees involved in running the election. If the commission cannot keep the election-time government in control, then that commission is useless. The election officers tend to pay attention to the party likely to come to power after the polls and thus the election is influenced. This has happened in the past.

We often cite the example of India’s former CEC TN Seshan. He is not an individual, but simply one of the best representatives of India’s higher bureaucracy. If it was not him, it would be anyone else of his cadre who would do the job. They know their job.

I heard a lot about India’s first chief election commissioner Sukumar Sen from my fellow Gandhi-follower Ashoka Gupta. She told me that Sukumar Sen had been an ICS officer well-liked by both Gandhi and Nehru. From before independence he had contact with Congress, like many other officers. After 1947 he became West Bengal’s first chief secretary. In 1950 when Nehru summoned him to Delhi and offered him the position of CEC, he said he was willing to take up the office only if given complete independence in dispensing his duties. He would not accept any intervention from Congress persons. Nehru reportedly had said that was exactly what he wanted too. Many Congress stalwarts lost the elections under Sen, but he was the first to receive India’s Padma Bhushan award. Will we have to usher in a CEC from some other planet to get someone like Sukumar Sen?

The election commission is like any other constitutional institution. It is never to remain vacant. When the term of one ends, the other takes over. Before the new commission takes oath on 15 February, who is the CEC? Such circumstances arose in India before Seshan took over. VS Roma Devi was the CEC for two weeks before Seshan took office. This is done in keeping with the rules, not by running the commission on a whim. But then, there are many countries in the world that do not bother about constitutional obligations.

* Syed Abul Maksud is a writer and journalist. The article originally published in Prothom Alo print edition has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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