A matter of ministerial priorities

“When non-politicians are given positions in the cabinet, embarrassments often happen,” writes Syed Badrul Ahsan

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 20 August 2022, 09:33 PM
Updated : 20 August 2022, 09:43 PM

The series of gaffes coming from Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen underscores a basic truth about parliamentary democracy -- that when non-politicians are given positions in the cabinet, embarrassments often happen.

And now we have the sorry spectacle of AK Momen letting the country know of his request to the Indian government -- that it must do everything to ensure that Sheikh Hasina’s government stays in power.

A firestorm of condemnation has arisen all across the country, and predictably too. It has left the government, the foreign minister’s cabinet colleagues and especially the prime minister deeply embarrassed. What happens to or about Momen’s future is something we will have to wait to see.

Roads and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader has made his discomfiture with Momen’s remarks known. That is but natural. But when Quader would have us know that what the foreign minister said in Chittagong was an expression of his personal opinion, we beg to differ.

For those who hold high office and therefore represent the state at home and abroad, going personal with their views is simply not done. Ministers can make statements of a personal nature when they cease to be ministers; and as long as they stay in the cabinet, it is for them to understand and follow the ages-old convention -- that ministerial statements are reflective of government policy.

In the present instance, Momen’s words were not those of the government. That raises the question of why ministers should speak of subjects without clearing them in the cabinet and with the prime minister. Democracy entails conditions where ministers focus on their portfolios and put their best into their work by providing good, strong and inspirational leadership to the bureaucrats serving under them.

Words that are not thought through only leave the personnel in the ministries they preside over in a state of confusion, to say nothing of embarrassment. When ministers speak without considering the ramifications of their statements, it is the respect of their administrative subordinates they lose.

Democracy entails conditions where ministers focus on their portfolios and put their best into their work by providing good, strong and inspirational leadership to the bureaucrats serving under them.

The foreign minister’s newest gaffe should be a point where ministerial behaviour ought to change in this country. As a general rule, a good number of ministers in Bangladesh spend little time in their workplaces and instead are seen to be happy to be speaking at seminars and conferences day after day.

They are invited by the ubiquity of people and organisations whose entire motive is to add glamour to their programmes by having ministers grace the stage. And ministers often accept those invitations with alacrity.

When ministers happily agree to inaugurate a conference, attend a seminar or address a social gathering, it is the files back in their office rooms which get piled up on their in-trays. That is damaging to the state, indeed to the people of the country.

When a minister moves out of his office and makes his way to an event, a bevvy of officials, such as the secretary and senior officials of his ministry, accompany him. The ministry is thus left rather desolate. The services required to be provided to citizens are therefore absent.

Such a picture needs to change drastically. In no properly functioning democracy, parliamentary or presidential, are ministers ubiquitous by attendance at events outside their workplaces.

In India, Japan and Australia and New Zealand and the West, it is once in a long time that one spots ministers speaking in public -- and that too on subjects which touch upon the interests of the electorate.

Our ministers do not have to ensure their constant presence before the media and appear on television for reasons that are anything but serious. Policies formulated by ministries or objectives laid out by ministries can easily be made known to the general public by official spokespersons of the ministries.

Ministers will be doing a creditable job if they make sure that their office corridors remain free of the media unless there are cogent reasons for reporters and cameramen to be there.

The bottom line: ministers should spend time in their offices poring over policy and its implementation. Their priorities should always be putting up a good performance in doing the tasks allotted to them. It is in parliament that they should provide updates on their ministries.

Spending time outside, speaking at conferences and meetings where they do not have to be, indeed for them to try to be everywhere pushes the country into a state of sloth.

Ministers ought to rise above such less than lofty thoughts.

Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics and diplomacy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of editors or bdnews24.com and its owners.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher