The new cabinet has taken oath on the 11th of January, 2024. And it already has a lot of challenges to take care of.
The election has taken place. People have voted. A new government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in office. The cabinet is a combination of old faces and new. A good number of individuals holding office in the pre-election government have been axed, with new individuals brought in.
The country has a new foreign minister and a new finance minister as well as an environment and climate change minister. The public expectation is that the new cabinet will deliver, that the accumulated issues of the recent past will be swiftly and firmly dealt with, the better for democracy to come by new substance.
And since democracy is always a moving spectacle, improving and refining itself with the passage of time, the hope is that the twelfth parliament will solidify democracy in the country, that people’s aspirations will be acknowledged and brought to fruition. Rhetoric is not what the nation will look for but concrete action aimed at improving the conditions of citizens. The government must hit the ground running.
With public welfare being a huge question, it is to the market the government must focus attention. Appeals to traders not to raise prices have never worked before and will not work now. With Ramadan ahead, it should be for the new cabinet to formulate a principled framework of the economy that will not depend on the whims of traders but will move along prescribed pathways. It does not comfort anyone that immediately after the election, prices of essential goods shot up again.
The lesson ought not to be forgotten: public happiness rests on citizens’ affordability of rice and all other ingredients which constitute a good, nourishing meal for them. The new government in office must bear this truth in mind as it exercises authority over the country. Sending in magistrates to ensure prices are kept normal and immediately after for traders to revert to their notoriety of having prices go through the roof is poor management of the market. The government needs to recognise this ugly truth. It has to crack down, without pity, on the syndicates controlling goods and prices.
And then comes the question of internal security, of law and order. New plans for training of the police and other security agencies, the objective being to aid citizens in distress, are called for. The inauguration of a culture where citizens are not afraid of the police but are persuaded into believing that the police are truly out there to help them in a resolution of their problems ought to be a priority for the new government. A professional police force — and other forces — is a paramount need in the task of a consolidation of democracy in the country.
In the next five years, professionalism will be expected to underscore the institutions of the state. A growth of institutions and their strengthening day after day convinces citizens that those who administer the country and enforce policies are there to serve them and thereby serve the state. That is the principle which the government needs to reinforce, the idea that will have people believe they are part of a state structure where justice and rule of law are inviolable, where the politically and economically powerful are unable to undermine the rights of citizens. Depoliticising institutions is an imperative.
Arbitrary action by the government on any issue will need to be abjured. Arrests of and legal proceedings against individuals and groups must be based on a clear, well-defined study of circumstances. The law must be applied equally to all. Citizens must not feel that it is being weaponised in the interest of those who would manipulate politics in their narrow selfish ends. In simple terms, rule of law will require to be applied in its wider interpretation in order for citizens to feel that persecution — of individuals, groups, political organisations — is not being exercised.
Rights bodies, civil society, the media, et cetera, may not always be right in their assessments of social and political conditions in the country. But they need to be heard, which is as much as suggesting that the state must guarantee their right to be heard without fear of legal prosecution. That is the essence of democracy. When such rights come under pressure or are threatened with retaliation, parliament should take upon itself the task of inquiring into the matter in a manner that is non-partisan and in line with the constitution.
Parliament in its new term must be the authentic voice of the people. Its various standing committees should reinforce the idea that the public interest is above every other consideration, that when infractions of the law occur and citizens are up against hurdles to a normal pursuit of life, those who violate the law and cause sufferings to people will be hauled before them to respond to the allegations against them.
On the diplomatic front, the government will be expected to assert itself firmly and clearly in its dealings with the outside world. That Bangladesh’s internal affairs are beyond the pale of foreign interference is the message that should go out to the world from Dhaka. Bangladesh’s engagement with foreign nations must solidly be based on its national interests, given that its economic base is today a benchmark of its standing in the world.
And corruption? The government requires to chalk out a clear blueprint on how it means to go about the job of identifying the corrupt — even within its corridors — and publicly dismantling the edifice of malfeasance they have built. Laundering money abroad, buying homes overseas, grabbing property in the country, not paying back bank loans are among the problems which will test the resolve of the authorities in the matter of their resolution.
The election is over. The polling stations closed days ago. The priority now is unmistakable: those holding public office must get down to business. The message from citizens is loud and clear and without ambiguity: now get down to governing!
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.