When a minister resigns in a democracy
Can the health minister avoid responsibility for the testing scam? Can he shrug off his ministry’s administrative failure that resulted in poor management of the coronavirus pandemic fight?
Health Minister Zahid Maleque should give a heartfelt thanks to BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir for demanding his resignation over the coronavirus testing scam. This may sound bizarre, but over the years there is a popular perception in the political mindset of our government, and that is, the government and the opposition party should always stand in diametrically opposite directions.
Whatever the opposition demands—be it rational or irrational—should be outright rejected by the party in power. So, the demand for the health minister's resignation by the BNP will not be met right now for sure. That demand rather may have contributed to consolidating his job as a minister. For this, therefore, Zahid Maleque should remain grateful to Mirza Fakhrul and his party, BNP.
The other thing the health minister has to tackle is the public criticism for the scam and his ministry's poor management of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. The criticism will die down gradually as time is the best healer.
During a time of an unprecedented health crisis, the incident of issuing fake virus testing certificates by two hospitals is undoubtedly a heinous crime, and a big scandal as well. This has eroded further public trust in the healthcare system that has been scrambling to contain the spread of Covid-19 for months.
Any such scandal or controversial actions of a minister sparks huge public uproar in other democracies too. The public outcry is heeded to in most cases. The politicians in those countries perhaps fear public criticism much and have little "courage" to fight the criticism.
Take some examples.
New Zealand's health minister Dr David Clark resigned two weeks ago after a series of major missteps during the coronavirus crisis which saw him draw the ire of the public.
What were his missteps?
During his country's lockdown, Clark was twice discovered breaching the strict stay-at-home rules; once by going mountain biking, and a second time when he took his family for a beach trip 23km from his Dunedin home, according to a Guardian report.
Clark apologised for both incidents, telling the prime minister, Jacinda Arden, he was an "idiot" and had shown poor judgment.
People praised the government's overall efforts to successfully contain the spread of the virus in New Zealand. But they criticised the health minister for breaching the lockdown rules.
In June, Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich resigned amid criticism from civil organisations and opposition figures for his management of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the country.
The cause for resignation of Brazil's health minister in May was different.
Nelson Teich resigned in protest against Brazil President Bolsonaro's chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic. His predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, was fired in April by Bolsonaro because of his bold stance against the president's strategy to handle the pandemic. Mandetta defended quarantine measures that several governors and mayors had imposed in mid-March to curb the spread of the pandemic. But Bolsonaro railed against them, calling them economically ruinous.
In May UK's Scotland office minister Douglas Ross resigned protesting Prime Minister Boris Johnson's refusal to remove his chief advisor Dominic Cunmings on charge of breaching lockdown rules.
How did Cummings break the lockdown rules? In March, he drove 260 miles from his London home to his parents' farm with his child and ill wife - which he explained was for childcare purposes.
At least 24 lawmakers of the ruling party called on Cummings to resign because of his actions and the damage to the government. But Johnson defended his advisor, leading to the resignation of the minister.
In the UK, resignation of a minister is not a major deal. There are numerous incidents of resignation. Whenever a minister is mired into public controversy over any of his action or whenever he finds no way to support a cabinet's decision, s/he opts for quitting his/her job as a minister.
In a democracy, this is called a minister's personal responsibility. If a minister's controversial actions or administrative failure sparks public ire, the minister apologises to the people and quits his job. Such resignation contributes in protecting the government from public outcry.
The 200 years-long British rule has left a long legacy in the Indian subcontinent - which is now divided into India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. We have learnt many things good and bad from that legacy. But our politicians have learnt little about a minister's personal responsibility practiced in the UK, the birth place of the Westminster model of democracy. That is why incidents of resignation of a minister are rare in this region.
Yet, there are some exceptions. Some politicians with high integrity and strong sense of dignity have set examples.
Take Indian Railway Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. In 1956, he had offered his resignation after a railway accident that led to 112 deaths. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not accept it. Three months later, he resigned accepting moral and constitutional responsibility for another accident that left 114 people dead.
Nehru did not refuse the second time. While speaking in Parliament on the incident, Nehru stated that he was accepting the resignation because it would set an example in constitutional propriety and not because Shastri was in any way responsible for the accident.
Shastri's unprecedented gesture was greatly appreciated by the citizens. He returned to the cabinet in 1957 and was made the prime minister after Nehru died in office in 1964.
In a parliamentary democracy, a minister bears the ultimate responsibility for every action of his ministry or department. Does our health minister bear that ultimate responsibility for every action of his ministry and departments under it?
Beside the testing scam and his ministry's failure to lead the battle against the virus efficiently, he himself has misguided the government. On January 27 when coronavirus began ravaging China and had already affected Japan and South Korea, he assured the countrymen that there was nothing to worry about as no such virus patient had yet been detected in Bangladesh.
"We are working so that the virus cannot enter Bangladesh," he said at an inter-ministerial meeting. "The government is fully ready to face the situation even if the virus infects anyone."
But after the first detection of a case of infection in early March, the hollowness of his assurance that "the government is fully ready to face the situation" was exposed. The health agency could not ram up testing, which has been recognized globally as an effective tool to fight the virus. Healthcare workers have started decrying the shortage of personal protective gears. More than five dozen doctors have died of Covid-19 as the virus terrorised the healthcare sector, alongside the people. The fragile health care system is still scrambling to contain the spread of the virus.
In a letter to the health minister in June, Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA) held the ministry squarely responsible for the fast spreading infection from Covid-19 among doctors and nurses. In its view, supply of low quality masks, hastily and technically defective intensive care units and inadequate training of doctors are responsible for the health workers getting infected.
After exposure of the testing scam, the health minister has tried to pass the buck on the health directorate, which is under the control of his ministry. He has tried to shrug off his responsibility over signing an agreement with the two health institutes led by Shahed and Dr. Sabrina.
He even claimed that he was unaware of the agreement. But the photo that went viral on social media shows that the minister was present in the agreement signing ceremony.
Can he avoid his responsibility for the testing scam? Can he shrug off his ministry's administrative failure that resulted in poor management of the coronavirus pandemic fight?
In a true democracy, the things politicians hate to face, and fear much, is public outcry against them or their ministry's actions. If a politician can digest criticism without hesitation, he can survive. Failure puts pressure on him to quit.