Bureaucratic Elitism in Bangladesh: The Predominance of Generalist Administrators

Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007developed in an environment of social, political and economic uncertainty helped
reinforce elitism. While they may differ structurally and in their modes of operation,
the bureaucracies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh manifest some common
attributes of elitism that have wide implications for governance and development.
Against the backdrop of some theoretical postulates, this brief article focuses on
the generalist civil service corps in Bangladesh (the Administrative Cadre of the
Bangladesh Civil Service, or BCS), which has assumed an elitist position within the
bureaucracy and in the structure of government. It looks at the genesis, growth and
continuity of the elitist culture in the bureaucracy, bureaucratic autonomy, elite
integration versus differentiation, the nature of elite recruitment and enculturation,
elite indoctrination, elitist inputs into the policy process, and failed efforts in making
Elitism in Developing Societies
The term ‘elite’ has been variously defined and explained. Simply put, an ‘elite’,
composed of a small band of individuals enjoying superior status in the political
system, ‘performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the
advantages that power brings’ (Mosca, 1939: 50). Elites or their key segments exploit
all possible opportunities to directly or indirectly influence the national decision-
making process and also determine the conditions within which societal problems are
resolved (Putnam, 1976: 11). They, thus, play a significant role in political life (cited
in Putnam, 1976: 3). In large bureaucracies, such as in government, the power to
decide key issues of governance usually is wielded by a small band of generalist
administrators. This norm is akin to Michels’ (1962) ‘iron law of oligarchy’.
In the political context, elites are the product of an unequal distribution of political
power in society, which is dichotomised into two distinct categories*the ruler
(elites) and the ruled (the people). In the elitepeople nexus, elites always have the
upper hand in formulating the terms of their relationships with the general mass of
people*the politically powerless*in matters of national interest. While, within the
pyramid of power, there may be several segmented elites or groups (the influential,
activists, or the attentive public (Putnam, 1976: 1112), the strategic or power elites
‘are the prime movers and models for the entire society’ (Keller, 1968: 26).
An elite, in essence, represents an exclusive portion of society, is internally
homogenous, coherent and self-conscious and values common interests in the
preservation of the status quo and the consolidation of its power position (Meisel,
1962: 4; Putnam, 1976: 4). While there may be various genres of elites in society, not
all may exercise the same degree of influence in the authoritative allocation of values.
Some may have greater access to the nucleus of political power and wider compass to
shape state policies and control their execution in both the public and private
domain; others may be adjunct to these influential elites and therefore of lesser
significance but, nonetheless, having some bearing on social and political life.
162 H. Zafarullah
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007Undeniably, bureaucratic elites command enormous institutional power, the state
institutions providing them ‘the necessary bases of power, of wealth, and of prestige,
and at the same time, the chief means of exercising power, of acquiring and retaining
wealth, and of cashing in the higher claims for prestige’ (Mills, 2000: 9). Such
motivations may lead to abuse of authority, administrative malevolence, venality and
malfeasance, derision of social and political controls, protection of elite interests and
alienation from the public. The hazards of bureaucratism and bureaucratic elitism are
many, despite many positive features in modern bureaucracies. At times, an elitist
bureaucracy may not adequately ‘perform its instrumental and constitutive roles well’
thereby failing ‘to fulfill its trust’ (Warner, 2001) and losing its legitimacy to serve the
public interest. Values such as ‘conservatism, caution, scepticism, elitism, a touch of
arrogance and, too often, a deeply-held belief that the business of government can be
fully understood only by government professionals’ (Plowden, 1994: 74) are deeply
held by institutional bureaucracies and make them adopt elitist postures and pursue
parochial interests. Assuming themselves as the cre`me de la cre`me of society, these
bureaucrats often transcend their stipulated boundaries and roles, expand their
jurisdictions, seek to impose their entrenched values and encroach into the political
arena. (Weber, 1978: 217226; Beetham, 1996: 5085).
The higher public bureaucracy in a developing society is one instance of elite that
has substantial sway in the governing of the state. It, in fact, is a strategic elite
performing policy making, articulation, application and evaluative functions and its
members hold elitist status not on the basis of ascriptive attributes but on merit and
acquired specialist skills. They are appointed rather than elected and may directly
influence the processes that regulate their recruitment, development and career
management. The developmental and nation-building initiatives of the state in the
post-colonial period proliferated administrative agencies and increased the number
of public officials for managing them. Political institutions being relatively weak, the
bureaucracy, because of its differentiated structure and predominance of achievement
criteria, assumed significance as a more modernised institution capable of effecting
social and economic change (Huntington, 1968: 91, 167). This enhanced its
functional status, reinforced its autonomy and gave it more power either to use in
a constructive mode or abuse it for group or individual gain.
The underlying reasons for bureaucratic dominance in government and politics,
particularly the policy process, are related to civil servants’ educational attainments,
their so-called professional expertise in discerning and handling problems, politi-
cians’ reliance on officialdom for overseeing the large array of development
programmes, their social status and ‘neutral’ approach towards governance, their
security of tenure and continuity despite political changes and the bureaucracy’s
‘relative power as a political institution’ (Smith, 2003: 159164). But such dominance
may be self-defeating for the bureaucracy and counterproductive in achieving its
primary objectives: rationality in decision-making, efficient administrative perfor-
mance and effective delivery of public services. The resultant imbalance with other
political institutions may cause adverse impact on society and economy (Riggs,
Asian Journal of Political Science 163
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 20071964). Arguably, the elitist stance of the higher bureaucracy has served as a deterrent
to political institutionalisation in developing nations. On the other hand, in many
countries, the bureaucracy ‘became an instrument of political mobilization and
patronage, blocking the development of ‘‘neutral competence’’. The public employ-
ment system was itself used as a resource to be distributed to followers and the
winners of the electoral game, and, as a consequence, civil service systems became
heavily politicized’ (United Nations, 2005: 9).
The administrative system in Bangladesh (post-independence in 1971) that went
through a period of consolidation in Pakistan (19471971) continued with an
overdeveloped bureaucracy reminiscent of British colonial rule. Bureaucratic
dominance was the appendage of an administrative culture that nurtured elitism
that was supported in large measure by the military. As one noted scholar, Alavi
(1972: 61), argues: the state was ‘enmeshed in bureaucratic controls by which those at
the top of the hierarchy of the bureaucraticmilitary apparatus of the state [were]
able to maintain and even extend their dominant power in society’. Rather than being
attuned to the needs of an emerging democracy in a sovereign country, the
bureaucracy saw itself as an elite institution with an unalienable prerogative to govern
or influence governance (Ahamad, 1980; Khan and Zafarullah, 1982b).
The Elitist Tradition in Bangladesh
The public bureaucracy in Bangladesh is constituted of discrete functional cadres of
whom the Administrative Cadre is the premier elite corps. Its roots lie in the Civil
Service of Pakistan (CSP), which itself had its origins in the Indian Civil Service
(ICS)*the ‘steel-frame’ of British colonial rule. Like its forebears, it largely conforms
to the structural attributes of the Weberian bureaucratic model*open competitive
recruitment system based on academic achievement, elaborate and structured post-
entry and in-service training procedures, a promotion process mainly premised on
the seniority criterion, a graduated salary structure with regular increments not
linked to performance, attractive perquisites, frequent rotation between departments,
well-designed post-retirement pension packages and so on (see Etzioni-Halevy, 1985:
2829, for explanations on these criteria).
The bureaucratic temperament of the Administrative Cadre is an echo of the past.
Like the CSP that maintained a ‘closed arena in which norms were circulated and
recirculated’ during the Pakistan period (Braibanti, 1966: 253), this elite corps shields
itself from horizontal integration (i.e. lateral induction into its ranks) and strictly
adheres to the principles of vertical integration through a circumspect promotion
process that permits only its own members to advance on the career ladder. This
vertical elite integration has helped to generate and sustain ‘esprit, morale and
self-confidence’ among its constituents which, as Robins (1976: 192) argues in a
theoretical context, gives them an opportunity to share a background that ‘assures
a high level of similar socialization and produces the personal ties and knowledge that
a well-integrated organization encourages’. The two military regimes’1 experiments to
164 H. Zafarullah
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007induct people from the barracks into high administrative positions miscarried due to
the annoyance factor impinging upon elite behaviour as well as the divergence
between the attitudes and operative skills of cadre personnel and those of the military
appointees. For similar reasons, there has been little mobility between the
Administrative Cadre and other functional groups.
Until 1977, this generalist elite cadre was ‘informally’ composed of the remnants of
the CSP, the old East Pakistan Civil Service (EPCS) and new officers recruited soon
after independence in 1971. It was not, for all intents and purposes, a systematically
organised civil service cadre but a loose conglomeration of officials occupying
generalist positions. Such structural incoherence was the upshot of a deliberate design
of the incumbent government suffering from a kind of bureaucratic phobia. It
attempted to disrobe the bureaucracy of its powers and deny it the indomitable
position it embraced before independence. The former CSP and EPCS groups were
intentionally kept at loggerheads by creating tensions within their respective ranks.
Elements within them supportive of the ruling party were unduly patronised with
accelerated promotions and outsiders were placed in key administrative positions
previously the preserve of CSPs (Zafarullah, 2003). Rifts between the two groups
emerged on the question of the future composition of the elite cadre. The CSPs
coveted the restoration of their lost position in the power hierarchy and made
concerted moves to recreate their group as the ‘nucleus’ of the bureaucracy and
operate as a ‘meritocratic model’ for other functional cadres. On the other hand, the
EPCS, unwilling to accept the hegemony of the CSPs, was overly zealous to capture
the leadership of the bureaucracy (CSP Association, 1977; Zafarullah and Khan,
With common interests at stake, however, the CSP and the EPCS groups sought
refuge in compromises and conciliations; both had more to gain from a solid alliance
than fighting over leadership issues. With the formal merging of the two generalist
factions into a unified cadre along with the post-independence recruits in the mid-
1970s, a formidable elite cadre vis-a`-vis other functional services in the Bangladesh
bureaucracy emerged. It now had the numbers and the strategic locations to influence
policy making and public administration. Its senior incumbents were placed in major
positions in the governmental hierarchy as they advised the political executive,
formulated national development plans, coordinated policy exercises at the highest
levels, controlled civil service management and, most significantly, regulated
administrative changes (Khan and Zafarullah, 1982a).
Bureaucratic Autonomy
The Bangladesh civil service displays the hallmarks of an institutionalised bureau-
cracy. Over a long period of time, the bureaucracy as an exclusive entity and its
methods and practices acquired acceptance and stability in society though its value
system may not always have interlocked with those of the political elite or the general
public. The bureaucracy’s values, goals and social relationships have facilitated its
Asian Journal of Political Science 165
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007institutionalisation and conditioned its transactions with other institutions in society.
Frequent regime breakdowns in the past and dismal performance by successive
political leadership unwittingly compelled the people to rely on the more ‘durable’
bureaucracy. Historically, sarkari daftars (government offices) and their incumbents
are more familiar to the common citizens than sangshad (parliament). Village folks,
for instance, can easily relate themselves to the more visible local council officers than
their chosen parliamentary representatives who prefer to live away from their
With its distinctiveness as a special social group, the bureaucracy maintains itself as
a subsystem with pronounced autonomy. A permanent career with scope for
continued advancement affords bureaucrats opportunities to effectively utilise their
expertise, specialisation and professionalism in the governing process. There is a
general conviction among a large number of civil servants about their ‘capability’.
While they do not champion themselves as guardians of the public interest, they
firmly believe that the bureaucracy can better manage the problems of the country
and that administrative decisions they make should be insulated from political
considerations (Zafarullah, 1991; Jamil, 1998). This disdain for politicians and their
legitimate role is engendered by bureaucrats’ fancy of themselves as the highly
specialised exclusive source of policy advice and guidance for the government and
their ‘proven’ experience and proficiency in accomplishing policy goals. They are
explicit about playing the key role in policy formulation and their desire for absolute
discretion in implementing them (Zafarullah, 1991).
Integration vs. Differentiation
One may argue that the entire BCS is an elite or, to be more specific, constituted of
sub-elites and taken together form an exclusive privileged group in society. All civil
servants, recruited through a single competitive examination, granted similar pay
scales and assured the same kind of retirement benefits, gain from a permanent
lifelong career. Inducted to a rank rather than specific positions, they are completely
protected from job losses arising from political, administrative or economic reasons.
The Administrative Cadre, even so, is more elitist by virtue of its members being
consistently placed in positions of authority at various levels and in a variety of
organisations*ministries, statutory authorities, executive agencies and local govern-
ment. By the mid-1990s, with regular intakes since 1977, membership of the
Administrative Cadre, according to one estimate (Khan, 1998: 51), increased to over
6,000 but it was only 17.23% of the total strength of the BCS. In recent times,
Administrative Cadre personnel have occupied over 75% of all positions of deputy
secretary and above (Hulme and O’Donovan, 1995: 3). This imbalance in favour of
the generalist administrators gives them an effective foothold on the operations of
The principal coordinating bodies in the governmental structure are virtually
manned and managed by members of this cadre. The training establishments,
166 H. Zafarullah
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007including those assigned for the other cadres, are invariably under the control of the
Establishment Ministry*the exclusive domain of Administrative Cadre people.
The top ranks in public enterprises are generally filled by officers of this cadre, as
are the chief executive positions in districts and sub-districts. Even during the period
of ‘bureaucratic despondency’2 immediately after independence, elite cadre repre-
sentation at the highest echelons in statutory bodies was significant (Sobhan and
Ahmed, 1980: 535).
The Senior Services Pool, created in 1979, was another manifestation of bureau-
cratic elitism. Ostensibly, the idea was to open the higher ranks of administration for
members of all cadres but its initial composition exposed the scheme as an ingenious
contrivance to benefit the former CSP and EPCS officers. Of the 523 officers encadred
into the Pool, only three were non-generalist officers (Khan and Zafarullah, 1982b:
171). In 1979, for instance, the CSP/EPCS officers occupied over 65% of all top
positions (deputy secretary to secretary) in the national secretariat while members of
the other 28 cadres shared the rest (Ali, 1993: 2223). This situation still persists but
to a lesser extent.
The domination of the Administrative Cadre in civil service management has
extended to a point where generalist executives benefit as preferred contenders for
higher administrative positions even in agencies involved in technical work. What is
more, they invariably get the upper hand in obtaining accelerated promotions
compared to specialists and professionals in other cadres. They also get preference
over others in gaining selection for overseas training, as members of government
delegation or prime ministerial entourage abroad and as the country’s official
nominees for positions in international organisations. This has been the sticking
point in the specialistgeneralist dispute that has been raging for over two decades
now (Zafarullah and Khan, 2001). The civil service remains fragmented with little
scope for reconciliation between contending forces*the generalist administrators
and the specialists/professionals, with the former unwilling to accommodate the rest
within their fold. Within the Administrative Cadre, elite integration is strong, while
there is wide differentiation between this group and other cadres.
Elite Recruitment and Enculturation
At independence, the elite cadre was made up of 588 former CSP (31.9%) and EPCS
(68.1%) officers. Of them, the majority represented the greater Dhaka, Comilla,
Sylhet and Noakhali districts (GOB, 1977). The former CSP officers were mainly
educated at the University of Dhaka, the premier tertiary institution in the eastern
part of Pakistan. Many of them had excellent academic credentials that encouraged
them to serve as university and college teachers before entering the civil service.
Indeed, they were ‘well-qualified by training and personality’ being selected by ‘a
fairly rigid examining and screening process’ (Braibanti, 1966: 275) and were highly
metropolitan in their outlook and urbanised in their work ethics. Generally, they
Asian Journal of Political Science 167
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007came from well-to-do middle class families and were progenies of parents in a variety
of occupations including government service.
Since the commencement of civil service examination in the late-1970s, the
premier University of Dhaka has been the largest source of recruitment to the BCS, in
general, and the Administrative Cadre, in particular. The other general universities
are remotely behind. As an example, in the 18th BCS examination, 60% of the
positions reserved for the cadre went to graduates of Dhaka University (PSC, 1998:
79; Ali, 2002; 198). This trend has continued and the obvious reason for this is
the preference of the ‘best performers’ in the higher secondary examinations for the
oldest and arguably the ‘most prestigious’ university in the country. Of course, the
‘brightest’ among them also choose the technical and professional institutions
(e.g. engineering universities/institutes and medical colleges) but later they may enter
the technical cadres of the BCS.
An interesting departure from the trend in erstwhile (pre-1971) Pakistan has been
noticeable in the recruitment process in Bangladesh. While the CSP was the most
preferred service before independence, today other functional cadres appear to have
more appeal than before among university graduates. There is no reliable data to
discern the reasons for this ‘decline’ in interest for the elite cadre but there is a
common assumption that positions affording more pecuniary benefits, even if
unethically obtained, are more attractive than those providing more power and
authority. Thus, more candidates prefer the Customs, Police or Taxation Cadres than
those that offer fewer opportunities for unfair ventures (Aminuzzaman, 1996).
Another noticeable trend in recent years has been the small number of
Administrative Cadre appointees obtaining the top ten positions in the civil service
examinations. The performance of Foreign Service Cadre appointees has been far
superior to their counterparts in the Administrative Cadre (PSC, 1998: 7576). This,
however, does not suggest that the cadre is losing its ‘prestige’ with the new
generation especially those endowed with academic flair. It still retains its ability to
pull the ‘best and brightest’ as evinced by the large number of science, engineering,
medical and agricultural graduates opting for this cadre.3 Between 1986 and 1992, of
all such graduates sitting the civil service examinations, 31.68% chose the
Administrative Cadre as their first preference. This orientation has not changed in
recent years (PSC, 1994, 2001, 2005) mainly because of the guaranteed domination of
the highest echelons of the governmental structure by the Administrative Cadre.
Elite Indoctrination
The former CSP officers had their post-entry training at the Civil Service Academy
(CSA) in Lahore in (West) Pakistan under the ‘influence of the best in the ICS
tradition’ (Braibanti, 1966: 246) while the EPCS officers had their initiation at the
Gazetted Officers Training Academy (GOTA) in Dhaka. The CSP officers embarked
on their long career as subdivisional officers in the peri-urban areas with executive
authority over local administration. The EPCS officers, on the other hand, began at
168 H. Zafarullah
Downloaded By: [University of New England, Armidale] At: 05:37 17 September 2007lower positions also at the local level and were subordinate to the CSPs. At the CSA,
the new CSP recruits were imparted training to tune them up as future elitist
administrators. Apart from rigorous academic exercises, the accent on ‘sartorial
splendor’*Westernised social elegance, horse riding, cricket and tennis*were
instrumental in isolating them from the larger society and had deep impact on the
way they related to the common people (Braibanti, 1966: 291292). While the
training system in Bangladesh today is not as splendorous as before, the enculturation
process within the Administrative Cadre until the recent past was influenced by the
presence of former CSP officers, who played as role models, and had considerable
sway in constructing the mindset of their junior associates.
The BCS Administration Academy is the cadre’s own training organisation. Its
mission, inter alia, is to augment incumbent officers’ ‘professional efficiency and
competence’ and to inculcate in them a sense of discipline, responsibility and
commitment ‘with balanced development of body and mind’ (BCSAA, 2000). New
entrants, however, are exposed to this Academy later in their career. They normally
undertake their compulsory foundation training at the Public Administration
Training Centre along with newcomers of all other cadres. Even though this provides
a unique opportunity for the generalist probationers to socialise with their
equivalents in other cadres, it also causes distinctiveness to surface. By permitting
cadre-based corporate groupings to emerge, the precise notion of integrated training
is lost. It is the beginning of the process of indoctrinating the future generalist
administrators with the ethos of elitism (Zafarullah and Khan, 1988).
Elasticised Policy Process
Despite the reinstatement of democratic rule in 1991, the policy arena continues to be
dominated by members of the Administrative Cadre who conceive and develop
policies, implement and administer them and even undertake their evaluation and
impact assessment. The scope for non-state actors such as interest groups and civil
society organisations to contribute to policy making is severely limited, and
legislators are circumspect in playing their appropriate role largely due to strict
party discipline enforced in parliament. The latter simply endorsed policies contrived
by bureaucrats under the behest of the executive during ‘democratic’ rule between
1991 and 2006 (UNDP, 1993; Khasru, 1998; Khan, 2006). Ideas emerging from policy
communities rarely, if ever, enter the policy formulation discourse and their
‘involvement’ is purely pretence rather than a serious exercise in participatory policy
While the ruling party and its leadership may have had their own political agenda
for execution, the choice among policy alternatives was significantly influenced by
higher level bureaucrats located at the Prime Minister’s Office or key ministries such
as Finance and Establishment. These places are invariably and conspicuously
inhabited by members of the generalist Administrative Cadre and they play the
crucial role in advising their ministers about policy options.