Sunday, October 22, 2006

Should Dr Yunus enter politics?

Published in The New Age, October 22, 2006

The mainstream political parties, by their destructive politics, have set the stage for a third force that the people have been expectantly talking about for quite sometime now. Who else can be better than Dr Yunus as that third force? asks M Serajul Islam

After nearly a week of celebrations following Dr Yunus and Grameen Bank’s Nobel Prize winning feat, that has resonated in the hearts of all Bangladeshis the same spirit that brought them together in 1971, an element of controversy has been introduced when the Nobel laureate told newsmen before leaving Dhaka on an overseas trip to South Korea and Japan on the 18th of October that he is thinking about forming a political party. The news has taken the people by surprise, bringing hopes in their hearts while the politicians have reacted sharply, some with very critical views while the civil society has stayed in between, advising Dr Yunus to remain above politics and use his stature to influence politics.

Dr Yunus won the Nobel Prize at a very critical moment for the country. An air of deep despondency grips the public mind, created by the deep impasse into which the two mainstream political parties have pushed the country. While the BNP and the AL had started negotiating a settlement before October 13th, the stand taken by the by the prime minister and Sheikh Hasina had not initially held out much hope that a settlement was near. The general feeling in the public mind was the country was fast moving towards a serious confrontation and civil disorder. After Dr Yunus won the Nobel Prize, there has been a spontaneous mood shift and the people now feel that the impact of the Prize would be positive upon politics and a confrontation would be avoided.

Initially, the speculation in public mind has been that Dr Yunus would be chief adviser of the next caretaker government and use that position to hold a free and fair election to move the country away from the path of doom set by the politicians. They were encouraged to think that way because the BNP and the AL were giving optimistic signs of a settlement, no doubt under pressure of the Prize. Dr Yunus himself dispelled that speculation, aware that the main problem in our politics cannot not be resolved merely by holding a free and fair election but by getting honest and competent individuals to contest in the elections. Without such individuals in politics, the Nobel Laureate felt that even after a free and fair election, the politics of confrontation and corruption would again dominate when the new government assumed office. The latest round of uncompromising statements coming from top leadership of the BNP and the AL no doubt proves Dr Yunus right about bringing a qualitative change in the character of politicians.

Those who have followed Dr Yunus and his works closely and know him well were therefore not surprised by the Nobel laureate’s nonchalant response on October 18th at Dhaka Airport to newsmen who reminded him that it would not be possible to bring honest and competent individuals to contest in the elections unless they are part of the political process. Dr Yunus gave them a very simple answer that if is what is required, he would form a political party to bring such individuals into politics.

The magic about Dr Yunus is that he speaks of the most profound problems in the simplest words that even an illiterate villager in Bangladesh can understand. Dr Yunus is a visionary and his simple words are part of his continuous vision for resolution of his country’s problems. Thus, his desire to form a political party to get honest men into politics is a very serious matter for him and though spoken very simply and casually, it is portent with great possibilities for the country. It would be worthwhile therefore to examine these possibilities. A starting point for such examination could be to examine first the reaction that this call by Dr Yunus has caused among the stakeholders, the political parties, the civil society and the people of Bangladesh.

While the people have rejoiced spontaneously in a manner that reminded them of 16th December 1971, the Prize has equally spontaneously shown the political parties in a contrasting light as if the Prize has pushed them against the wall. The two mainstream parties have felt this the most. Therefore naturally the politicians who were feeling the heat with Dr Yunus outside politics have naturally felt apprehension on hearing his desire to entire their domain not to join them but to challenge them. The political leaders who have spoken on the issue have been courteous to the extent of suggesting that everybody has a right to form a political party while at the same time sparing no opportunity to remind him that politics is not as easy as wishing and becoming one; that the process is much more complicated; and one of them has suggested that there is a ‘depoliticisation trap’ that he must get out from to become a politician. Another politician has expressed almost contempt in a Bangla phrase that cannot be translated into English without losing the bite by saying ‘puran pagolay bhat pai na; natun pagol jutay chay’ to dismiss Dr Yunus’ desire. HM Ershad, who has the longest link with politics and knows its nature better than most of the contemporary politicians, said that Dr Yunus should not join politics which has become very dirty and he will himself become questionable if he joins politics. Clearly, among the politicians, Dr Yunus’ interest to form a political party has caused a sense of alarm. Dr Yunus has put the politicians on dock and he has articulated the feeling of disappointment and distrust that prevails in the public about the politicians because of the way they have been pushing the country towards a catastrophe.

The civil society has not lagged behind in their comments to try to make Dr Yunus’ call controversial. They have followed the same tone, though less critical, in the way they have reacted. While not taking the risk to reject the call outright, they have cautioned Dr Yunus about the pitfalls, suggesting to him that he would be able to serve the country better by staying outside and using his stature to influence politics. As a result of the mess made by the politicians, the civil society has recently thrown its hat into politics and has drawn a lot of public attention. One cannot escape the members of the civil society and their views as they can been seen harping these regularly on newspapers, TV talk shows without succeeding even a bit in putting sense into the political parties to give up their confrontational politics. For most members of the civil societies, Dr Yunus’ Nobel Prize has taken a lot of this focus away from them and therefore they feel uncomfortable with his desire to enter politics which should explain their reaction.

The sentiment among the people has been different altogether. In fact, the call has been welcomed by them with great hope and expectation. Dr Yunus’ Noble Prize has come to them like an answer to their prayer to Almighty to save them from the doom towards which the politicians have been leading them. To them, the ‘depoliticisation trap’ is inconsequential. They cannot worry less about the problems of forming a political party; the difficulties in the process and whatever else goes with that. They feel that Dr Yunus is their messiah, who can deliver them from the professional politicians who are holding their future as hostage.

In Bangladesh, it is a simple matter to form a political party. This is a country that tops the world in the number of political parties that are registered to function as such. Awami League has 13 as allies and the BNP has 3. Then there are many others who are not part of these alliances. Most recently, Colonel Wali has expressed his intention to form a new political party. Badrudozza Chowdhury, after being forced out of office as president, formed the Bikolpo Dhara. True, these political parties have been formed by professional politicians but then many of them, Badrudozza Chowdhury for instance, was a doctor who entered politics at the top hierarchy. Therefore, in Bangladesh the idea of forming a political party is not a matter that should have brought from some of our top leadership the type of reaction that we have seen with the call by Dr Yunus. Their reaction can be explained by the fact that they feel very seriously threatened.

If Dr Yunus forms the party can he succeed? It is a difficult one to answer as there is no clear precedent similar to what Dr Yunus intends to do to make a prediction. An analogy, though not a perfect one, is our history after 1969 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s charisma and the objective conditions existing then allowed the Awami League to catapult from a major party in then East Pakistan to being the only one winning 167 of 169 seats from then East Pakistan in the National Assembly of Pakistan in the 1970 elections. The mood in Bangabandhu’s favour was such that he could nominate a banana tree for a candidate and people would have voted that banana tree to parliament! In Bangladesh today, where the country has shown tremendous potentials in socio-economic development, where the only problem for the country is her politics standing in her way to becoming a successful economic power, an individual with charisma and stature like Dr Yunus can lift the country to reach those tremendous potentials, at least in the public perception. The fact that his party would be a new one, would have weak organisation can be viewed as serious problems but with the public behind him, like they were behind Sheikh Mujib before our liberation, there is an instance in our history to be optimistic about the successful outcome of Dr Yunus’ intention to form a political party. Let us also not forget that in the 1991 elections, the BNP had won with a very weak political party against the Awami League that was far better organised.

The problems in our politics is serious but one created entirely by our political parties, particularly the two mainstream ones. They come from their indulgence in corruption, closeness with criminal elements in society, pursuing their own selfish ends in the name of public interests, etc. The people today hold both the mainstream political parties responsible for the degeneration of our politics. With Dr Yunus heading a political party, all these negative manifestations that characterise every political party in the country today would just not be at the leadership level of this new party. Dr Yunus would of course choose individuals whose honesty and integrity would be above question and in a country of 145 million people that should not be impossible to find. If Dr Yunus could form a political party, get a few hundred honest people to contest the elections, he could set the applecart of the corrupt political parties on fire and ride his own political party to power. Let us not forget also the fact that although Dr Yunus is not a politician, he has a huge organisation at the grassroots level called the Grameen Bank, a co-sharer of the Nobel Prize that he could very gainfully use for political purpose. Let us also not forget that Dr Yunus is one individual who is above all controversy in Bangladesh today whose respect among the people is unquestioned, just like Sheikh Mujib’s was in 1971. If he forms a political party and seeks support of the people for his candidates on the issue of bringing to our politics the spirit of 1971 and there is a mechanism in place for free and fair elections, the people would just stand behind his party in their millions and even the prospect of Dr Yunus’ party winning by a margin Sheikh Mujib won in 1970 would be quite possible. People’s power should never be underestimated but encouraged and people’s power could and should take Dr Yunus to achieve the Bangladesh of our dreams for us.

Dr Yunus’ achievement in winning the Nobel Prize has come for a nation in distress as a ray of hope. Restricting this achievement to holding functions for him and garlanding him would be wasting his efforts and his world-winning potentials. Encouraging him to enter politics would be encouraging him to do much greater good for the country. Just imagine this scenario to reach your own conclusion and don’t be deterred with what politicians and interested members of the civil society say about the difficulties of politics for politics is difficult in our country because the politicians make it so. Imagine Dr Yunus forms his party, participates in the elections with individuals carefully selected, wins the election and forms a Government with not 60 ministers but 16 and runs an administration based on conscience, ethics and morality. That administration would not immediately get the corruption in the bureaucracy banished but in his own party, his ministers and his parliamentarians would be above corruption. That by itself would make it difficult for the administration to be as openly corrupt as it is today. This party would have no political scores to settle with the opposition. Hence, political oppression would vanish. As this party would not need mastaans for political motives, the nexus with criminals would also likewise be gone. The Noble laureate has no family ambitions for he is much above such pettiness. Hence there would be no Hawa Bhavan in his government. On what agenda then would the opposition hold hartals against the government? Finally, Dr Yunus would not need to do politics with the bureaucracy because his stature would be much above these bureaucrats who would just be too willing to serve the country as they are supposed to do. Dr Yunus’ entry into politics thus has great potentials. Dr Yunus, the political leader, can regain the spirit of 1971 for us, unite us again and help us achieve the dream for which millions have accepted martyrdom in 1971. The mainstream political parties, by their destructive politics, have set the stage for a third force that the people have been expectantly talking about for quite sometime now. Who else can be better than Dr Yunus as that third force?

Monday, October 9, 2006

Reform Agenda Number One: Let the government govern

Published in The New Age, October 9, 2006

Looking into the future where the politicians stand between us and our future and with neither of the two major parties a clear favourite for the next election, the time now seems most opportune to force out of them an understanding that no political party will have the ‘right’ to agitate in the streets for the downfall of an elected government and those trying to do so will face legal penalties under the law, writes M Serajul Islam

The BNP and the Awami League have had between them 15 years of people’s support to help achieve the country’s well being. The people have shown their respect for the leadership of both the leading ladies. Their respect for them has been sincere and given with just one hope, that between them, they will help achieve for the country the goals for which millions have accepted martyrdom in 1971. In any other country, with such potentials as they exist in Bangladesh, such respect and support from the people for the leadership would have taken that country towards her cherished goals and easily established her as a respected country in the comity of nations. But 15 years of support and respect our people have given to the two major parties and their top leaders notwithstanding, Bangladesh hovers close to a failed state because our politics and politicians cannot find a single national agenda for bipartisan cooperation. Instead, so extreme is their partisanship, each is more interested in damaging the other than taking the country forward. It is doubtful whether in any other country; such politics exists as they do in Bangladesh, a country where the people have shown at critical times of their history what sacrifices they can make, and what mettle they are made of to achieve their goals.

I was recently watching a TV talk show on our politics with audience participation. Among the panelists, there was an eminent lawyer of international repute and a minister. One of the panelists responded to a question from the audience by stating that the people have the ‘right’ to take the law into their own hands when they feel that their fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution are being violated. To me this was a most astounding submission that could be made on a public TV channel and that too in the company of a lawyer of such eminence. My first reaction was disappointment, in fact, shock to see the body language of the lawyer to this submission. He did not object to the submission; rather by what he added to her statement, he gave me the clear impression that he supported her.

I am no lawyer. I know Article 11 of our Constitution enshrines that Bangladesh “shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed”. These fundamental rights and freedoms are set out in details in the relevant part of the Constitution but nowhere there are individuals given the ‘right’ to enforce these constitutional guarantees by destroying private and public property and creating anarchy when they feel that the government was taking these away. The only legal recourse individuals have to protect these guarantees against infringement by the government is to change that government by constitutional means and also pursue individual infringements in the courts. Attempt to bring down by use of force an elected government is an act of treason that individuals, groups or political parties may attempt at their peril. Admitting the individuals’ right to ensure constitutional guarantees by force against perceived government encroachment is the ideal prescription for lawlessness and anarchy that any right thinking person should shudder before admitting.

But that is not all for the point would need elaboration. Take for example, the issue of Kansat which this panelist used to justify ‘right’ of the individuals to take the law in their hands or for that matter any act of lawlessness that we have seen in this country recently. It is true that in most of these incidents, individual rights have been tampered. It is also true that in most of the cases, the law enforcing agencies have acted in a manner that leaves a lot to be desired. But then, we also know that our democratic politics is now not yet well entrenched institutionally. All the three governments we had in the last 15 years of democratic rule have used law enforcing agencies to tackle political opposition in a manner where fundamental rights of individuals have been violated. The Status of Human Rights Report that the US State Department brings out every year has documented these violations committed by the BNP and the AL while in power. In fact, Bangladesh’s track record on human rights under the BNP and the AL governments is no good or no worse than most developing countries, including our neighbours. In none of these countries do we witness agititational politics of the type we see in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the opposition is trying to establish that it is their ‘democratic right’ to force an elected government out by using sometimes genuine cases of violations of fundamental rights as excuses and sometimes on charges that are purely political, subjective and tenuous.

It is true that under the present BNP government, violation of individuals’ fundamental rights have been somewhat more. It is also true that there have been political killings of top opposition leaders including an attempt on the life of the leader of the opposition and that the government has failed to bring the culprits of these dastardly acts to justice. But these violations would hardly justify, as some political parties have suggested, turning the entire country into Kansat and Shanir Akhra, for bringing down in their words an ‘autocratic’ government. In a developing country trying to establish democracy, such incidents will occur. Power shortage, for example, will not go away no matter who wins the next government. Violations of fundamental rights will occur likewise as they have in all the democratic governments we had since 1991. These are due partly to failure of governance and partly to poor economic infrastructure and resources. The resolution of these problems is directly dependent on improvement of governance for which both the major political parties should take responsibility and economic development of the country for which peace and not conflict is of the essence. It would be sheer madness to even suggest that these problems would be gone if the political parties are allowed to physically force out an elected government whenever they feel the people’s rights are being violated or that a government in power is failing at governance. The political parties have the right to articulate these failures of the government for the people; they are not the court and have no power to adjudicate and pass judgments. The political parties, least of all, should neither indulge in movements for removing an elected government nor encourage individuals to take the law into their own hands and create lawlessness.

It is therefore very important to give serious thought to what the AL is trying to establish in our politics; the right of political parties to do constitutional politics when they wish and to do street politics when they please and mix the two at their discretion. One issue has been very clearly established in Bangladesh through the last 3 elections that governments are now elected freely and fairly, the losers’ cry to the contrary notwithstanding. It has also been well established that no political party can shorten the life of the government even by a single day by unconstitutional means because the people are against it. Another established fact is the attempts to bring down elected governments by unconstitutional means are creating serious impediments to governance and causing the country unimaginable harm. It is therefore of the greatest importance that we now assert unequivocally that the Constitution of the country does not give any political party the right to bring down an elected government by force. Establishing this fact unequivocally will also force the political parties to try and make the parliamentary system work by using the parliament effectively in trying to resolve the problems like Kansat, Shanir Akhra and the rest.

The Awami League and the BNP deserve great credit in removing Ershad’s dictatorship after a decade-long movement in 1990. Since then, these two parties have shared government and the country saw three elections that have been by all accounts as free as elections in a developing country can be expected to be. Without going into details, it would be important to note that in each of these elections, the public mood was effectively translated in sending their party of choice to power. The other point to note would be that in 1996, the party that was in office lost the elections and again in 2001, the same thing happened, indicating prima facie that the

However, the AL and the BNP, in sharing power have demonstrated certain traits that fundamentally contradict the elementary principles of democracy. They have not accepted their defeat in elections graciously and have been poor losers. The AL has demonstrated this trait more than the BNP. In their two tenures in the opposition, the AL never accepted the legitimacy of the BNP government and has tried to forcibly bring down both the BNP governments by hartals, and a host of negative and destructive politics. As a result, the party failed to play the role of an opposition in a democracy, that of a watch dog, by boycotting the parliament. The BNP likewise followed the AL examples and agitated against the AL government when they were in the opposition and carried out the ‘tradition’ of negative politics set by the AL. The sad aspect of this unfortunate trait has been the fact that allegations for which each has denied the other legitimacy to govern have been at best tenuous and subjective. The three elections we had since the fall of Ershad have been observed by many national and international observer groups and there has not been one report where any of these groups have made comments on the issue of fairness that even comes remotely close to the accusations made by the losers, the Awami League in particular. This notwithstanding, the two parties while in the opposition, have made governance difficult through hartals, oborods, shamabesh and mahasamabesh for which the parties have not suffered but the country has. So a legitimate question that comes to mind is why did these parties indulge in such negative and destructive politics? Whose interest did their politics serve and whose interests did they affect? These are crucial questions and answers to these questions are in my view more important than the utopia that the two parties are now seeking, namely to find individuals to run the next election under the Non-party Caretaker Government.

I have my doubts that the two main parties, who have between them messed our politics, will be able to resolve the issues before them although the nation is very eagerly hoping they would. The AL has already claimed victory because they have been able to keep the Jamaat out of the talks. Sheikh Hasina has reiterated that they want wholesale removal of top brass of the EC and Justice Hasan. The prime minister has stressed that the Constitution must be upheld which means the NCG would be headed by Justice Hasan. The Jamaat has reminded the prime minister also that the Constitution should not be compromised under AL intransigence.

The current political scenario is therefore most uncertain. However, beneath the uncertainty, new realities are emerging that the major political parties better take note for their own well-being and that of the country. In between the BNP’s poor governance and the AL’s ceaseless agitation to unseat an elected government, the people have lost a lot of faith in both the mainstream parties and the two ladies. But then in the absence of a third force, they have little option but to choose between the two, although in the event of a third force emerging between now and election time –– and there are good hints at that direction too –– the two mainstream political parties could be setting themselves for a shock. At least one politician has taken note of this change in wind direction. Ershad, who sometime back had said he would decide whether or not to join the BNP alliance by September, has cleverly backtracked and in all probability will go for the elections alone to cash on the prospects of getting the third force votes.

But then that is a future scenario. For the present, let me go back to the TV talk show. The minister on the panel said something with which I quite agreed. He said that in the last three elections, voters were least bothered about individuals in the EC or the NCG and given the chance to vote with reasonable freedom, they were able to elect to office the party of their choice. Given all the controversy that the AL has raised over the EC and the NCG, the fact is that even without any changes, the voters would again succeed in doing the same. Politics of the country has become more transparent despite attempts of both the parties to the contrary. However, to be fair to the AL, their demands against lack of transparency and neutrality of the current EC must be addressed and redressed. Their demand for the removal of bureaucrats that the BNP has placed in the field with the elections in mind should also be addressed and corrected although the AL did the same in 2001. Their demand against Justice Hasan, however, is not based on correct interpretation of the Constitution as I wrote in a recent article in this paper. The BNP extended the retirement age of judges to avoid another CJ as the head of the NCG but that is politics for which the AL can try and take advantage with the voters who are now matured and understand politics better. To victimise Justice Hasan and disregard the Constitution would set a very bad precedent. Moreover, as the NDI has written in its recent report, the head of the NCG, surrounded by 10 other advisers and under the glare of national and international stakeholders, would have very little chance to show bias towards any political party.

Looking into the future where the politicians stand between us and our future and with neither of the two major parties a clear favourite for the next election, the time now seems most opportune to force out of them an understanding that no political party will have the ‘right’ to agitate in the streets for the downfall of an elected government and those trying to do so will face legal penalties under the law. Reform of institutions like the EC and the NCG will be an ongoing process even if the two parties succeed in their current negotiations. It is the respect for institutions and, most important of all, in the legally installed government and the Constitution that the nation should now demand and make the politicians accept without any condition. This demand and its acceptance is also the key to Bangladesh’s future and anything short of it will keep Bangladesh hovering close to being a failed state.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Koizumi Departs

Published in New Age, September 27, 2006

As Koizumi departs a star sets over Japan

Japan after Koizumi will continue to remain the world’s second biggest economy, perhaps achieve more economic miracles but the nearly 5 years and five months of flamboyance and focus that Japan enjoyed under Koizumi’s tenure will take some efforts, luck, and a host of other factors to achieve again…. Japan and the world will be poorer without Koizumi, writes M Serajul Islam

In the land of the Rising Sun, a star has set. Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as prime minister when Shinzo Abe assumed office of president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on 26 September which has ruled Japan since 1955 except for a few months in 1993. Koizumi had been Prime Minister for 5 years and five months that is in LDP’s factionalised politics almost a miracle making his tenure the third longest among Japan’s post-Second World War prime ministers. What makes Koizumi’s tenure exceptional is the fact that he stayed in power by dismantling almost all traditions in LDP’s secretive politics. In a society where consensus is of the essence, he stamped his own will and vision in all major decisions while he has been in power. Koizumi’s departure will end an era in Japan’s politics during which he split open Japan’s politics and economy and subjected both to much needed reforms that everyone thought were necessary but no one before him dared to undertake.

Koizumi’s long tenure defies any simple explanation because the odds he had to fight to remain in office have been tremendous. He inherited an office where power before him was exercised on the prime minister’s behalf by bosses of the factions of the ruling LDP. He inherited an economy that was stagnating because no prime minister before him had the courage or the political will to make the structural reforms that were necessary after the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s because a nexus among powerful politicians, bureaucrats and private sector stood in the way. Where no prime minister before him dared to tread because of these odds, Koizumi did so fearlessly and set into motion the reform agenda he had articulated in his mind from his long experience in politics. It may be too early to tell whether the path that Koizumi charted for his country will be successful for his reforms are still in incubation but by bringing the much needed reforms into the centre of the political stage, Koizumi has charted for Japan a course that no one contradicts was necessary.

A quintessential reformer
Koizumi has been the quintessential reformer. His family and political background both set him up for the role. An economics graduate of the prestigious Keio University, Koizumi went to England for further studies but returned without finishing his studies following the death of his father. In 1970, he became a political aide to Takeo Fukuda, later to become prime minister. As parliamentary vice-minister of finance (1979), minister of health (1988 and 1996) and minister of post and telecommunications (1992) he watched from very close quarters how an old generation of LDP leaders without a vision for the future was resisting change to maintain their privileges. He also prepared himself for his reform role from lessons he drew from historical figures such as Shoin Yoshida (1830-1859), a patriot and scholar, who in the turbulent period before the Meiji Restoration showed courage and conviction as an educator that helped produce many outstanding men who led Japan during the Meiji Restoration that ushered the country’s modern era. His other respected historical personality is Winston Churchill who influenced him by his indomitable sprit in fighting Hitler. His brief marriage in the late 1970s ended when his wife was pregnant with a third son who he never saw nor showed any inclination to see.

By the time he became prime minister, his politics and his vision for reforms were his sole focus in life. In his mind, he understood the reforms that needed to be taken for Japan’s future very clearly. Thus he could say upon becoming prime minister ‘I want to destroy the old LDP’ because he saw the resistance to change and reform that were necessary for Japan’s future embedded in his own party. He took up each reform issue separately with dedication that was awesome. In politics, he assessed that a weak prime minister, prey to faction bosses, was the crucial problem. Koizumi was thus determined to wrest power from the faction bosses and make the prime minister’s office powerful from day one in office. When Koizumi assumed office there were a number of factions in the LDP of which the Mori faction to which he himself belonged and the Hashimoto faction being the two largest. Behind the scenes, the faction bosses manoeuvred and controlled the members of the LDP, chose the prime ministers, selected for them their cabinets and also set their agendas. Koizumi’s first task was to take power away from the faction bosses. Upon becoming prime minister, he did not allow them to choose either his cabinet or the agenda of his government. He did so ruthlessly but efficiently without much more than a murmur. He encouraged young LDP parliamentarians to remain out of the influence of the factions. In fact, in the elections held last year, he brought to politics at least 80 young parliamentarians who have been given the name ‘Koizumi kids’. Koizumi personally encouraged these young Diet members not to sign into any faction in his desire to end the rule of the faction bosses within the LDP.

Economic reforms
In the economy, Koizumi’s reforms focused on breaking the hold of the central government over the local governments. He was keen to break the powerful ministry of finance that he identified as the root of many problems in the economy. In this regard, the trinity of reform package was the most important one. That package proposes to decentralise the financial powers of taxation from the centre to the local governments. Reforms have also been undertaken to cut down huge government expenditures.

Koizumi’s other key reform of the economy has been the privatisation of the postal services for which last year he even put his own future and his party’s at stake by dissolving the parliament and seeking an early election when some of his own members voted with the opposition to defeat the bills related to postal privatisation in the upper house. The privatisation of the postal services will release US$ 3 trillions for fruitful use, money that now languishes in deposits that are honey upon which the politicians and local-level bureaucrats infest. Once privatised, the postal service now employing close to 300,000 people will also be able to get rid of a huge and largely unnecessary bureaucracy.

In effect, Koizumi’s economic reforms have been directed in reducing the influence of the politicians and the bureaucrats who use the central government’s financial resources to indulge in huge public expenditures, a lot of them un-necessary, which have become breeding grounds of corruption. His focus was upon reducing the central government’s power, influence and expenditures through decentralisation.

International politics
In international politics, Koizumi gave Japan a new assertiveness. On Iraq, he went along with the USA, despite considerable opposition at home because he considered it necessary for strengthening the US-Japan strategic alliance. During his term, the Japan-US strategic alliance was reassessed and strengthened. He developed extremely close friendship with Bush.

Yet, when he needed to deal with the issues of the 13 abductees who were kidnapped to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, an issue that touches the psyche of every Japanese, he went to Pyongyang in September, 2002, against the United States’ expressed wishes and was able to bring back some of the abductees while getting information about a few others.

His yearly visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where 12 convicted and two indicted Class-A war criminals are enshrined have been made without fuss because he considered those visits necessary not to offend his neighbours but to encourage resurgent Japanese nationalism that has been suppressed for too long by what he believed to be imposed pacifism that is no longer consistent with Japan’s future when there is so much tension in the Korean Peninsula because of North Korea and her nuclear threat.

The US$ 10 billion fund evolved last year for helping the least developed countries has been another positive Koizumi initiative.

The legacy
How will history assess Koizumi? There are conflicting views. The majority view though is positive. He used his good looks and charismatic charm to cast spell upon his people who found in him the star appeal that Japanese politicians are known not to have. His reforms of the economy have set to motion many positive forces but it will take time to see the overall results. Also, the results will depend upon his successor’s will to pursue the reforms.

However, there are a few undeniable facts in favour of Koizumi. The mountain of bad debts at the banks has shrunk and the Nikkei stock exchange has swelled. The Japanese economy, after years of deflation and stagnation, is showing signs of sustainable recovery. His emphasis in breaking down the nexus among the politicians, bureaucracy and the private sector has been welcomed by his countrymen. Similarly, his trinity of reform package to decentralise the financial powers from the sentre to the local governments; steps to reduce public spending and reforms aimed at deregulating industries have also been well received.

Koizumi’s reforms have been directed towards taking power away from the politicians and the bureaucrats who between them have sustained a system where both have benefited greatly in receiving financial benefits and related perks from the private sector. Last year, when his Postal Privatisation Bills were defeated in the upper house of parliament, Koizumi immediately dissolved parliament that he did not have to as losing a bill in upper house was not a test of confidence. His onetime mentor, former prime minister Mori, had advised him against the decision and for a brief period, there was talk in Tokyo that Koizumi’s decision would bring the end of the LDP’s almost stranglehold on power. Koizumi fought that election almost single-handedly, a fight that was as much with the opposition as was with members of his own party who opposed him on the Postal Privatisation Bill. He ensured that all the opponents in his party were just not thrown from the LDP, but that they also did not return to the parliament individually. He ensured both by nominating against the “postal rebels” the best LDP candidates and himself campaigned with the voters to defeat them. By appealing to the people directly with his charisma, Koizumi won for the LDP a 2/3rd majority that was a gamble that Koizumi alone could take and a miracle that he alone could achieve.

In foreign affairs, his supporters will speak in glowing terms for he gave Japan new assertiveness against his predecessors’ timid initiatives.

Koizumi has critics nevertheless. He will be criticised for his authoritarian manner where he has dealt with opposition ruthlessly and mercilessly. Koizumi will also be criticised for his over-zealousness on reforms while paying too little attention on Japanese society and its problems such as her aging and declining population, the needs of social security nets, etc. Minoru Morita, an elder journalist of Japan and a well known Koizumi critic, says this of his administration: ‘The Koizumi administration was the worst possible for the Japanese people. In terms of foreign diplomacy, it worsened relations with neighbouring countries, while domestically it spawned severe disparities within society. A small number of people reaped benefits. The great majority, however, suffered considerable disadvantage and lost hope.’ Morita credits Koizumi or creating a new class called ‘freeters’ who he describes as ‘hordes of directionless young workers who drift from one low-paid job to another without gaining marketable skills’.

Koizumi, his critics will also say, has destroyed the old Japan, its paternalistic political order in particular but he has failed to bring a consensus among the Japanese who, while giving him the best approval rating of 50% among Japan’s long serving prime ministers, also acknowledge that he has shaken up Japan and in that, he has destroyed both the bad and the good of that Japan. Hence they fear that there could be a backlash to his reforms.

Japan’s failure to win the permanent seat in the UN Security Council because of her hasty decision to join the G4 Group will no doubt be seen by critics as a failure of Japan’s foreign policy under Koizumi’s watch who will likewise criticize Koizumi for bringing Japan’ relations with China to an all-time low.

Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, has vowed to continue with the reforms. Abe has shared a lot of the Koizumi vision as the LDP secretary-general (2003) and later as chief cabinet secretary (2005). However, Koizumi has been the reformer willing to bet his future and his party’s on both instincts and beliefs. He did not hesitate in reducing wasteful public expenditures that have traditionally won the LDP votes across the country. It is unlikely Abe will be a reformer in the Koizumi mould. Koizumi has also been immensely lucky as was the case with his decision to dispatch SDF forces to Iraq where a few deaths would have been disaster for him. In Iraq where all countries who dispatched troops have lost some of them, Japan was the lucky country whose troops returned unharmed and the benefit of that luck has gone entirely all to Koizumi.

Japan after Koizumi will continue to remain the world’s second biggest economy, perhaps achieve more economic miracles but the nearly 5 years and five months of flamboyance and focus that Japan enjoyed under Koizumi’s tenure will take some efforts, luck, and a host of other factors to achieve again. Tanaka, the Foreign Minister he once sacked, called him a weirdo, others have called him a maverick but in the end when he leaves, he will be loved by many more people than will criticise him because politicians like Koizumi come upon a people at very large intervals. Abe will become Prime Minister without any past ministerial experience but great family connections and may eventually make a very good prime minister but Japan and the world will be poorer without Koizumi.

The writer is a former ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan. He can be reached at

Monday, September 18, 2006

Controversial politics, not so controversial issues

Published in The New Age, September 18, 2006

The issues over which the country’s politics have become uncertain and volatile are serious but not intractable and at least one related to justice Hasan has been made controversial on premises that conflict with both reason and the Constitution. The NDI Report while encouraging all parties (in this instance the AL) to go for elections, identifies the real problems in Bangladesh’s politics as partisanship a
nd lack of communication between the parties who ‘appear estranged from real word challenges and needs of 140 million people of Bangladesh.’ The NDI Report sees serious problems to holding the next elections but feels there is ample time between now and election date to resolve them, writes M Serajul Islam

The country is fast turning into a battle ground, thanks to our mainstream political parties. With just a little over a month left for the BNP-led government to complete its tenure when the major political parties should be eagerly preparing for an election under a non-party caretaker government (NCG), foreboding dark clouds loom large in our political horizon. The 14 parties led by the Awami League have threatened that unless two critical political issues are resolved before the BNP-led government hands over office to the NCG, they would not go for elections and will not allow elections to be held either. The AL is threatening that they will not allow even Ramadan to stand in their way. The BNP is stubbornly refusing to accede to the AL demands. Recent hartals, attempted barricades of the PMO and related agitations have given us a preview of what the AL has in mind. What are the issues then that is encouraging the AL to push the country to the brink of disaster?

The first is related to the Election Commission that they believe has become a BNP camp. They want the Chief Election Commissioner and his colleagues to resign. They also have reservation about the voters’ list which has suddenly become inflated with 2 crores additional voters. The second issue is related to the head of the next NCG. The AL has objection to his appointment because they claim that his past membership of the BNP in the late 1970s and early 1980s from which he resigned to be a judge contradicts the crucial element of neutrality as laid down in the Constitution. The AL’s objection to Justice KM Hasan is also based upon his opting out from hearing the trial of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and BNP government’s decision to extend the retirement age of the judges from 65 to 67 that placed him in position to be the next head of the NCG. They claim both compromise his neutrality.

The NDI team that recently came to Bangladesh to talk with the two parties gave the country an objective view on the issues. On justice Hasan, NDI has observed that although concerns expressed about him are legitimate objections, ‘past service to a political party should not be an automatic disqualification to public service’. The NDI has dispelled AL’s concerns by stating that the head of NCG works with 10 other advisers and ‘under intense international and domestic scrutiny’ and hence his ability to be biased is very limited. The NDI has recommended that the CG ‘should be formed according to he rules provided in the Constitution.’ On the EC, the NDI Report advised the CEC to address the ‘perceptions of bias and incompetence that are undermining public confidence in the electoral process’. The most important part of the NDI report is its clear message that ‘election should not be held hostage to the intransigent position of either the government or any political party’.

The NDI Report however has not looked into the constitutional provisions on NCG in depth. The provisions of the NCG are covered under Part 1V, Chapter 11A, Articles 58B to 58E of the Constitution. The issue of neutrality is discussed in Article 58C sub Para 7 (b) in the context of qualifications of advisers. The head of the NCG is required to fulfil the same qualifications as advisers. Article 58C sub Para 7 starts with a preamble that reads: ‘The President shall appoint Advisers from among persons who are:’ and goes on to inscribe in Para 7 (b) ‘not members of any political party or of any organisation associated with or affiliated to any political party’. The qualification in the Constitution on neutrality is written unequivocally in the present tense without need for a second interpretation. A person can be disqualified to be a head of the NCG on the issue of neutrality only if he is at the time of assuming the office, a member of any political party or any organisation affiliated to any political party. Justice Hasan was a member of the BNP that he resigned in the early 1980s and has since risen from a judge to a chief justice during which period he has been a respected member of the judiciary. The Constitution therefore places justice Hasan in the clear to head the NCG on the issue of neutrality. It also leaves the BNP with no power to negotiate with the AL on justice Hasan.

The other objections against justice Hasan are also untenable. In fact, the issue that he was ‘embarrassed’ to hear the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s murder trial should go in favour of justice Hasan because he showed the integrity to withdraw from the trial as he was related to one of the accused. Despite the extreme brutality of that case and the need to try and punish those responsible, the trial under the AL government was held in extremely charged circumstances where facts were not carefully considered. We should not forget that the case was tried over 20 years after the murders during which many facts were either lost or not properly represented. Let me provide a couple of examples here. The presiding magistrate was so carried away by sentiments that while passing sentence of death upon the accused, he wrote into his judgment that they should be shot before a firing squad, a mode of punishment given only in a military court. Recently I have read Christopher Hitchen’s Trial of Henry Kissinger where the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has been covered explicitly. The revelations in the book make no secret of the role of an external power and on behalf of that power, that country’s intelligence organisation, in encouraging the assassinations. None of these facts came out during the trial that have left it incomplete. I am not sure what else was in justice Hasan’s mind when he ‘embarrassed’ himself but then an honest and truthful judge could have been motivated to put the entire judgment aside on grounds that the trial was not sufficiently transparent. The final objection against justice Hasan that the retirement age of judges was extended from 65 to 67 to ensure that he would be the next head of the NCG is a fact for which the AL can accuse the BNP and make political capital during the elections. The BNP did not consult justice Hasan in taking that decision. To accuse him that this act of the BNP would compromise his neutrality and make him pro-BNP is unfair. As a diplomat during the AL rule, I have read many speeches of the prime minister and the foreign minister where they took great credit for the concept of NCG that they claimed was Bangladesh’s original contribution to democracy. There was then not even a murmur that the system needed any reform.

The Constitution clears justice Hasan but does not explain the BNP’s extension of the retirement age. But then that is politics. The Awami League would have done the same if they knew that by not extending the retirement age, the head of the NCG would be someone they perceived to be pro-BNP. I do not want to name that judge here but the more important reason for the BNP to extend the retirement age was to keep him from being the next head of NCG. During a trip to Saudi Arabia towards the end of her government, Sheikh Hasina, feeling confident about her party’s chances, hinted an early election to an audience there. The hint was put in cold storage immediately afterwards when it was found that an early election would place a person the AL was not conformable with as the head of the NCG. The AL completed its term and elections were held under justice Latifur Rahman. It is a different story why the AL later turned so critical about justice Rahman.

The AL’s objection on EC is somewhat different. The Constitution gives the EC extensive powers on the one hand and takes away a lot of it by the other. The president appoints the CEC and the commissioners on advice of the prime minister. The EC staff is also provided by the president’s orders but again on recommendations of the prime minister. In practice therefore the Constitution places the EC under the PMO. Both BNP and the AL have used the connection to their fullest advantage. It is true that the BNP has staffed the present commission with persons who are closer to them, if not politically, at least individually. The AL also used the PMO/EC connection blatantly when they appointed Safiur Rahman to the commission after the latter had served the AL government faithfully with extensions as the home secretary. Though Safiur Rahman did not join the Janatar Mancha in 1996, as a sitting secretary he gave a statement in the press openly expressing his commitment with the Mancha. Despite what is being said against the present commissioners, none of the present lot in the EC had the sort of link Safiur Rahman had with the AL. As with the NCG, the AL’s criticism about the commission is being ventilated only because the commissioners there are now being seen by them as pro-BNP. It must also not be overlooked that former CEC Syed Ahmed was considered by the BNP as pro-AL. The BNP’s objection to his appointment was dismissed summarily. That the AL later termed him as pro-BNP is relevant to the AL way of thinking. When things go their way, everything is fine; when things go wrong, the persons and institutions they have supported need immediate reform and/or change.

The present EC has nevertheless become controversial because of the BNP’s handling to which the CEC has also contributed his fair share. The NDI Report has flagged this very explicitly. The inflation in the voters’ list and the way it has been compiled have also added to the controversy about the EC in the public mind. In fact, there are very few people in the country today who feel that the present set-up of the EC would be congenial to the holding of a free and fair election where the role of the EC would be more important than the head of the NCG.
The PM’s call on September 15th for talks between the two major parties at the level of secretary general is a positive sign but the AL’s first response has been negative. Other recent developments such as BNP-led government’s decision to name a new commissioner, who has been a significant beneficiary of this government, and AL’s new programme for agitations suggest intensification rather than resolution of the issues. The AL propagandists have been feeding people disinformation by telling them that the next head of NCG could easily be chosen from an eminent citizen. However that would be easy only if the Constitution is by-passed for if for some reason justice Hasan opts out (under the Constitution that is the only way to meet the AL demand), the position would then have to be offered to the next chief justice in line and in the unlikely event that he would also opt out for any reason, the next CJ would be offered the position and it will take many more judges to opt out before the position could be offered to an eminent citizen. The million dollar question would then be whether the BNP and the AL would agree on an individual for the post. The chances of that are just too remote.

The issues over which the country’s politics have become uncertain and volatile are thus serious but not intractable and at least one related to justice Hasan has been made controversial on premises that conflict with both reason and the Constitution. The NDI Report while encouraging all parties (in this instance the AL) to go for elections, identifies the real problems in Bangladesh’s politics as partisanship and lack of communication between the parties who ‘appear estranged from real word challenges and needs of 140 million people of Bangladesh.’ The NDI Report sees serious problems to holding the next elections but feels there is ample time between now and election date to resolve them.

There is thus no reason to despair yet. AL’s ability to put a gridlock on the government would be limited by lack of public support. BNP’s opposition to AL demands on the EC that have public support by propping the latter would be gone once the NCG takes over. The demands would also have better consideration then. The international community has a continued interest in Bangladesh as seen by the NDI and EU delegations’ visits and most recently by the offer of the Americans to negotiate. They would no doubt all urge both the mainstream parties to be reasonable. Justice Hasan has shown no indication of opting out and there is no reason why he should. Attempts to force him out would also not have public support. The international community would also not recommend justice Hasan to stand down. If the AL wishes to push out justice Hasan by force, they will lose both public support and sympathy of important friends of Bangladesh who are disillusioned with the BNP’s poor governance over a host of issues, particularly those related to the Islamic militancy. Therefore if the AL is serious about coming back to power, they have to accept justice Hasan, push through for reforms in the EC under the CG and, of course, participate in the elections. Otherwise, they would be playing into the hands of the BNP which as it leaves government, stands on very unsure ground so far their chances of returning to office are concerned.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hung Parliament

Published in The New Age September 14, 2006

Could a hung parliament resolve politics of confrontation?

As the next election nears, the politicians are getting more confrontational although the public have had enough of that. It is therefore likely that the people could use the next elections to make the politicians heed to their disappointment and frustrations. They could use their voting power to impose sense upon the insensitive politicians of the BNP and the AL by giving neither enough seats to form the government, writes M Serajul Islam

As the Muslims of pre-1947 Bengal, we were the force behind the partition of India that created Pakistan. As East Pakistanis, we fought one of the most glorious wars of liberation of the last century and created Bangladesh. In the 1980s, we struggled successfully against military dictatorship and established democracy in the country. We had three peaceful changes of government through elections since then where twice, in 1996 and 2001, the incumbent governments were voted out. Yet, after struggling for close to a century for establishing democracy and people's rights, our politicians are still in same confrontational mood as if we have not moved one step in the right direction in achieving people's rights. Is this rational?

Like any developing country, Bangladesh's politics is not perfect. The government speaks of the people and their rights but often acts in reverse. Hence, there is a good reason for the politicians in opposition to demand, at times demonstrate and in extreme cases, fight in the streets for some of these rights. Such imperfection in politics overshadows the smooth functioning of government in most developing societies. Bangladesh is no exception. However, the comparison between Bangladesh and other developing countries ends there, and we differ with other developing countries in a number of unique ways. First, there is no nation on earth that has such a prolonged history of agitation against authority as if Bangladesh and agitation against authority have become synonymous. Second, we are the only nation on earth where the opposition has agitated against both the dictatorial and the democratic government with equal enthusiasm and energy. Finally, our politics is also unique because those in opposition have done exactly what they have accused the government of doing when they themselves were in power.

We will soon have another general election to be held under a neutral caretaker government. On three previous occasions, elections were held and power was transferred peacefully and on each occasion, the parliament has completed full term. This time, the elections will be held when Bangladesh has had a period of sound economic growth that has led Goldman and Sachs to identify Bangladesh as one of the 11 developing nations to watch in the next few years. Yet, among the politicians, the conflict has reached a new dimension where many abroad are saying Bangladesh is close to being a failed state. In the country, many people are apprehensive whether the elections will be held on schedule because of the intensification of the politics of confrontation.
Historically, our prolonged tryst with confrontational politics has one good explanation. Bangladesh is perhaps the only country that had to de-colonise twice in the span of 25 years. In the struggle for independence from British, the province of Bengal was at the forefront of both constitutional and confrontational politics. It used to be said then that what 'Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow'. Legends like Titu Mir and Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, revolutionaries like Surja Sen and Pritilata Waddar were from Bengal. When the politics of British India took a religious turn, the Bengali Muslims led by legendary leaders like AK Fazlul Huq and Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy showed the Muslims of the rest of India the way to achieve Pakistan. However, when they found that they had been betrayed and had instead stepped from one colonial domination to another by creating Pakistan, their free spirit did not take long to stand against Pakistan's oppressive rule, often against military dictators in which they were led brilliantly by Sheikh Mujib and a host of other leaders including Maulana Bhasani. The most glorious manifestation of that liberal spirit was shown when we won our liberation war after 9 months of struggle in 1971.

The achievements of the politicians and the people that culminated with the emergence of Bangladesh should have ended our confrontational politics to reap the harvests of our long struggle for a better quality of life and freedom from all forms of oppression. Unfortunately, that did not happen for soon after liberation, Bangladesh went back to the same confrontational politics, like our colonial days were yet to be over. The AL's move towards one-party rule through BAKSAL was then a genuine reason for the opposition for confrontation. Earlier, in 1973, the Awami League had rigged the elections so extensively that one Western Ambassador had privately commented that Bangladeshis should kneel down in prayer for their future.

For a brief period when Justice Sayem was the president and chief martial law administrator, there was no agitation or movement against the government. Once power passed to general Zia and he turned into a politician, the movement started again against the government. After Zia was assassinated in 1981, there was a brief rule by president Sattar who was removed in a bloodless military coup by general Ershad that brought the country under a long period of military dictatorship. In the ten years of his military dictatorship, the political leadership led by Khaleda Zia, heading the BNP, and Sheikh Hasina, heading the Awami League, agitated against military rule in which the people whole-heartedly supported the politicians. The spirit among the people, though qualitatively different from their spirit during the war of liberation, was against a government that had usurped people's power that was anathema to the spirit that motivated them to fight for independence.

The downfall of Ershad should have removed from our politics for good the confrontation between the government and the opposition political parties except what is normal for any country trying to establish democracy. Unfortunately this did not happen and people's hopes that were raised in 1971 to be dashed by AL attempts to move Bangladesh towards one-party dictatorship under BAKSAL were again dashed because this time the Awami League did not take its defeat in the 1991 elections gracefully and instead accused the BNP of coming to power by fraudulent means. For the entire tenure of BNP's first term, the Awami League made governance difficult for the BNP and life intolerable for the public. The public, who had supported strategies like hartal and other uses of conformational politics under Ershad, saw no reason for these strategies under a democratic government no matter how seriously the latter failed in governance. The AL walked out of parliament and took politics to the streets as if the BNP government was qualitatively no better than Ershad's military dictatorship. When the BNP was voted to the opposition, they accepted the same style of politics against an elected government and continued the politics of confrontation, using hartals and boycott of parliament the same way as the AL. As a consequence, the senseless politics of confrontation became the accepted norm. The worst manifestation of this negative politics can be seen in the hatred that Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have for each other where Hasina cannot even pronounce the name of Khaleda Zia without showing contempt that is absurd and unhealthy for our politics or for that matter any civilised politics anywhere.

When governments of the past usurped power, the people whole heartedly supported the agitation of the political parties against these governments. When opposition political parties continued with this against elected governments, the people silently suffered but did not support these agitations or movements although the parties carried out their confrontation in their name with their hired goons. In the current context, the public feels that AL's demands for reforms of the electoral process that they could have themselves resolved when in power, can still be settled and should be through negotiations under the caretaker government. Today, almost everybody agrees that hartal is not a democratic strategy against an elected government. Almost everybody likewise feels that hartal achieves nothing for the people, increases their miseries, and makes governance difficult. Opinion is unanimous among the people that even if the right to call hartal can be accepted, attempts to enforce hartals by force and punish those who oppose it is fascism that should be banned for good from Bangladesh's politics. The sufferings from hartal were brought home last July when as a result of AL's call for 72 hours' hartal many students lost a year as they could not sit for their A and O level exams. In my years on tour of duty as an Ambassador, use of hartal was one issue in our politics that I could never defend without rendering myself silly. I had little problem explaining concerns about Islamic militancy, or allegations of communalism, etc. It was always the permanent state of confrontation, often on issues too silly to explain rationally, that made me defensive and embarrassed me before my hosts.

The politicians are indulging in the politics of confrontation because of their zero-sum mentality manifested in total lack of accommodation for each other's views, where they do not even have a single national agenda upon which to accommodate or cooperate. Their impatience to push the elected government out of office after losing an election is indeed strange and unreasonable. Moreover, they never succeed in shortening the tenure of an elected government by such means even by a day but succeed incredibly well in harming individual as well as national interests. In their parochial mentality and very narrow self interests, they do not take heed of the wisdom of the people of Bangladesh who have never failed to demonstrate when allowed to use their voting power in voting out an inefficient and corrupt Government. In 1991, after Ershad fell, political analysts gave the BNP no chance against the AL because of the latter's organisation that extended up to the grassroots level. The people, keeping in mind their sufferings under the first AL rule and Khaleda Zia's uncompromising stand against Ershad while Sheikh Hasina had at least once compromised with the dictator by participating in the 1986 elections, voted the BNP to power. When the BNP failed in governance, they voted the AL to office, influenced additionally by Sheikh Hasina's publicly sought apology for people's sufferings during their first term in office. When the AL failed to deliver and backtracked on election promises and was found soft on terror, the people voted Khaleda Zia back to office. Thus the people of Bangladesh have never failed to correctly choose between the parties keeping the country's interests in view. Therefore, all the confrontation that opposition parties have indulged against the government, which has rendered the country's economy near death-blows and its image almost brain-damage, have been un-necessary because the agitations have never achieved the desired results while the people never failed to vote inefficient governments out of office through elections.

Anybody looking back into the last 15 years of Bangladesh's politics would see, with a little bit of objectivity, that the charges that the AL and BNP have brought against each other as an opposition party are identical almost to the details. As opposition, each accused the other of misrule, corruption, favouritism, politicisation of the administration, political oppression, etc. In government, both have acted strangely but certainly in the same way, in a state of denial to opposition's accusations, provocative rather than accommodative to their demands and actively helped sharpen government-opposition confrontation. To heighten the agitation and confrontation, they have brought issues of history, patriotism, and role of individuals in our independence movement by placing respected and revered leaders of our country into contrasting and conflicting roles to further damage the politics of the country. While the people have interest in all these issues, they do not believe that any of the issues upon which the two parties have built the disastrous politics of confrontation is serious enough to fight in the streets or use suicidal strategies like hartal that end up causing the people and the country unimaginable hardships and damages. Everybody now knows the financial losses to the country from a day's hartal which is enormous and both the BNP and AL have imposed thousands of days of such madness upon the country. Everybody also knows hartals have not had any effect, nor should it have, upon democratically elected governments in pushing them out of office. Both have a lot of explanation therefore to do for the damages their selfish and insensitive politics have done to Bangladesh.

As the next election nears, the politicians are getting more confrontational although the public have had enough of that. It is therefore likely that the people could use the next elections to make the politicians heed to their disappointment and frustrations. They could use their voting power to impose sense upon the insensitive politicians of the BNP and the AL by giving neither enough seats to form the government. They could very likely hang the next Parliament. Bangladesh has come a long way, seeing through two colonial rules, political assassinations and military dictatorships to allow the self-centred politicians lead the country towards a failed state when we have been identified based on our sound achievements in the economic and social sectors of growth as a country with a future. Notwithstanding the politicians' seeming ability to play with our future, thanks to the system of caretaker government, there comes a time every five years when neither of the major parties looks that strong before the voters. It is surprising how Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina can overlook this for both have seen this power of the people, Khaleda in 1996 and Hasina in 2001. In serving notice upon each separately in the past, the voters now know they have failed in what they wanted, namely from one elected, a honest and sincere administration based on their election promises and from the other, a responsible opposition working within the parliament to make the government accountable. Unfortunately, upon getting elected, the one that assumed power became almost dictatorial, and the other voted to opposition became anarchist. It is time for the voters to deal with both, for the fight is still between the BNP and the AL. The voters, without any favourite this time between the two because of their politics of confrontation, may make both sweat by giving neither a majority so that whichever forms the next government will have to do so with a coalition partner (outside their pre- election alliances), lead a weak government and hence will not have the luxury of governing by whims. The one in opposition will always have the sniff of power without having to wait the long five years after losing an election knowing that the weak government could fall from inside the parliament rather than agitating in the streets to make it fall. The only uncertain element in this scenario is the absence of a third force but the way the politics is evolving, the third force could come from the Bikolpo Dhara, Ershad and/or break-away factions of the BNP which seems almost ready to break off in the seams as a result of the conflict between the younger, impatient elements in the party and the older generation of leaders.

The writer is a former ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan

Sunday, September 3, 2006

The Hair Affair: Cricket and the First World Hypocrisy

Published in The New Age, September 3, 2006

The ICC’s line of defence that they cannot allow member countries dictate the Umpires they would play with should not be brought in any attempt to save Hair or the likes of him. Let ICC make good use of this affair to nip in the bud the ugly head of racism in cricket, writes M Serajul Islam

The hearing on the infamous Darrel Hair decision to punish Pakistan for ball tampering that resulted in Pakistan forfeiting the fourth Test match and Captain Inzi facing a charge of bringing the game to disrepute will now be held in the end of September. In a way this delay is good for the game because it will allow the one-day series between England and Pakistan to go on as scheduled. It will also allow everyone upon whom the task of adjudicating and assisting in that adjudication to be dispassionate about an event that had, and still has, potentials to divide the cricket world along racial lines, bringing back memories of the apartheid days when South African team was banned for racial policies of its government.

Looking back to the incident and facts revealed thereafter, it is hard to imagine how a man described as one of the game’s best Umpires could take such an appalling and atrocious decision. At the time the incident occurred, cricket was at its best. The Pakistan team that badly lost two of the three previous Test matches was playing for pride and doing exceptionally well. On the three previous days of the Test, Pakistan had outclassed England almost completely, bringing out their undeniable potentials. On that eventful fourth day, England team was fighting back and, although Pakistan still held the whip hand, it looked like England could save the game. They were just 33 runs short of wiping a huge 321 runs first innings deficit with six wickets remaining and a day and one session to go. On the field, except for intensely positive cricket, there was not even the thinnest layer of any cricketing cloud that hinted at the drama that was to unfold. At one end, Pakistan’s leg spinner Danesh Kanneria was making very good use of the rough patches on the wicket made by bowlers’ foot marks and constantly threatening the English batsmen. At the other end, Omar Gul and Asif were bowling alternatively. The English batsman Cook was just out, lbw to Umar Gul, after playing a lucky innings of 83 during which he was always at sea against Kanneria. Cook fell to a ball that happened to reverse swing that was normal because the ball was then nearly 60-over old. Balls naturally reverse swing when that old because the fielding team polishes it, as legally permitted, on one side, allowing the other side to deteriorate by wear and tear which distributes weight unevenly on the ball to make it swing in reverse. When the fielding team deliberately damages the ball using sharp instruments or their nails, that act becomes illegal as ball tampering.

When Cook fell, none watching the game saw anything untoward. Pakistan captain Inzi saw Cook’s dismissal as a normal fall of a wicket and did not bother to change Kanneria for despite the Gul wicket, the ball was not reverse swinging enough for him to change the leg spinner who has no use for a ball that reverse swings. The TV commentators also saw Cook’s dismissal as just a wicket for Gul and praised his delivery. The commentators were Botham, Atherton, Lloyd, Ramiz and Michael Holding, all past master cricketers and undoubted cricket authorities. None of them were even remotely thinking what was going on in the mind of Umpire Darrel Hair around the time of Cook’s dismissal. TV footages have now revealed that Hair was glancing a few times at Asif when he was rubbing the ball on his trouser, a normal act by itself. But at that time, there was none who was prepared for what happened when Hair suddenly took the ball in his hand with England’s score reading at 298/4 (Cook fell when score was 277) and went to his fellow Umpire Doctrove and then motioned to the Third Umpire who was then seen running to the field with a set of old replacement balls. The cricket commentators started to feel uneasy only when Hair took the ball to the English batsmen. The public and those watching the game at home thought that the Umpire was replacing a ball that had lost shape, a normal affair in cricket these days. That assumption was first dispelled as Inzi was seen walking to Hair and apparently proTesting. The Pakistan players gathered around were silent but glum hinting something ominous was developing. It was only when Hair took his position and raised his hand to signal 5 penalty points that the commentators begin to express their surprise and dismay. Hair, on his part by raising innocuously his hand over his shoulder, publicly passed a judgment upon the Pakistan team that they had tampered with the ball and hence had cheated. At that point, the commentators were all convinced that they had seen no evidence of ball tampering and praised Inzi for his dignified handling of Hair’s unilateral, almost dictatorial judgment. Hair had acted as a one-man judicial system, where he was prosecution, judge and jury, an unbelievably arrogant posture for a man who happened to have been a lawyer before becoming a Test match Umpire.

The accusation and judgment part of the Hair affair was enacted in public view. Thanks to modern technology, every second of that part of the drama was recorded on TV footages. The second part of the drama that has brought Inzi in the stand was enacted behind scenes. Here the enactments of the drama, the role of the people and issues have come to public knowledge in bits and pieces. This part began at the tea interval and by that time, events passed on like wildfire from the cricketers concerned to the cricket authorities and very importantly to the entire Pakistan nation where even that country’s President together with millions of his countrymen were watching events live. Hair’s decision was just not an award of 5 penalty runs; seen in Pakistan, it was an accusation that reflected upon the entire nation. On scene at Lords at that time was Pakistan’s Cricket Board’s Chairman Shahryar Khan, a former Foreign Secretary of his country. Quite naturally he, together with Manager Zaheer Abbas and Coach Bob Woolmer, decided to proTest the decision but left it to the Captain to begin the process of proTest. Inzi, though a great player and successful captain, is not known for articulating his thoughts well enough in speech in English. He was allowed to face an opponent (by then Hair was that to the Pakistan team) who is an astute lawyer well conversant with the laws of the game. When Hair and his fellow Umpire came to the field with the English batsmen after tea break, the Pakistani team had decided to stay back in the dressing room for sometime to show their proTest, undoubtedly under instructions of their management. Hair, on his part, took every step thereafter as a lawyer and went to Inzi to ask his team to take the field. Unaware of the laws of the game in the relevant details, Inzi inquired from Hair instead why his team had been accused of ball tampering. Hair responded correctly that he had not come to discuss the ball tampering but to ask Pakistan Team to take the field and then walked back to the wickets. On not finding the Pakistan Team on field, he took the bails off and, going by the laws of the game, forfeited the game to England, the first such instance in Test cricket’s 123 years’ history. The forfeiture automatically implied guilt which fell on heavy shoulders of Inzi who now faces an eight match ban for bringing the game to disrepute. Although Shahryar and his colleagues later sent the Pakistan team to field, Hair was unimpressed and remained unmoved on his forfeiture decision.

The match referee Mike Proctor, who was standing by for Ranjan Madhugale for the Test, was one key official who failed to impose his authority on the development of events. It is true that in cricket, the Umpires on field have great authority on interpretation of the laws of the game. That responsibility was Hair’s but then there was another Umpire Doctrove on field who was not even second fiddle to Hair when the latter was taking the decisions and appeared no more than a sidekick to him. As match referee, Mike Proctor also had authority that he failed to use as the drama evolved and went out of hands. Hair was the dominant one, controlling the events like he had more than absolute authority over the proceedings. So overbearing was he that even his manners as seen on TV made him look like he had utter disdain on what his insensitive decision was leading to. Up to the point when Inzi delayed his decision to take field, there was wide consensus articulated by the cricket commentators that Hair’s decision was unfair because there was no physical evidence at all that the Pakistan team had tampered the ball.

The events started to drift considerably once it became known that Inzi had refused to take the field and Hair had awarded the game to England. Then, there was a conscious move by the white-dominated cricket administration, led by Hair’s fellow Australian ICC Chief Malcolm Speed, to let Hair off the hook by putting heat on Inzi and charging him for bringing the game to disrepute by refusing to play. Even on Indian sports programmes, commentators were leaving Hair and going after Inzi. At that moment, it looked like Hair was on clear and the noose of an insensitive cricketing administration was fast tightening around the neck of Inzi.

It was Hair’s arrogance again, and stupidity this time, that brought about another dramatic twist to the sordid saga. Hair, perhaps aware in his own mind that he had done grave wrong, and convinced that the ICC would bail him out, sent to Malcolm Speed an email asking a payment of US$ 500,000 to step down from the Panel of Test Match Umpires. For Speed this was too much to digest for he too knew that in the end, Hair would be found guilty. So he released the email to the press, despite Hair’s request for confidentiality, called the email a ‘stupid act’ and in saving has own skin, has proven to the world that Hair was guilty of his original act and the email was another clear proof of his guilt.

So why did Hair take such an astounding decision on no evidence at all? Why did he not consult fellow Umpire Doctrove? Why not Match Referee Proctor who had TV footages before him? Why did he not warn the Pakistan team before his decision? In all that have transpired since the event, there are no answers to these important questions in defence of Hair. Hence, those analysing the affair have looked into Hair’s past and there evidences are galore to reach a few conclusions. Hair has a history of problems with South Asian cricketers. He was the one who called Murlitharan for throwing many times when his fellow Umpire did not despite pressure from him. He gave Inzi out once when he was protecting himself for a fielder’s direct throw at him. He pulled Kanneria out from bowling for walking to the pitch without warning as required under the law. The Sri Lankans have given in writing that they would not want him to Umpire their games. Pakistan has expressed similar views about Hair. Second, as an Umpire he places his authority too high and rules out flexibility for which he also ran into trouble with the Indians and teams outside South Asia. He was already well known for his arrogance that the ICC wrongly termed as competence.

In the Australian and British media, subjective and unfair conclusions are often reached about cricketers from South Asia. Based on one or two players’ indiscretion, teams are branded as cheats, match fixers, etc. Sometimes, such aspersions are insensitively placed upon nations as in this Hair case where the Umpire’s action has pointed a finger upon Pakistan as a nation of cheats. However, when such indiscretion is found in the Australian, British or South African cricketers, those are often passed on as individual indiscretions. In that context, Australian cricketers and cricket authorities seem to get the maximum benefit. Indiscretion by Warne and the Waugh brothers; Dennis Lily kicking Javed Miandad in public view, or cricketer turned commentator Dean Jones’ racial comments never reflect upon the Australian team or upon Australia. Michael Holding made the most pertinent comments on this bias while supporting Inzi against Hair. Writing for India Today, Holding said that Hair was both wrong and insensitive in accusing Pakistan because he had no evidence at all to prove his accusation. Holding further wrote that today in cricket there is a clear double standard favouring the “first world” teams. When English bowlers used reverse swing to beat Australia last year in the Ashes series, the English sport scribes were ecstatic and called their bowlers very skillful. When Pakistan does this they become cheats. Holding called this “first word hypocrisy” adding that when a bomb blasts in Colombo or Karachi, there are instant calls to cancel the tour. When bombs go off in London, no one says anything. The other crucial point in the Holding article was that to say that cricketing law is absolute and Umpires are final authorities are pointless arguments and there should be flexibility. With Umpire like Hair around, it is either flexibility or beginning of the end of cricket as a gentlemen’s game.

The Hair decision was premeditated, taken on no physical evidence. In his arrogance, he even did not consider consulting sources he could and should have consulted. His offer to settle for money to quit cricket should leave no one in any doubt about his guilt. If those who would decide upon the fate of cricket and sit on the Inzi case, Ranjan Madhugale in particular, have any love and respect for cricket being a gentleman’s game, they should unequivocally dismiss the case against Inzi and decide upon Hair as unwanted for the fair game of cricket and ban him for life. The ICC’s line of defence that they cannot allow member countries dictate the Umpires they would play with should not be brought in any attempt to save Hair or the likes of him. Let ICC make good use of this affair to nip in the bud the ugly head of racism in cricket.