Saturday, September 19, 2009

Time to put political development ahead

Louis Kahn was undoubtedly one of the greatest architects of our times. In his obituary written in leading international magazines, our National Parliament was mentioned as his greatest creation. If we can for a moment imagine that the Almighty would allow his departed soul the opportunity to come down to Earth to watch the way the National Assembly is being used by us, he would perhaps regret one element of his creation more than the other distortions we have done to his immortal building. He would no doubt redesign one part of his creation. Instead of making the central chamber shaped the way he has, he would no doubt re-design it like it is in the House of Commons in England where the Treasury and the opposition face each other with the Speaker seated in the middle in a corner.

Of course, Louis Kahn did not contemplate that his famous building would one day be used by two political parties such as the Awami League and the BNP who would keep the opposition out over the claim of a few extra seats in the front row. The BNP did this during its term of office in 2001-2006. The AL is doing the same to the BNP now. Who says there is no co-operation between these two political parties? For those aspects that damage our politics and our future, they follow each other like they are doing politics out of the same script.

The AL has done the same with the bureaucracy; politicised it a step more on the argument that the BNP had done so in its term. This time, the AL has done the same, placing the party loyalists in the nationalised banks' Board of Directors. There has been criticism over this and quite rightly so because these nationalised banks are burdened with large portion of non-performing loans that has been the result of politicisation by past regimes. Among the few things that the caretaker government had done correctly is nominate professionals and senior bureaucrats in the Boards of the nationalised banks where politics played no part. Hence the Finance Minister's outburst at the criticism over placing party loyalists, some of whom have been activists at the level of the AL's students wing, by angrily suggesting that the government has done better than what the BNP had done in its term is not exactly a correct answer to the public criticism on the issue.

It is true that under the BNP regime, many AL activists have suffered. It is also true that during its term of office, the BNP has done many things that they should not have done. Then our system of governance is not one where a government can legally do what it likes to give benefit to such victims. In USA, they have what they term as the "spoils system." Under this system, when a party wins the presidential election, it also wins with it the right to appoint to a large number of posts at various levels of the government, mostly in the administration and as Ambassadors, its own party members. But the US system should not be misunderstood because all such senior appointments under the so-called "spoils system" are subjected to Congressional approval and hence the party that appoints its own people to government posts have to be careful in selecting individuals for such posts. The Congress has the right to reject such appointments and has done so consistently.
In the instance of the appointment of Directors to the nationalised banks, the most significant problem that would soon occur is over the issue of corporate culture. In the past, especially under the system put into effect by the caretaker government, individuals were chosen with professional backgrounds as economists, senior bureaucrats that allowed them to understand and appreciate corporate culture. In this instance, the government does not seem to have taken into consideration this important issue in appointing the Directors. It has instead taken the fact of victimisation by the BNP as a major reason for the appointments. The nationalised banks are huge financial institutions but the way the way they are organised is putting them behind the private banks that are much better organised at the management and board levels. The latest changes at the level of the board are going to adversely affect their ability to compete and succeed with the private sector banks even more. The government seems to be using the BNP argument in most its actions that are facing public criticism. This is unfortunate. What the government ministers are missing in this argument by suggesting the BNP had done so is the fact that the BNP lost the last elections comprehensively because it acted the way the ministers are suggesting. The positive argument for the AL should be that they will not politicise the bureaucracy because the BNP had done so. They will not bring political elements into the Boards of the nationalised banks because the BNP had also done so. Otherwise, going by logic, the ruling party could as well be headed the BNP's way in the next elections.

I am not sure if the AL leadership is taking note. The enthusiasm that the nation felt with their massive victory in the last December elections is fading. Already those overwhelming majority who are not really supporters of either party but had voted the AL to power so massively because of their frustration and disappointment with the BNP are beginning to listen to the latter's views not because they like the BNP but because what they are saying is resonating some of the views that are also in their minds. When the people voted the BNP to power in 2001 almost as massively as they have done this time with the AL, they had hoped that the BNP would bring about a paradigm shift in our development. The BNP frustrated that hope. It would be a tragedy if the AL disappoints the people for the same reasons.

With the AL government in its ninth month, one cannot say that it is too early to express any definite views on this government. The time to wait and see is, I guess, over. It is time that the Prime Minister takes a firm grip of the government to get the negatives out of its system. Recently, I was very encouraged to hear one view of the prime minister over Tipaimukh. She had said that the country needs unity over it to succeed with its interests. It is time that she moves and motivates her ministers to seek with the opposition the same unity instead of blaming the BNP for the country's ills and then going ahead and dong pretty much the same.

In a TV talk show recently, two former ministers from the AL and the BNP were involved in what I thought was a very interesting and appropriate exchange of views. This was unlike one I saw a few weeks earlier when an incumbent minister and a former BNP minister came close to the point of physical exchange on issues of politics of the country. In this programme, the two former ministers agreed that cooperation of the ruling party with the opposition on key issues of governance such as economic development, foreign policy and the terrorist threat is absolutely essential for the future of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is hovering around the point from where both development to make it a middle income country and failing as a state is possible. Unity and bipartisanship will ensure the former that is also the AL's Vision 2021. The blame game being pursued by most of the Ministers will unfortunately move Bangladesh in the opposite direction, if it is not already taking us that way. Sheikh Hasina has a historic opportunity to make a paradigm shift in the country's future but to do so; she has to put political development ahead of the economic agenda with a spirit of bipartisanship.

Published in The Daily Independent, September 20, 2009

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