Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Search of truth in Public Affairs

Daily Syn,May 1st., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I write rather frequently these days for newspapers on current affairs. I face an ordeal for almost every piece I write on our domestic and foreign affairs because of the difficulty in assessing facts and the truth regarding major issues of our national and foreign affairs.

Take for instance the important visit of the Indian Minister for Commerce to Dhaka. One English Daily’s caption on the visit reads: “India to pay land transit fees.” The minister, according to this paper, said categorically that India would pay transit charges based on “internationally established” norms. The minister deals with WTO affairs on behalf of India and should know WTO provisions like the back of his palm. What happens then to the statements made by important people representing this government that Bangladesh cannot charge any transit fees from India? The issue is a subject of critical importance in Bangladesh-India relations, one that the opposition has rejected outright. In fact, not long ago, the idea itself was pariah and was not uttered in public, not even by the Awami League Government when it was in power the last time.

However, here lies a big problem not just for me but for Bangladesh. Something unusual has been happening with this government since it assumed office. Often while speaking on major national and foreign affairs issues, the ministers contradict their own statements and public utterances. The ministers and party leaders also often contradict one another on such issues publicly. Our ministers and party leaders often play the game of contradictions for totally inexplicable reasons sometimes; at times for purely their own self-interests and often because they love to speak to the media, particularly the private TV channels.

Hence it is hardly surprising that the Minister for Finance called late President Ziaur Rahman “a great war hero”. I am sure when he said this at the function of the Foreign Ministry honouring diplomats who had defected in 1971; he had not forgotten that a good number of his Cabinet and party colleagues have identified the late president as a collaborator, a Razakar and a Pakistan agent! There is of course no doubt that President Ziaur Rahman was exactly what Mr. Muhit has said. The declaration of independence he read on Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was heard by millions, not once, but over and over again in those nine months of our liberation war. He also led the fight for liberation as a Sector Commander and fought the enemy within the soil of Bangladesh.

The Finance Minister has also cleared Grameen Bank on two counts of alleged wrongdoing based on a report by a government constituted committee. He has given it a clean chit over the Norwegian fund. He has also said that the 20% interest rate GB charge is the lowest among the micro-credit institutions of the country. On both, the statements contradict the Prime Minister and many of his cabinet colleagues and fellow senior party members! While the Adviser for Power has given assurance that our misfortune with power outages are going to end soon, the Parliamentary Committee on Power has said that we cannot expect respite from power shortages for a decade more.

On the issue of the constitutional amendments, our ministers have done the same thing. Some of the ministers have said that the 1972 Constitution should be restored in its original form; that the Islamic insertions made by the 5th and 7th amendments should go to restore its secular character and that Jamat should be banned because it uses Islam for political ends. Other Ministers have said that while secularism should be restored as it is the Court’s verdict, certain Islamic provisions brought by amendments should not be touched, like the insertion of Bismillah and Islam as a state religion through the 7th amendment. For a long time, ministers were unanimous in demanding the banning of Jamat. Recently, the Prime Minister has drawn the line by stating that secularism would be restored but the Islamic provisions would remain and Jamat would not be banned. A former Minister for Home Mr. M. Nasim has only the other day said that it would no longer be possible to restore the 1972 constitution!

Very recently, on the issue of the share marker scam, the same lack of well coordinated views from ministers and important ruling party leaders were obvious once again. For a Committee handling a very sensitive issue, it was almost eerie the way the Minister for Finance and the Chairman of the Committee played out the issue in the media. The Finance Minister stated categorically publicly that the Report would be made public only after names that were mentioned in it were edited. The Chairman of the Committee went to a private TV channel and without blinking an eyelid named a number of well known individuals from the business community for wrongdoing that he himself contradicted later, again on a private TV channel. The strangest thing of all surrounding the public drama played with the Report was that while the Finance Minister insisted on not making the Report public, all who wanted to read an unedited copy of the Report was given one through the Internet – courtesy of the internet based newspaper The SEC that was at the receiving end as one held the guilty party in the Report has now come out with a statement blaming the Committee of bias and lack of professional competence.

In this game of contradictions, no one with the responsibility on behalf of the government cared to consider the plight of many thousands of people who were taken for a ride in the share market scam and reportedly lost their fortunes. These people were seen in public display of their anger as they went breaking cars and vehicles for days together and ended their frustration by blocking the road in front of the DSE, kneeling in prayers, to rest their case with the Almighty knowing the futility of expecting action from the government.

It is high time that some sense is brought into the way leaders of this government are confusing the people and even themselves by making statements on important public issues without checking facts or without consulting one another. Ministers and advisers have specific responsibilities and charges. They should confine their public statements only in the context of their own responsibilities. There is therefore the urgent need of some coordinating mechanism for ministers/advisers when they speak in public on any issue that they share with other ministers/advisers. They should also be strongly advised not to comment on issues of national importance for which they are not responsible as ministers/advisers.

One hopes that Mr. Sharma’s categorical statement will lay to rest the un-necessary controversy over India using Bangladesh’s roads for economic reasons. In fact, someone in this government should make an effort to go back to the Joint Communiqué issued after our Prime Minister’s visit to India to see why we are talking of land transit (which in Bangladesh-India context means carrying goods from mainland India to its northeastern states through Bangladesh) when the JC just recommends for use by India of the Chittagong and Mongla Ports to carry goods to and from India.

In any case, the controversies that the ministers/advisers raise in public mind by their statements to the media that they themselves often contradict as well as get contradicted by their colleagues should stop forthwith to enhance the credibility of the government and in the interest of the nation and truth.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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