Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ministers, media and ministerial responsibility

As I See It Column
The Independent
August 20, 2011

M. Serajul Islam

A number of Ministers have drawn flak for comments in the media and their insensitiveness to public needs and mood in recent days, adding to a long list of Ministers of this Government who have gone before the media and raised either controversies or have humiliated themselves and the government.

The Commerce Minister asked people to eat less to tackle the twin evils of steep rise in price of essentials and poisoning of foodstuffs and drew anger from the people who are on the edge as a consequence of the Commerce Ministry’s failure to control the twin evils. The Communications Minister likewise has also drawn critical comments from his own party members and the nation on his utter insensitivity on road conditions and road safety and comments on the deaths of Tareque Masud and Mishuk Muneer at a time when the nation has come together in grief.

The Commerce Minister in a public event came up with a unique solution to control price rise of essentials and criminal adulteration of food stuffs by asking people to eat less! By” brilliant” economic logic, he explained to his audience that if people eat less, the traders would have no alternative but to bring prices down. By the same brilliant interpretation of his own perception of economics, he said that if people eat less, then those who poison our food stuff would also be forced to stop adulteration!

People wondered whether the Minister was in a mood of humour when he asked people to eat less. If that was the case, someone should tell the Minister that making humour in a public speech is a natural talent that he does not have. If he was indeed humoring, he has embarrassed himself and the government. If it was not humour, what he said was gibberish and did not make any sense at all. Probably, there is a potential Noble Prize in Economics waiting here if the Minister could write down what he said to his audience in the form of a thesis!

If it was not humour that the Minister was attempting, then he did not show that he cared for people’s sensitivity and miseries. The adulteration has reached a limit where the Government’s credibility and his, are at stake. As for the rising prices of essentials in the market, people are reeling under it. His political wisdom should have alerted him to avoid the twin subjects because one of the major issues that swept his party to power was the promise of controlling the upward trend of prices of essentials.

The Communications Minister thought that all the concern about conditions of roads was much ado about nothing. The media refused to leave him at that. The private TV channels showed video footages of the dilapidated highways. The parliamentary committee on communications, other Ministers, media and the entire nation in tandem voiced their utter disgust over the inefficiency of the Minister together with charges of corruption against him and his Ministry in a manner unheard of in Bangladesh’s history. The Minister tried shifting responsibility by blaming, first the last BNP government and then the Finance Ministry for not providing adequate funds that angered people more. The Finance Minister retorted by coming live on TV to dismiss the accusation angrily as nonsense.

Then came the deaths of Mishuk Muneer and Tareque Masud that numbed and shocked the nation. The Communications Minister failed to understand the nation’s mood or was totally unconcerned by it. He visited Tareque Masud’s injured widow to tell her that the driver of the microbus involved in the fatal accident was at fault. To add to the Government’s woes, just before the accident, the Shipping Minister requested the Commerce Minister to issue driving license to 2,700 applicants’ by-passing road tests. When the Communications Minister was questioned by the media about this request after the deaths of Mishuk Muneer and Tareque Masud, he again failed to understand public mood and gave an answer that angered the people more. Mishuk Muneer’s widow tore apart the Ministers in a manner that resonated deep in the hearts of all.

These faux passes and insensitivities of the Ministers that have crossed all limits are not doing the image of the Government any good. It is time that the Ministers realize that speaking extempore before the media is a talent that does not come naturally to most of them. It would be much better for them and the Government if they prepare properly before facing the media and read out prepared texts or let their bureaucrats to speak on behalf of their Ministries. Their love for media exposure, particularly the television is revealing a very unprofessional government. It is only the Prime Minister’s kind heart that has kept many of them in their posts. However it is past time for the Prime Minister to take a measure of the mood of the people because between the Commerce, Communications and Shipping Ministers, the fine line of tolerance has been passed by a long margin.

There is a more serious issue here that is being overlooked in the context of what our Ministers do, namely the concept of ministerial responsibility. In a parliamentary democracy, a Minister is individually responsible to the parliament for his/her conduct and for his/her duties and responsibilities. When a Minister fails to perform or causes embarrassment to the Government, he/she bears responsibility and resigns. This is the convention worldwide in a parliamentary democracy.

Unfortunately, in our parliamentary system, it is the presidential mindset that works. The “convention” that we have established is that Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the Prime Minister, not the parliament. The case of the Communications Minister is relevant in this context. With the nation in uproar for his removal, he seems to be least bothered because the Prime Minister is unwilling to acknowledge the public mood.

The Ministers are behaving in any manner they like. They do so because there is no ministerial responsibility in our system. If there was even a minimum of it, the Communications and Commerce Ministers would have lost their jobs for their utter disregard to public interests and sensitivities together with their inability to run their Ministries. It is difficult to understand from where his strength comes and why the Prime Minister should bear the responsibility of his inefficiency and disregard for public interests and sentiments as she has to eventually, come election time.

It is wake up time for the Government’s credibility to over-see what Minister say to the media. It is equally a wake up time for it to introduce some form of ministerial responsibility for sake of democracy, particularly parliamentary democracy. The words of Mishuk Muneer’s widow should move this government to do something drastic and urgently unless it is totally immune to the public mood and stop the murderers on our highways by holding the law enforcing agencies to task who are either conniving with the murderers or looking the other way. She should also ensure the responsibility of the Minister of Communications for keeping our roads murder-friendly.

Readers should spare a moment and contemplate at this moment of national crisis that in this country, one gets 10 years jail sentence for killing a tiger and 3 years for killing innocent people on the road! Why then would the fake drivers care about how many people they kill for the law and law enforcers are on their side to get them away with murder! Is human life cheaper anywhere else in the world?

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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