Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Our Surreal world

As I See It
The Independent
September 24, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I envy those who can believe that Bangladesh will become a middle-income country by the year 2021 and meantime also digital. If I knew what motivates them to have such convictions, I would not be suffering such mental anguish as I do these days.

One national event after another is frustrating me. After the government , led by its Advisers, had built a crescendo of hopes and expectations of Bangladesh becoming a regional connectivity hub and by that count, progress significantly economically, we are now searching who to blame for that dream falling flat on our face, at least for the time being.

One TV channel that was at the forefront of exposing the horrendous highways has telecast a few programmes recently on some departments/agencies of the government that are supposed to help Bangladesh become a middle income country. We would be living in a paradise of fools to believe that with such quality or the lack of it in the civil bureaucracy; we would ever come near to becoming a middle income country in the life time of those of us who are middle aged or over.

Leaks of Wiki Leaks are adding more to my frustration these days, particularly those related to our governance. In one of these leaks, Dr. Rizvi communicated to the US Ambassador the frustration of the Prime Minister about the quality of civil servants between her last term and the present term. She has given very poor marks to the civil servants assisting her present government.

Against this, there is the issue of the quality of the present cabinet. The Prime Minister herself has commented in the past on the ability of her Ministers that did not encourage the people to believe that she has confidence in most of them. Of course, she also defended them in Parliament recently when there was censure from her own party against some Ministers who were named as corrupt and inefficient. The Prime Minister’s defense confused the people even more.

Quite clearly, the Prime Minister is not depending much on her Cabinet. Leaks by Wiki Leaks have underscored this fact quoting Dr. Gowhar Rizvi. In one leaked cable, he has been quoted telling the US Ambassador that the Prime Minister has chosen Advisers like him to assist her in governance to overcome the weakness of the Cabinet.

Therefore, this government is carrying out governance with a weak cabinet and an equally weak if not weaker bureaucracy for achieving the twin objectives of becoming a middle income country and digital. I am not sure whether I can feel the same enthusiasm as those who are confident about our future. Clearly, democracy that is the key here and for that matter for any country for sustainable development is weakening not strengthening in Bangladesh. Our chosen path for democratic governance is parliamentary. Yet, in the last 4 elected parliaments, we have not seen the opposition that is an integral and indispensible part of parliamentary democracy, in attendance.

I was inspired by a ruling party parliamentarian and a chairman of a parliamentary committee who articulated recently the importance of the opposition in the TV Talk Show Tritio Matra. He asked the present opposition not to seek the redress to their grievances in the streets but to speak out in the parliament. My inspiration vanished when I sensed he was hitting the BNP below the belt for boycotting the parliament.

Of course, the BNP’s decision to boycott the parliament must be criticized. However, this parliamentarian missed out 2 critical points. First, he did not look at the role of his party for which the opposition feels necessary to stay out. Second, the “tradition” for boycotting the parliament was set not by the BNP but by his party. I never understood why the BNP did not allow the AL whatever time and opportunity they needed to speak in the last Palriament given the majority they had. With the AL now enjoying even a larger majority, it makes even less sense that the ruling party is making it difficult for the opposition to attend parliament.

We have to look beyond a weak cabinet, a weaker bureaucracy and a non-functional parliament in order to believe about a bright future for Bangladesh. Can a Prime Minister with six or seven Advisers really achieve the election promises of the Government with such a system? I have full faith in the ability of the Prime Minister but I would need much more than faith to believe that she would be able to carry the country forward with a government functioning the way it is.

As for the Advisers, questions are already being raised about their role. With full respect to their abilities and capabilities, there is an issue of democracy that is being compromised. There is a saying that says “nothing succeeds like success”. As long as there are successes that the people can see, they would not be bothered. Now with the government stuck on the core issues, the Advisers are being criticized and such criticisms are bound to increase in the days ahead.

The case of the Adviser who dealt with India is a case in point. Some of the Bangla newspapers have written about him a lot of things that are either incorrect or unfair. But this was bound to happen because what he promised would be the outcome of the visit did not emerge as India backtracked on the promises it made. When the media criticized the Adviser, it touched a right chord among the people who felt like asking why he was leading the negotiations and not representatives they elected.

We now have the Minister who thought he had weathered the storm of public anger that wanted him to resign doing something unbelievable. He has turned to an NGO, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) for a “good character” certificate! I am sure this is the first time that a Minister has done such a thing anywhere. When the ACC Chairman called his act “not right”, he turned to the ACC for the good character certificate.

The Minister’s desperation for a “good character” certificate came after a World Bank Vice-President arrived in Dhaka and conveyed the politically disastrous news that the WB would hold back financing the US$ 2.7 billion Padma Bridge, a project crucial to the ruling party for the next elections on allegations of corruption.

All these have created a surreal environment around governance. There are fundamental errors in the way we are being governed. We need a capable cabinet; an efficient and neutral bureaucracy; a functioning parliament and a working relationship between the ruling party and the opposition. The Prime Minister should have Advisers but to assist her and not supervise the Ministers.

Unfortunately none of these conditions exist or if they do, they exist in distorted ways, in the way we are being governed. The result of such governance cannot be positive. Thus we see plenty of negatives all around us. We have Ministers saying unbelievable things, like the Commerce Minister asking us to eat less to keep prices down! Those who are claiming we are moving in the right direction are building and sustaining this surreal world for us. They are also those who have the eyes and ears of the Prime Minister.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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