December 18, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
If democracy is the freedom of speech, then our Government is the most democratic by a long stretch in the context of allowing its Ministers/Advisers absolute freedom to speak as they like. Take the Padma Bridge as an example. We all know that the World Bank stopped funding the mega project worth US$ 2.7 billion on charges of corruption in the Ministry of Communications. It had specific charges against the Minister in charge of the Ministry and asked for his removal. JICA and ADB also followed the WB.
The Government initially refused to accept the WB request and made a few proposals to it. Nothing worked. Finally, the Minister was removed to another Ministry. Yet the WB did not relent, at least not yet. This angered the Prime Minister who blasted at the WB and other international financial agencies. She vowed she would build not just the Padma Bridge but another over the Padma River and many other bridges with fund from private international financial agencies. She also referred to interest of certain countries to build the Padma Bridge.
The new Communications Minister does not seem to be on the same wave length with the Prime Minister. He has already started talking with the WB local office for a favourable response to the removal of his predecessor. He seems to feel that the WB would withdraw its objection and start funding the Padma Bridge. At the official level, it is being said that the ball is now in WB court and that it would have no option but to withdraw its objection.
More of “democracy Bangladesh style” is evident on the issue of Tippaimukh. The Prime Minister has said that she would not allow India to do anything that would harm Bangladesh over Tippaimukh. Her Adviser has very recently scribed a piece in a local English Daily stating firm conviction that India would not do anything to harm Bangladesh. His belief in India and its Prime Minister is quintessential. He just cannot understand the concerns in Bangladesh over Tippaimukh.
It is not just that there is discrepancy between the Prime Minister and her Adviser over Tippaimukh. There are serious differences between the ruling party and its principal ally, the Jatiya Party over it. The Government’s official position, despite the Prime Minister suggesting some concern, is one of total trust in India. Between the Prime Minister’s Adviser Gowhar Rizvi and the Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, the Government’s case has been stated unequivocally that there is not even the reason to ask India questions over Tippaimukh.
Nevertheless, General Ershad believes that all work of the Government must stop till we succeed in forcing India to abandon the Tippaimukh project. His party is an important coalition partner of the ruling party and hence is a part of the Government. Therefore President Ershad’s strong public stance against the ruling party’s stand is either a sign of democracy of a peculiar type or rumblings within the coalition. It however underscores the fact that the frustration and the opposition on the Tippaimukh project is one that the ruling party cannot simply wish away as the Adviser to the Prime Minister seems to be doing.
Even if one is to accept Dr. Rizvi’s arguments that the Tippaimukh will not harm us in anyway, there is a lot to be said about the matter. It is still the Indian Government and Dr. Rizvi and a few others in and around the Prime Minister who are saying the good things about Tippaimukh. What do these individuals want to do for the anger, fear and frustration among the people of Bangladesh over Tippaimukh? For one, no matter what arguments the Prime Minister’s aides bring to explain the Tippaimukh, the Indians have destroyed their credibility by withdrawing the Teesta deal and going ahead with Tippaimukh without taking Bangladesh into confidence after they had so strongly argued the Indian interests.
The other issue is one that has always been there, only the Prime Minister’s men (and woman) for some unexplained reason did not notice. This is the way India has treated us over Teesta and Tippaimukh that fits a pattern. In the history of Bangladesh-India relations, India has treated us as a big brother to decide what is in our interest when an AL Government is in office. When the BNP is in power that India perceives as unfriendly, it acts as the bully. With Tippaimukh, the Prime Minister’s aides are telling us to believe that our big brother cannot harm us. The aides could not have been further removed from ground reality if what the people of Bangladesh thinks are of any consequence to them.
The handling of Padma Bridge and Tippaimukh are examples of what is wrong in the way Bangladesh conducts its foreign relations. Although there is need to be democratic in any activity of the government, the sort of democracy we are seeing under this government on foreign relations is one leading us to disaster. Someone with sense from among the Prime Minister’s closest circle should flag for her to show her that on both these issues, her Ministers and aides have spoken in a manner that has suggested than the hand does not where the glove is. Many in Government have spoken on these issues who have no business or authority to speak on these issues at all. Many have spoken on India in a manner that the Indians themselves would have been embarrassed to speak.
The Prime Minister often has spoken strongly on for example the WB in a manner that would have been better done out of the media. Sending such salvos does not help her own image or the country’s interests. It will only make the efforts of her officials difficult in negotiating WB funds that her government, her salvos notwithstanding, is no doubt pursuing. Then again, WB is crucial for funding other development projects in the country. Creating bad blood with it would only hamper the smooth flow of these funds. Getting funds for future development projects from private sources would be difficult and costly that economists in the country have already flagged following the Prime Minister’s strong words against the WB.
In case of Tippaimukh and generally with leading Bangladesh’s talks with India, the lack of coordination among those negotiating has been palpably evident. The team has ended up negotiating India’s case more strongly than the Indians. In fact, while it is the responsibility of the Indian Government to explain the fears in minds of most Bangladeshis on the proposed Tippaimukh Dam given the concessions and commitments Bangladesh made since the present government came to power, it is our negotiators who are instead being seen acting as lobbyists of the Indian Government.
It is time for the Government to get its house in order on foreign policy issues if it is already not too late. With such lack of coordination with no known leader, it does not need a crystal ball to predict that we would not be able to achieve our foreign policy goals, as we have not. With such way of conducting foreign policy it is not just that we are failing to achieve our national interests; even our respect as a sovereign nation is being jeopardized.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan