Monday, February 27, 2012

Our Hon’ble Ministers and contradictions

The Independent
As I See It Column
The Independent
February 25, 2012

In its 18th February edition, The Independent carried the comments of two Ministers on the recent visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State Mr. Robert Blake. Minister of Railways Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta, the Minister ever ready to speak to the media on any issue, said that Bangladesh does not run on directives of people like Mr. Blake. He went on to say that if it had, Bangladesh would not have been independent. The Minister of Law speaking to the media on the same subject, reacted differently. He said that the US Assistant Secretary was right in suggesting consensus between the two mainstream parties on the way the next general elections would be conducted.

The two Ministers clearly contradicted each other. The Railways Minister was upholding the view of the Government that as the Interim Government was a done deal, the Opposition would have no alternative but to accept election under the Interim Government which has now been made a part of the Constitution. The Law Minister was suggesting a consensus because like the rest of the country, except a few in the ruling party, he knows that a general election to transfer power from this government to the next peacefully cannot be done without the BNP contesting in the polls.
The two Ministers, in taking opposing views, have brought to the surface the fact that even within the ruling party, there is a view that an election without the BNP would not be a legitimate election and would be a prescription for disaster. Even Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta, barring this instance, has spoken in the past about the need for the BNP to talk with the AL in the parliament so that the gridlock on the system to be acceptable for the next election is resolved.
Although the statements revealed the lack of consensus within the ruling party about going to elections without the BNP, it was nevertheless not their intention to do so. They spoke as Ministers of this Government are accustomed to speak, spontaneously and without checking with colleagues, and often without checking with facts. In both instances, the Ministers spoke because the private TV channels follow them all the time like bees to beehives. They just speak on whatever the private TV channels want to know from them.
In the good old days, when the private TV channels were not around, Ministers faced the media only when they knew what questions would be asked of them. They had a Public Relations Officer who was the Minister’s go between with the media. The PRO would receive the questions from the media in advance and give it to the Minister. The Minister would then let his bureaucrats prepare answers after checking facts and often after consulting relevant Ministries and departments. Thus in those days, when a Minister spoke, there was seldom if ever a situation where he was found to be contradicting any of his colleague or talking as the cliché goes, through the hat , something that our Ministers are these days doing regularly.

In case of these two Ministers, there are more issues to be considered with the statements they made regarding Mr. Blake. The Assistant Secretary’s visit was a responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Rules of Business and Allocations of Business that distributes the work of the Government among the Ministries do not give either the Minister of Railways or the Minister of Law the responsibility to speak on a visit handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet they spoke because neither it seems was aware of the Rules of Business or Allocations of Business. If they were, they did not seem to have any regard for these two documents or else they would not have spoken independently on Mr. Blake’s’ visit and ended up contradicting each other.

In fact both these fundamental documents have fallen by the wayside. In case of the Foreign Ministry, the less said is the better for the Ministry itself seems also to have forgotten what its actual functions and responsibilities are. Of course, it may also not be fair to blame the Foreign Ministry entirely for the state of affairs relating to responsibilities of Ministers and contradictions galore resulting in disregarding the ROB and AOB. Since this government has assumed office, Ministers have not just been contradicting their colleagues regularly; some Ministers like the Minister for Finance has been contradicting his own statements routinely. Ministers have also been freely speaking on other Ministries like no division of responsibilities existed among them. In this regard, the poor Foreign Ministry has been at the receiving end with almost every Minister believing that issues of foreign affairs are his/her business.

In the game of contradictions in the media, the recent one involving the Ministers of Finance and the Communications over Padma Bridge financing is even more embarrassing than the one involving the Ministers of Railways and Law. After the Finance Minister spoke in the media that the Government cannot go for funding of the Bridge to any other source without annulling the one signed with the WB that would not happen before July under normal circumstances, the Minister of Communications stated in the media that all questions over the funding would be over in a month. He later said that in 11 months, the work on the Bridge would start after all issues related to its funding are resolved. Clearly, the two Ministers to the public’s consternation have openly demonstrated that they are at loggerheads over the issue of Padma Bridge funding.

The Finance Minister was both within his competence and correct when he said that the sovereign agreement signed between the government of Bangladesh and the WB/ADB/JICA would have to be annulled before seeking funds elsewhere. As the WB had unilaterally extended till July to decide on whether it would withdraw its temporary embargo on funding, the Finance Minister had said in his media statement that the Government would have to wait till then for seeking fund from other sources. His statement contradicted the Minister of Communication who had earlier said that Malaysia would fund the project and an agreement with it would be signed on February 21st.

The issue of funding of the Bridge had fallen under a spanner in September last year over the issue of alleged corruption of then Minister of Communications. The Prime Minister in a cabinet meeting directed those concerned not to wait for WB and seek other sources for the Padma Bridge funding. The Finance Minister should have then pointed out the legal obstacle of seeking funding elsewhere without annulling the agreements with WB/ADB/JICA. To make the Prime Minister happy, the concerned Ministers/officials forgot about the sovereign agreement with WB/ADB/JICA. Upon assuming office, the new Minister of Communications stated categorically that Malaysia would fund the project. A Special Envoy came from Malaysia for this purpose.

The Minister for Communications no doubt is acting out of his desire to make the Prime Minister happy and seems little concerned over small matters such as sovereignty guarantee. He is now about to make more serious mistakes as his Ministry is moving to annul the agreements with the WB/ADB and JICA. He seems to have set aside the huge importance of all three to economic development of Bangladesh and that showing anger at them would have adverse consequences for the future.

In the game of contradictions of the Ministers, “small” facts are becoming casualties. These are, first, Malaysia would be funding the project as a broker and funds would be raised at the market rate well over 10% against WB’s offer of less than 1%. Second, the fund would be raised in Dubai and would be subject to difficult conditions. Finally, the contractors of the bridge would probably be Chinese that raises the question why then not approach the Chinese directly? Clearly, in the game of contradictions of the Ministers, it is not only poor governance that comes out but also the fact that national interests are sacrificed because the Ministers also play the game of pleasing the Prime Minister and not what they are bound by the oath they take, that they will uphold the interests of the country over all else.

The writer of a former Ambassador to Japan

Why should the BNP attend Parliament?

February 24, 2012
M. Serjul Islam

A legitimate allegation against the BNP in the last 3 years of the AL rule has been its boycott of the Parliament. In a parliamentary system, the Parliament is the centre of gravity around which the entire political system revolves. In it, the opposition is as important as the ruling party exemplified in Great Britain where the opposition is officially called Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh is not Great Britain and there are very few points of similarity in the two countries for proper comparison. Yet, the decision of the BNP to boycott the Parliament as if it did not exist is not a good thing for parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, no matter how severely the BNP is criticized; that criticism would look harsh if the realities of our politics is taken for consideration to make a value judgment on the BNP’s boycott of the Parliament.

Unfortunately, the Parliament in Bangladesh has not emerged by a long stretch of imagination as anywhere near what is required to make a parliamentary system functional. That the parliament has come to this sad stage is not the fault of the BNP alone. The AL has also contributed its share. In fact, it is the AL that had taken the leadership to make the parliament dysfunctional. From the very first Parliament of the country, the cardinal principle on which a parliamentary democracy stands, namely the right of free expression of views inside the Parliament, was gagged. The first Parliament came into being after a war of liberation that had fundamentally affected every sector of the country in a bloody manner, with death and destruction.

In that Parliament, the stature of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was so absolute that even the idea that someone would stand in Parliament and criticize his action or that of the Awami League was totally inconceivable. There was also no effective political party in the Opposition to play the role required from the opposition in a parliamentary democracy. Hence, our start was a bad one if it was parliamentary democracy that we were seeking to turn into reality the dreams for which hundreds of thousands had laid down their lives and created Bangladesh.

In his life time, the Father of the Nation ended our tryst with parliamentary democracy by the BAKSAL amendment. Those first few years when the true seeds of good governance under a parliament system could have been sown were wasted, first, by trying out parliamentary democracy where no role was envisaged for the opposition, then, by the BAKSAL amendment that tried to end for good even the concept that there could be any opposition to the Government by introducing one party system.

Those formative years also established the political mindset where those who followed, whether they have been uniformed or elected, have followed the need to make the role of the opposition as insignificant as possible. In fact, it has been the uniformed rulers who have sought to broaden the role of those who were not part of the government in the process of governance. They of course did so selectively but nevertheless they sought to take those they considered useful from the ranks of the opposition to talk with them because they were seeking legitimacy for their backdoor entry to power.
The fall of the military dictatorship of President Ershad was supposed to help establish parliamentary democracy again after 15 years of Presidential rule under the military governments. In fact, both the mainstream parties agreed to bring back parliamentary democracy when fighting unitedly against President Ershad. After his fall, parliamentary democracy was reinstated. Unfortunately, the political mindset of governance without opposition was also re-established although meanwhile the weak almost non-existent opposition that was the case during the first AL rule as well as during the period of the military was replaced by a two-party political system that is considered ideal for parliamentary democracy of the Westminster model.

In the first BNP tenure under Khaleda Zia however it was not the ruling party’s mindset to sideline the opposition that was the main reason why the opposition did not play its role in the parliament. The AL chose to leave the parliament to force down the BNP Government that it claimed wrongly to have been elected by fraudulent means by movement in the streets, through hartals. That set the traditions in our politics to sideline the Parliament to bring down the government by force. In fact, the tradition not to go to the Parliament for realizing political demands was introduced in our politics by the Awami League in the 1991-1996 tenure of the BNP.

In its 1996-2001 term of office, the BNP followed the AL’s example to take politics to the streets. The AL also ensured that the BNP would remain away from the Parliament by not allowing it space in the deliberations of the legislative body. By the time the BNP came around, the politics of conflict and distrust in which the two mainstream parties contributed their share ensured that the Parliament would be an institution where the praises of the ruling party and its leaders dead and alive wound be sung and the opposition party’s leaders dead and alive would be condemned.

When the AL won the last elections by a 3/4th majority, the traditions of our negative politics were deeply entrenched. The fact that the BNP won a historically low number of seats marginalized them even further in the context of participating in the Parliament. In the last 3 years, the AL has condemned the BNP for staying out of the Parliament while making not even the slightest effort to welcome them to it. The AL Parliamentarians have gone to the extent of naming late President Ziaur Rahman as an agent of Pakistan’s ISI! There have been insinuations of the worst type against the BNP leaders that can be anything but incentives to bring the party to parliament. In fact while rendering lip service to the need of the BNP to come to parliament, the AL leaders did everything inside the parliament and out of it to ensure that the BNP would stay out of it permanently.

On the rare occasions under this government that the BNP parliamentarians have attended Parliament, they have also shown scant respect for the leaders dead and alive of the ruling party in the true spirit of tit for tat. The public has been utterly frustrated by the attitude the parties have shown in Parliament with the ruling party doing much better in the game of abuse. These days, sessions of the parliament are shown live. Watching these sessions is nothing short of torture. The quality of deliberations is abjectly poor barring few honourable exceptions. With due respect to women empowerment, those who sit in Parliament on women’s quota do not do themselves or the gender they represent any favour at all. The thing that comes out strongly with what happens in our parliament these days is the competition of the members to shower praises at the Prime Minister, her government and of course at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The only new element in parliamentary deliberations these days and a strange one at that in a parliamentary democracy is the role of some members of the ruling party. Some of their criticisms on ministers of this government and governance would beat the BNP if it was making these criticisms. This no doubt is a reflection of the division within the ruling party with the group that has fallen out of grace due to the role they played against the party during the last CG making the criticisms. Two members of this group have now been silenced with their induction into the Cabinet.

The BNP’s case for not attending the Parliament was perfectly made by the new woman member of Parliament. Her tirade against the BNP and particularly against Khaleda Zia was so full of unparliamentarily language that one English Daily while carrying the news refused to print what she said in view of the venomous language in which she spoke. What was worse was the fact that the Speaker granted her five extra minutes in addition to the 10 she was allotted so that she could carry on with what she was saying. Her speech was applauded and clapped by the Parliamentarians among whom the Prime Minister herself was present.

Clearly, in the “traditions” that have been set in Bangladesh; there is no reason why an opposition party should attend its parliament. The offer that the present ruling party makes all the time that the opposition should place the points it raises in public meetings in the Parliament make very little sense. In the present mindset of the ruling party parliamentarians, the BNP members of parliament would be wasting their time and offering themselves for abuse by attending the parliament. The way this new woman Member of Parliament abused the BNP and Khaleda Zia that the rest of the ruling party members enjoyed that newspapers found disgusting even to print should convince anyone why the BNP should not attend parliament.

The absurd point is the folly in all these that the ruling party does not see. With the floodgate of private TV stations, people are witnessing first stand how democracy is being trampled. The woman MP may have made her party colleagues happy. What she did not realize and her party colleagues too is that voters have seen her act. They would not be encouraged to vote for her party because they too found what she said , disgusting. If only the AL had been a little generous with its 3/4th majority and allowed the BNP time and space in parliament instead of humiliating and abusing the party, it would have gained a lot politically without weakening its position even a little bit. One wonders whether common sense has taken leave of our politics and politicians.

The tirade of the woman MP would convince the BNP even more to stay out of Parliament. They are doing a pretty good job flagging for the people the mistakes of the Government through their long marches and public meetings and earning points for the next general elections. In the parliament without it, the ruling party is helping its cause. At this stage only a firm assurance to restore the CG system could encourage the BNP to return to parliament.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Padma Bridge Fiasco

Daily Sun
19 February, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Finance Minister’s categorical statement that no MOU would be signed on the 21st of February with Malaysia for financing the Padma Bridge has come belatedly but nevertheless a correct one. The Communications Minister and others in Government had helped build public expectations around Malaysian interest in the project as an alternative to the WB, the ABD and JICA for temporarily suspending financing the mega project on the issue of corruption.

Someone at the higher level of the Government must have forgotten a very simple matter of legal nature related to contracts. In the days we served in the Government, even a Section Officer was knowledgeable enough to know of this huge blunder that this Government committed on the issue of Malaysian funding in the manner it has talked to the media. The Minister of Communications committed a gaffe of the highest order when he called the media to his office and proudly informed that the Government would sign a MOU on the 21st of February with Malaysia on the Padma Bridge project.

Clearly, he was not aware of the legal issues related to international contracts. That he was not aware was flagged by his colleague the Minister of Finance. While talking to the media, he said that the World Bank had unilaterally deferred a final decision on whether or not to finance the Padma Bridge project till July this year. The Minister also said that before Bangladesh could seek funding from Malaysian sources or elsewhere Bangladesh would have to “withdraw or cancel our agreements with the WB, ADB and the Japanese donors”.

The Finance Minister also gave a few details about the Malaysian interest in Padma Bridge Project that also puts the Minister for Communication on a spot. He said that the proposed funding from Malaysia would be under private public partnership (PPP) for which a lot of work would be required to be done before such an agreement is signed. Clearly, the two Ministers have publicly spoken at cross purposes on an important and politically sensitive issue.

The Padma Bridge project is a major election promise of the ruling party. A lot depends on this project for its performance in the next elections. This project had been lying with the donors, meaning the World Bank, the ADB and Japan for a long time. In fact, the previous BNP Government had also strongly pursued this project with these donors and had been helpful in pushing the project in the right direction. Therefore, except for agreeing to details, the project had matured for signing the financing details soon after the AL Government assumed office in early 2009. In fact, the Bangladesh Government and the WB, the ADB and JICA went ahead and signed the project early last year with enough time for it to be started and finished under the tenure of this government.

Hence when the issue of corruption emerged surrounding the project, it came as a very bad news for the ruling party. The charge of corruption of the WB against the Minister of Communications was also very unusual as this was tantamount to interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. By coincidence, the same Minister also became involved in charges against him of incompetence in the communication sector of the country. The WB charge and public wrath against him created a surreal situation in governance. The Prime Minister hesitated in removing him; her hesitation later turning into anger against the WB.

Aware of the PM’s anger on the WB, her Ministers and her aides added fuel to the fire. They made disparaging comments of the World Bank. To get on the right side of the Prime Minister, these officials went ahead and congratulated the Prime Minister for her courage and wisdom for daring to stand against the WB that no past Prime Minister of Bangladesh had dared. They also gave statements where they made it appear like there were governments and private donors waiting to finance this project. These officials mentioned Malaysian Government’s interest in financing the project.

Upon becoming the Minister of Communications, Mr. Obaidul Quader started speaking on the Malaysian interest in the media strongly. A Special Envoy of the Prime Minister also visited Bangladesh that raised public expectations. The news was given to the media in a manner to suggest that it is the Government of Malaysia that is interested to finance the project and that the Special Envoy has been sent by the Malaysian Prime Minister to our Prime Minister for this purpose.

The Finance Minister dispelled some of the misconceptions surrounding the Malaysian interest. The offer did not come from the Malaysian Government to the Government of Bangladesh. It has been made under private public partnership that brings with it certain damning issues, one of which is in quality of funding. The World Bank may not be the best of donors in the context of conditions. Nevertheless, it is by far the best in the context of what matters to Bangladesh most. It is the cheapest source of credit with maximum repayment time frame when compared to other donors.

Meanwhile other eyebrow raising facts have come to surface about this Malaysian connection. Malaysia has simply offered to raise the funds and that too in Dubai. The interest rate to be offered would be at market rate well over 10% against WB’s less than 1% rate and repayment period would be much shorter than what WB offers. Also, the Malaysians who are interested to finance the project would be merely brokers in the project and the project would be given to the Chinese for construction. Clearly, in this intransparent and complicated process, the project would not only be delayed but its costs would also be enhanced substantially.

The only rational course for the Government should have been to remove the Minister of Communications from the Cabinet that would have satisfied the WB to resume the funding for the Padma Bridge Project that it held up primarily on account of him. It would also have satisfied the people who were asking for his removal on separate issues that would have helped the ruling party politically. By changing his portfolio, the Government accepted the WB’s allegations of corruption against him but by keeping him in the Cabinet; it has discouraged the WB to agree to withdraw its temporary objection to fund the project. In the process, the Government’s hard to understand decision with the Minister also irritated the ABD and JICA that have agreements with the Bangladesh Government to co-finance the project and have fully endorsed the stand of the WB on the issue. All in all, by some strange and poor handling, the Government has made a mess of a very important economic infra-structure project.

The mess over the Padma Bridge is also another example of the well known lack of coordination among the Ministers of this Government. If the Minister of Communications had talked with the Finance Minister, the latter would have told him about the legal problem of signing a MOU with Malaysia without annulling the agreement with the WB. It now seems that the former did not even consult his own Ministry as many in the Bridges Division under him have spoken to the media on condition of anonymity about it. Also, it is strange why the Finance Minister waited this long to speak publicly about the folly of the Minister of Communications. The Ministers of this Government make mistakes galore because of their eagerness to make the Prime Minister happy or fear to tell her the hard truth. In the process, all they do is lower the credibility of this government as well as embarrassing it routinely.

At the time of filing this piece, the Communications Minister, challenged by the Finance Minister, has stated that all uncertainties over the Padma Bridge would go in a month. Are the Ministers playing some sort of a game? Cleary governance is becoming eerie!

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan.

On Bangladesh Premier League

As I See It Column
The Independent
Saturday, 18 February, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

We are copy cats indeed. We love to hate our big neighbour for justifiable reasons on issues of Teesta, Tippaimukh and Felani. Yet our love for what happens in India in culture, sports and the rest is ever increasing. Any popular TV programme on Indian TV will invariably have a Bangladeshi re-make. We have even had the misplaced courage of copying the Indian programme “Kone Banega Crorepati” which is a remake of the widely popular British programme “Who wants to be a millionaire.” The Bangladesh TV channel that undertook to do the programme was not bothered that it is Super Star Amitabh Bacchan who conducts the Indian programme. No wonder, ours has been a flop.
In fact, we have been very poor copy cats in our efforts in following India in most cases. We are about to make a major mistake in being a copy cat of Indian cricket. The Indian Premier League or the IPL that had taken the cricket world by storm in 2008 is expected to have a brand value of US $ 3.67 billion in its fourth season this year. The commercialism of IPL that has affected Indian cricket disastrously has now about to do the same to our cricket. We are witnessing on our cricket fields our cricketers mingling with overseas “acquisitions” for a remake of the Indian IPL. Cricket in Bangladesh that is under threat for its existence on cricketing abilities has now been exposed to additional pressure by the lures of money.

Former test cricketer of Pakistan Imran Khan who knows cricket much better than his current preoccupation with politics said recently that India’s current predicament in test cricket is due to its indulgence with the IPL or the shortest version of cricket, the T20 format. Imran Khan said : If you want to be the leaders you can't keep losing. If you pay so much emphasis on Twenty20 cricket, you've got to pay hugely." Imran Khan’s comment came in the wake of India’s 4-0 whitewash in the hands of the Australians in Australia. Of the four losses, three were innings defeats. The 4-0 whitewash came after a similar 4-0 whitewash in England.
India’s Test humiliations came abruptly after it had won the T20 world championship, the ICC limited overs championship and had reached the top of the ICC Test ratings. It is just not that India alone has fallen into such disgrace in the Test format of cricket. In recent times, all the Test playing countries have shown bizarre form in playing Test matches. In the Australia-South Africa series played last year in South Africa, in the first Test in Cape Town, Australia was shot out for 47 after bowling South Africa for 96 just in the previous innings! In both cases, the pitch was in no way responsible or exceptional bowling for such weird display of batting. We have witnessed bizarre batting in the recent Pakistan-England series played in the UAE. In the good old days of cricket before the shorter version, in particular the T20 format was discovered; cricket was never susceptible to such weird batting display.

It would be interesting to consider what Shakib Al Hassan had to say about the T20 format not very long ago after he topped the ICC list as an all rounder in Test and 50 overs’ cricket. He said that for the T20 format, it is sheer luck that is the deciding factor in success or failure. Talent is a necessary to get into the team but by no means the important one in succeeding. What Saquib Al Hasan said is more or less what Imran Khan said; that T20 format is what is disastrous to Test cricket.

All Test playing countries have realized the adverse effect of the shorter versions on Test cricket and have tried to prepare themselves accordingly but to varying degrees. The realization came slowly though. Initially, the Test cricket playing countries had put forward the argument that a good Test cricketer could play any format of the game because it needed the best talent to play test cricket and it was just a matter of adjusting between Test cricket and the other formats. Such an argument was necessary because fans were fast losing interest in Test cricket and something needed to be done to save Test cricket.

As long as T20 was not in the scene, the argument worked and barring a very few additions/omissions, most countries played the same team in Tests and 50 overs’ cricket. Fifty overs’ cricket still allowed cricket to be played like Test cricket but more aggressively. It still required a batsman to be adept in defending as well as attacking. In the 50/50 version, there was enough space for Test cricketers and all top Test cricketers have also played the 50/50 version, switching easily between the two.

The T20 format has changed it all and the change has come like a storm. The instant nature of T20 leaves little time to think, defend or play in any manner but to attack for the sake of attacking. It leaves out all the charms of Test cricket or for that matter of the longer versions of cricket. T20 aims to cram in those 40 overs or a little over 3 hours all the sensation that makes other spectator sports such as football so popular. More importantly, the T20 format has been driven by commercialism that has turned a cricketer into a product to be bought and sold in the market. It is such commercialism that sells an average cricketer like India Ajay Jadeja for US$ 2 million dollars while many incredibly talented and brilliant players remain “unsold”!

All Test cricket playing countries have now realized that T20 cricket and Test cricket have little in common. Australia is the leading example. After its recent performances in Test cricket ending with the just concluded Test series with India that has seen it fall from the top of ICC Test ratings where it had remained for many years, Australia is in the process of making amends. The two T 20 games it has played with India recently included only 3 who were in the Test team. Australia even changed the Captain for its T20 team!

At this stage where all Test playing countries are worried with T20 because of its adverse impact on Test cricket that BPL comes before our cricket. We seem to believe that anyone who can play Test cricket can also play 50/50 as well as the T20 format. In the recent Test series where we were whitewashed by Zimbabwe, England and Pakistan, we saw how clearly our Test cricketers have been adversely affected by the T20 format. Our batsmen played both Test and 50/50 formats like the T20 format that was one of the main cause for our miserable performance where defeats have just not humiliated us; forces are speaking loudly whether we should continue to enjoy Test status! The fall of Tamim Iqbal who in 2010 was named the Test batsman of the year by Wisden to a less than average batsman in all formats of the game, in particular Test cricket, is a case in point as to how badly T20 has affected Bangladesh cricket.

The BPL has thus come to Bangladesh when our Test cricket status is at threat and our ability to play it at the top level very fragile. In selling the BPL in Bangladesh, the sellers who are also in control of the future of our cricket have argued that by the BPL our cricketers would gather experience that would bear them in good stead in all formats of the game. The argument is a lame one for a few reasons. First, as both Imran Khan and Saquib Al Hasan have said, T20 is gulf apart from Test cricket. Second, even on gaining experience, the argument is weak because BPL has not attracted anything like the pack of international stars that IPL has attracted because of its fabulous money spinning potentials and the aura added to the show by superstars like Sharukh Khan and super rich like Mrs. Ambhani. Thirdly, so far in the BPL, the local cricketers have been simply overshadowed by the second rate international acquisitions. Finally, there is also a nagging perception that a lot of black money out of the share market has found its way to the BPL.

BPL in fact is the outcome of our copy cat nature. More importantly, it is also the outcome of our susceptibility to greed that is going to push our cricketing future a few steps in the wrong direction. Greed has destroyed many parts of our body politic. Sadly, it is now about to destroy our cricket. There is one silver lining in the dark cloud though. So far, the public’s response to BPL has been lukewarm. BPL may thus last as long as the flow suspected flow of black money lasts but in the process, it is sure to leave Bangladesh cricket deeply scarred.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

The Election Commission: The plot thickens

Daily Sun
15 February, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The ruling party’s contention that the President has acted constitutionally in choosing the new Election Commission is borne out by Article 118 of the Constitution. The Article empowers the President to do so. The article also states the need to enact laws under which the President would act in this context has never been done.

With all the tall claims made of the 1972 Constitution, it is not what its supporters claim to be. It is far from being the perfect constitution; it has too many lacunas to which the present government has added a few more by the amendments it has made since coming to power. In the context of Article 118 that empowers the President to appoint the EC, this lacuna is clearly evident as it comes into conflict with Article 48 (C) that gives the President only two powers that he can exercise independent of the Prime Minister. He has the power to appoint the Prime Minister under Article 56, clause 3 and the Chief Justice under Article 95 clause (1) only without recommendation of the Prime Minister. Article 118 is thus in direct conflict with Article 48 (C).

Then there are also powers of the President in his role as the Commander-in-Chief where the 1972 constitution’s imperfection becomes obvious. We are all aware of the predicament to which President Biswas had threatened to take the country in 1996 acting under Article 61. These conflicts and contradictions notwithstanding, the 1972 Constitution have been modeled after the British Constitution with certain provisions drawn from the Indian Constitution. In drawing inspiration from the British Constitution, the 1972 Constitution clearly envisaged that the President would be merely a titular head like the British Monarch and simply sign on the dotted lines on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
The ruling party’s sudden decision to make the office of the President powerful and allow him to act independent of the Prime Minster in choosing the politically critical EC, apart from the inherent contradiction, is clearly a political ploy to counteract the BNP’s demand for the Caretaker Government. With all due respect and regards to the President, there is no reason to believe that he and the Search Committee that he constituted has in anyway acted independently to choose the EC. They have come up with the EC that the Prime Minister would have recommended in any case, as all Prime Ministers before her had done and as she herself had done in her last tenure as Prime Ministers in 1996-2001.
The ruling party’s claim that the new EC would meet the opposition’s demand for the restoration of the Caretaker Government is however not as straight forward. Its claim that the choice of the EC has been transparent and that the new EC is a neutral one is also suspect. Clearly, the EC that has been chosen has become questionable on count of two of the members. The BNP has said that one was a member of the Janatar Mancha on 1996 and another was a member of the student front of the ruling party in his days as a student. The CEC is not one who has been in the public eye like the former Public Service Chairman Dr. Sadat Hossain or Dr. Akbar Ali Khan. Hence his claim to neutrality cannot be as easily established as claims to the contrary by the BNP.
Nevertheless, the President’s office, assuming that the President has acted out of his own constitutional powers and wisdom, must come out immediately and resolve the charges against two of the commissioners. If the charge against one of connections with the Mancha is correct, then the credibility of the entire process would become palpably suspect. Anyone who went to the Mancha in 1996 can be the best of anything that makes a civil bureaucrat but he cannot be neutral when it comes to the BNP. Then there are the questions that have come to light over the election process of the Search Committee. One of the names they recommended to the President was an individual who was removed from his position in a NGO on charges of corruption. Apart from serious questions over its legality, its work has also been pretty shoddy. Clearly this Search Committee has helped choose an EC like the one the BNP had chosen before the last EC was constituted. The fate of the Commissioners of that EC is well known.
The ruling party used the excuse of democracy to abolish the CG system claiming that unelected individuals cannot hold a democratic election. In giving the Search Committee the right to recommend the names of the new EC, the President has given un-elected people the power to elect a new EC that he believes would be able to hold a free and fair election. If he or those who advised him had read Article 118 carefully, they would have known that the Article pointed at the parliament to come with laws to help the President elect an EC democratically which has not been the case. In fact, till the ruling party came up with this innovative idea of the Search Committee, it was the elected Prime Minister who had recommended the names of the CEC and the other Election Commissioners since the fall of Ershad’s dictatorship. The Prime Minister seems to have given up this power that had come to be her by convention to an unelected set of bureaucrats! Three cheers for democracy!

The BNP’s claim that the Search Committee is unconstitutional, the President’s power under Article 118 notwithstanding, is thus a valid one. Therefore they have a right to reject the new EC, there case strengthened by the fact that there are members in the new EC whose credentials are questionable on the issue of neutrality. The claim of the ruling party that the process has been transparent is also a lame one. When the process has failed to take on board the major opposition for whatever is the reason, the process as well as the choice of the new EC becomes suspect for politics is not always about legality; in fact most of it is reality. The reality is too nightmarish to contemplate for the sake of the country in the event the BNP does not go to the polls.

The whole issue before the nation today is not the new EC but whether the BNP can be convinced that the EC could be a substitute for the CG system. The ruling party has made its case weaker by choosing a questionable EC. It is the same EC as has been all ECs in the past, dependent on the government for manpower to hold the elections. The crucial officials in the next elections for holding the polls would be provided by the Interim Government to he headed by the AL and in all probability it would be Sheikh Hasina who would be the Prime Minister of the Interim Government. That these officials have meantime been politicized in favour of the ruling party is an added negative factor.

While the ruling party has been taking a lot of mileage out of the municipal elections to claim that the EC under it can hold free elections, it must not be forgotten that the ECs request for the army deployment in the Narayanganj polls was turned down although by law the government had no right to do so. Also, the municipal elections in Chittagong, Narayanganj and Comilla were fair because of the incredible role of the media and the infighting within the ruling party; factors that would be absent in the next national polls.

Thus even if the ruling party accepts the BNP’s demand for the CG, the new EC would still be suspect because of the allegations against it. Without the CG, it would be unfair and unrealistic to believe that the BNP would go to polls under this EC. The new CEC and his colleagues must therefore prepare themselves for a long winter of BNP’s discontent much like former CEC Justice MA Aziz.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Japan-Bangladesh relations at 40: Are relations waning?

Daily Sun
February 12, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

This February is a momentous landmark in Bangladesh-Japan relations. It marks the 40th year of establishment of relations between the two countries. It was on February 10, 1972 that Bangladesh and Japan established diplomatic ties. Like many countries, in fact all, Japan could not recognize Bangladesh during the war of liberation. However, it did not waste time to recognize Bangladesh soon after it was liberated on 16 December, 1971 becoming one of the earlier countries to do so.

Japan did not waste much time in supporting a newly independent country whose war of liberation its government could not support but whose spirit to fight that war was acknowledged and supported by its people. The story of Japanese school children skipping school tiffin and contributing that money saved towards the welfare of 10 million refugees who were forced to seek shelter in India was a great source of strength to us in those dark days of 1971.

By the time Japan recognized us and established diplomatic ties, it had emerged as a world economic power. It used that power to provide Bangladesh development aid to reconstruct a war ravaged country. Japan those days had placed Bangladesh on top of the list of countries to which it was providing development assistance. Japan has not looked back and till today, Japan is Bangladesh’s biggest development partner, ahead of the United States and Great Britain.
The excellence of Japan-Bangladesh relations owes a great deal to politicians such as Mr. Takashi Hayakawa. As a Member of Parliament and later as a Special Envoy of the Japanese Prime Minister to Bangladesh, he played a major role in the development of Bangladesh-Japan relations. He became a personal friend of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He loved Bangladesh so much that according to his wishes, part of his ashes has been brought to Bangladesh where it still remains after his body was cremated in Tokyo.

The handling of the Japanese airlines hijacking in 1977 also earned for Bangladesh a permanent place in the hearts of the people of Japan. In that incident, the Bangladesh Government helped resolve the hijacking at great risks to itself where all passengers and the JAL aircraft came out safe. Although Bangladesh’s decision to contest a UN Security Council seat against Japan that it won created a few hiccups; it did not affect bilateral relations due to high degree of professionalism in Japanese way of conducting foreign relations. The strong foundations of bilateral relations built in the 1970s strengthened over the following decades where economic relations have provided essence to the relations.

Unlike many of our development partners, Japan has been selective in providing its development assistance. It has gone to the sectors that are crucial for our economic development. Japanese aid which is almost half and half in aid and grants has concentrated on such crucial areas as development of economic infrastructure and human resources development; poverty alleviation programmes; good governance, etc. Japan also coordinates its aid strategy in Bangladesh with our other development partners to give the country the maximum benefit.

Thus we see many of our major economic infrastructures such as the Jamuna Bridge and other major bridges built with Japanese assistance. Today, there are many thousands of Bangladeshis working both in the government and private sectors who have been trained in their nature of work in Japan with Japanese assistance and contributing effectively to our economic development.

Japan’s JICA had agreed to be a major donor in the proposed Padma Bridge together with the World Bank and the IDB. Japan decided to stop the funding after the WB raised allegations of corruption related to the project. JICA has also deferred funding the elevated expressway project in Dhaka after the project ran into internal problem between the authorities and the Bangladesh Air Force over re-routing. While these problems may have e explanations, nevertheless there is reason to feel that Japan-Bangladesh relations have stagnated of late where the excellent relations of the 1970s 1980s and the 1990s seem to be waning.

One reason of course has been the change in the dynamics of international politics since the end of the Cold War. In this period, Bangladesh’s role in international politics has receded. In South Asia, India has emerged from a developing country in the 1970s to a world economic power that has encouraged Japan to enter into a strategic partnership with it that in turn has pushed Bangladesh slightly into the edge in terms of Japan’s priorities in South Asia. It has been nearly 12 years since a Japanese Prime Minister has visited Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has also contributed its own share to a visible stagnation of bilateral relations. Japanese aid does not have many of the strings that aid we receive from our other development partner have. Nevertheless, the Japanese are very finicky about the rules related to their aid most of which is eventually made into grants. Even a question being raised related to corruption about any project under Japanese aid is a very serious matter to the Japanese because the absolute transparency that Japanese law demands on issue of Japanese ODA. Equally, changing project requirements once aid is in flow and failing on deadlines are equally unacceptable to rules related to Japanese ODA. On both Padma Bridge and the elevate expressway project, Bangladesh may have irked the Japanese.

Bangladesh may also have irked Japan by the way it is handling diplomatic relations with it under the present government. The Embassy in Japan has been without an Ambassador for a very long time now. The last Ambassador was withdrawn under unpleasant circumstances where the Government dragged taking action for months instead of recalling the Ambassador home on some pretext and then terminating his tour of duty. To top it all, the Ambassador was a junior Joint Secretary when he was sent to the post that must have caused eyebrows to be raised in the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Thus as the two countries complete 40 years of diplomatic relations, there seems to be less enthusiasm to celebrate this important landmark. I was ambassador in Tokyo when we celebrated the 30th anniversary and there were many important events that were held throughout the year. In the 40th year, so far, neither from the Japanese Embassy website nor Bangladesh Government sources are there information about celebrations in the offing to mark this important landmark.
Japan nevertheless should be the most important country to conduct our diplomacy for furthering our economic and commercial interests. Unfortunately, we have largely failed to attract the vast potentials of Japanese FDI. For a long time, Japan has been eyeing Bangladesh as a potential investment destination under the China plus one concept where Japanese investors, wary of their humungous investments in China for political reasons, would like to relocate those investments elsewhere in phases. With Bangladesh making serious moves on regional connectivity, the country could provide added attractions to Japanese investors. With well thought out strategy, Bangladesh could benefit from Japanese investment the same way as Malaysia, China, and Vietnam and transform the economy dramatically.

However, attracting Japanese investment would require more than slogans as this Government is doing and previous ones have done. Bangladesh would need to encourage Japanese investors aggressively, adjust its investment laws to suit their needs and provide Japanese investors exclusive economic zones together with uninterrupted energy supply. The prospects of commerce are also equally bright but so far Bangladesh has not even scratched those potentials. Products such as our RMG, pharmaceuticals, etc would need patience and aggressive marketing to enter Japanese market that our government or our private sectors have not shown or done so far.

The Japanese Government has sent a new ambassador Mr. Shiro Sadoshima who is a senior diplomat with background in dealing with Japan’s aid and assistance to foreign countries. His appointment hints at Japan Government’s continuing interest in strengthening economic and commercial relations with Bangladesh. It is the Bangladesh Government and its private sectors that must match Japanese interest and give Japan the importance that it deserves to help Bangladesh realize the vast potentials of relations with Japan. There is literally a gold mine to be discovered in developing economic relations with Japan to its true potentials but for that we would need diplomacy and marketing strategy of much higher standard than what we have shown so far where on diplomacy, we have shown very poor vision.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

On conjuring promotions to make civil bureaucracy smile

As I See It column
The Independent
February 11, 2102
M. Serajul Islam

During my stay in Egypt as Ambassador, one thing about their bureaucracy used to make me curious. It was the large number of bureaucrats with the rank of Director-General in the various government Ministries. A Bangladeshi who worked in Radio Cairo explained to me that most of these so-called “senior officers” were in fact desk level officers. The post of DG was given to them just to make them happy.

I never seriously inquired into this issue because at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, things were different and the bureaucracy was very professional and competent. It did not have desk level officers masquerading as DGs! I had forgotten all about this issue concerning Egypt till I read an interesting piece of news about the Government’s impending decision to promote a huge number of officers to the posts of Deputy Secretary, Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary. An officer dealing with the issue said on condition of anonymity that the impending promotions would involve 700 officers. Of these, 80 officers would be promoted to the rank of an Additional Secretary, 250 to Joint Secretary and 350 to Deputy Secretary. More importantly, there are no available posts for these promotions!

When we served in the Government, one sacrosanct principle for promotions was availability of posts. The question of anyone getting promoted when there was no sanctioned post was simply impossible. Those days, creating a post was equally difficult; often almost impossible. Our promotions in the Foreign Ministry used to be held up for years at various levels on the issue of availability of posts.

This sacrosanct principle of availability of post for promotion has been sacrificed by this government for more “over riding” considerations of making bureaucrats happy as explained by officials dealing with the promotions. Before analyzing this incredible, almost unbelievable, explanation, it would be worthwhile to have a look at the picture of our bureaucracy in the context of numbers.

Before the new promotions are given effect, there are 1500 Deputy Secretaries against sanctioned posts of 800. There are 500 Joint Secretaries against 250 such posts. At the level of Additional Secretaries, here are 150 such officers against sanctioned posts of 108. The promotions waiting at the wings would only add to the serious situation already created, that of promoting without vacant posts. I would like to stand corrected if this is not the first time when a Government has gone ahead playing with the administration is his manner in the history of administration of this country.

Clearly what the Government is doing is not legal apart from the many inevitable problems that come with it. The present structure of the bureaucracy has just not emerged suddenly. It has been painstakingly put together over the years where the issues of structure, function and manpower have been considered seriously and in depth to put the civil bureaucracy on rational and logical footing. It is the balance between structure, function and manpower that the Government is about to sacrifice where the newly promoted officers, believe it or not, will be in the same job and do the same work, their promotions notwithstanding!!

This issue of making top bureaucrats happy points at ill intent. Since when has a Government in Bangladesh been interested in making the civil bureaucracy happy? Anyone who has been connected with our bureaucracy would know that no government in Bangladesh, the present one excluded, has ever shown the slightest inclination of doing anything that would bring smiles to the members of the civil bureaucracy. Therefore the logical question that comes to mind is why this government is suddenly so interested to make the civil bureaucrats happy.
If one would care to look into the issue with a bit of seriousness, the answers would be obvious as day light. Only recently, the government has extended the retiring age of the members of the civil bureaucracy from 57 to 59. Before that, it had extended the retiring age of the freedom fighters in the civil bureaucracy by 2 years. To the freedom fighters, the government had granted the benefit of the quota to their children and grand children in government jobs. Meanwhile, the Government has also politicized the bureaucracy where those it considers not to be supportive of its political agenda have been sidelined in a number of ways.

Therefore the privileges already given by extending retirement age or the quota system have gone to those members of the civil bureaucracy whose political leanings for the ruling party are well known. However, the extension of 2 years in retirement age, while making a section of the bureaucracy loyal to the ruling party happy has made another section that are also loyal to it, unhappy. These unhappy bureaucrats were waiting to be promoted till the government announced the 2 years’ extension in the retirement age of civil servants that blocked their promotion prospects.

The new promotions have been conjured (I could not figure out a better word to describe the aberration) to make these bureaucrats happy. The new promotions and the two years’ extension in the retirement age will now make the entire civil bureaucracy loyal to the ruling party happy and grateful to it. Given the fact the national elections are only 2 years away; the real intent behind these promotions does not need much common sense to understand. Clearly, these extensions and promotions have been motivated by political considerations and none at all for the health and strength of the civil bureaucracy.

This brings me to the promotions in the public universities to help us understand the irregular promotions in the civil bureaucracy better. When I went to the University in the 1960s and was a Lecturer there, DU was not as big as it is today. Nevertheless it was a major university even in comparison to the big universities across the world. In the entire Arts and Social Science faculties those days, there were less than a dozen Professors. These days, in the Department of Political Science alone , there are more than 30 Professors!

The same large number of Professors as in the Department of Political Science is to be found in almost every department of Dhaka University. This has been achieved by an ingenious manner and started soon after we became independent. DU did it by delinking the principle that promotions needed sanctioned posts. Thus when a Lecturer/Assistant Professor/Associate Professor has been in service for the mandatory years required for the next promotion, he/she has been promoted after meeting certain professional requirements where availability of posts has not been a matter at all! This is what has made DU a top heavy institution in terms of its teaching faculties.

It would be interesting to inquire whether this democratic way of distributing academic posts has had any positive impact in academic ways on DU and all the other public Universities that have followed DU’s example in deinking promotions from sanctioned posts. I am afraid the result of such an inquiry would be very negative. In fact, this indulgence to the teachers of the public universities is one reason for the sad state of affairs there these days. It is this ingenious but dangerous strategy that the government has accepted to make the bureaucracy happy to serve a political purpose.

In the game of numbers known popularly as Housie, there is a reverse pyramid or a top heavy formation that earns money for the player who achieves it. But this is for fun to make the game interesting. In personnel management or public administration, the reverse pyramid is the anti-thesis of logical organization of any institution, private, autonomous or governmental. This is why the top heavy faculties of our public universities make little sense. It will make certain bureaucrats happy but help make a fragile structure even more fragile.

The above piece was written before the Government announced the promotions. In the end, 649 officers were promoted. Of these, 127 were promoted to rank of Additional Secretary; 264 to Joint Secretary and 258 to Deputy Secretary. The Government ruled out politics in the promotions but ended making the bureaucracy even more top heavy than what was speculated!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Politica between light and darkness

The Holiday
February 10, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The nation heaved a deep sigh of relief that Monday the 29th of January was peaceful. The general apprehension that the AL would meet the BNP in the streets and there would be a showdown leading to violence was proved wrong. Nevertheless, five lives were lost by police excesses and firing. Of these, the moment of the death of the person killed in Rajshahi was shown to the nation by a photograph. He could have easily been apprehended but was gunned down in cold blood.

The incident of Monday left few questions unanswered, people’s sighs of relief notwithstanding. The BNP had announced its decision about the mass procession in Dhaka a month ahead when Khaleda Zia addressed a public meeting in Chittagong. The AL announced a similar meeting in Dhaka on the same day, Sunday the 29th of January just two days before. The Government also imposed section 144, clearly intended to stop the BNP from its march. When the BNP deferred its mass procession by a day, the AL did the same.

The BNP had lost the last national elections miserably. It had been in total disarray in the weeks and months following the loss, divided between the loyalists and the reformists that further pushed it towards oblivion. It has also been under constant accusation from the ruling party of various anti-state activities of which the one against the trial of those who committed crimes against humanity in 1971 has been the major one. Its leaders are being made to run from pillar to post by court cases that have been filed against them partly for political vengeance.

In the tradition of our politics, a party in such a predicament has always in the past fallen back on hartal to try and come back into politics. The ruling party should know it better having set this tradition after it lost the 1991 elections and again when they were defeated in 2001 elections. The BNP followed the tradition when it was in the opposition in 1996-2001 stint of the AL in power.

Nevertheless, except for those calling hartals, there were no takers for this political strategy. Its damage to the economy has been well orchestrated by the economists and members of the civil society and accepted by the public. The public were extended to their wits end and were literally praying to the Almighty to provide good sense to the politicians not to opt for hartal in opposing the government on political issues. What made hartal totally meaningless is the fact that it has had no positive impact on politics in anyway whatever.
The country that has regressed in politics almost on all grounds where the revered institution of parliament has been rendered totally non-functional, it is on the issue of hartal that the country seems to have turned a bend. In spite of serious provocation ever since finding itself in the opposition, the BNP has not resorted to hartal in the way everyone feared. In the last 3 years, the party has called hartal on 8 occasions and even those were not enforced in the manner hartals were enforced in the past. The government has taken a lot of credit for its performance in economic development in the last 3 years, underscoring in particular healthy growth in exports. The point is not made that the BNP has played a significant role in such growth by setting aside the temptations for hartal that would have put a spanner on such growth as hartals in past regimes had done.

The BNP has just not opted out from hartal; it has done something better that too has not received the sort of encouragement in the country. It has resorted to political strategies that are conducive to democratic dissent worldwide. In place of hartal, they have opted for demonstrations, long marches and other non-violent means for expressing their opposition to the government. Clearly, the BNP has made a few positive moves to bring politics back from destruction.

Unfortunately, the ruling party has not shown the wisdom to take up the BNP on these moves. Instead, it has continued to provoke the opposition in all ways. The latest provocation was blatantly evident in the way it tried to deal with the opposition’s mass procession in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country resulting in the death of 5 innocent lives. Nevertheless, the fact that the ruling party and the opposition refrained from any conflict in Dhaka last Monday could suggest some light in the horizon; that the ruling party and the opposition may have finally realized that they must avoid politics of conflict as the people would hold the party opting for violence responsible while voting in the next general elections.

Nevertheless, one must wait and watch what the government does with the other protests that the BNP has already outlined leading to the March to Dhaka on the 12th of March. The ball is now in the court of the ruling party. It will depend on the AL whether the country chooses the path of democratic dissent or confrontational politics to resolve the differences that exist between it and the opposition. While last Monday shows hope, the body language and speeches of leading AL leaders point in a different direction looking into the immediate future.

There is a section in the ruling party that seems to believe that the way to deal with the opposition is to provoke them to confrontation. They believe that if the BNP could be provoked to such confrontation with 2 years left for the national elections, the ruling party with the law enforcing agencies behind it would be able to weaken the BNP substantially so that by the time the next elections take place, it would be a spent force.

So far, the BNP has set aside the provocations and has shown no signs of indulging the AL. This strategy has worked well and has attracted public attention positively. It is now up to the AL to play its part and come out of darkness and follow the path of light that the BNP has chosen for our politics. It should give up any intention it may have of confrontational politics for its own good and that of the country. It should allow the BNP the democratic right for peaceful demonstrations, long marches and similar programmes. Most importantly, it should refrain from giving programmes that fall on the same day as those of the BNP and rein the law enforcing agencies from killing innocent people and browbeating democratic opposition.

The big cloud that has the potential of pushing Bangladesh into political darkness is however not the conflicting programmes of the AL and the BNP, its potential of conflict notwithstanding. The big cloud centers on the issue of reviving the CG that the BNP has demanded which the AL has rejected. It is on this issue that the AL needs to show compromise and make an effort to resolve the issue of the CG. It should consider the fact that the revival of the CG is fast becoming a national demand and not just of the BNP.

If the AL needs proof of this it should consider the lukewarm interest of all the political parties except itself in accepting an EC chosen by so-called consensus could be an alternative to the CG. Most importantly, it should get a copy of the full judgment of the Supreme Court that it has used to fast track the abolition of the CG and imposition of the interim government under which the ruling party would have the right of holding the national elections. That judgment has recommended that the next two general elections should be held under the CG system.

Our politics can come out of darkness but as the cliché goes, only two can tango. The BNP has chosen the path of democratic politics. It is for the AL now to shun the path of confrontation. It would not need major sacrifices from the AL to bring the BNP to the parliament which still remains a major criticism against the latter. While the AL is making so many mistakes in governance as well as in politics, the BNP would need convincing to be brought back to parliament as they are scoring points outside it.

Thus in the politics of light and darkness, it is for the ruling party to encourage the choice of the BNP for democratic politics. It holds the key whether Bangladesh would see light or darkness in politics that in turn would determine whether we become Digital Bangladesh or a middle income country by 2021. At the time of filing this piece, statements from Begum Khaleda Zia and Suranjit Sen Gupta on the CG system suggested politics could come out of darkness eventually of the issue that holds the key in this politics of light and darkness, namely the revival of the Caretaker Government system.

The writer is a former Ambassador

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Indian's history of negative poliitcs and Bangladesh

February 5, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Mamata Banarjee has served another salvo. After derailing Indo-Bangladesh relations over the Teesta water sharing issue the evening before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, she has now said that she has objections to the exchange of enclaves. To remind readers, our negotiators had described this decision on exchange of enclaves reached during Manmohon Singh’s visit as a major achievement to sidetrack disappointment in Bangladesh over the failure to sign an agreement on the Teesta water sharing.

It has been five months now since the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka. A good number of our Ministers, including our Minister for Finance, had said in the media that the Indians would sign the Teesta agreement in 3 to 4 months to prop up public feelings of disappointment. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs went to see Mamata Banarjee in Kolkata and came back to report that the Teesta agreement would be signed shortly. Before meeting Mamata Banarjee in Kolkata, Dipu Moni had also met the Indian Foreign Minister SM. Krishnan and he too had told her that the agreement on Teesta was just round the corner.

The corner seems to have vanished from our sight. Instead Mamata Banarjee has put in our path a new obstacle that stands to take away even the crumbs we had received from India during Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka after giving India two of its most important needs from Bangladesh; namely total support for its security concerns and land transit. The news of Mamata Banarjee’s objection on the exchange of enclaves came to surface after the decision went to the Indian Parliament for ratification. The Indian Prime Minister informed later that the ratification has to be postponed because of objection from Paschim Bangla.

Under Indian law, an agreement such as the one on exchange of enclaves has to be placed in the parliament for ratification that is not the case in Bangladesh. This is something that our negotiators seem not to have known for if they had, they would not have acclaimed the decision as an achievement. They must also have forgotten how the Indian’s used the ratification issue to deny us the Teen Bigha corridor to our enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota for which we handed to the Indians Berubari as part of the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974.

In negotiating with the Indians, our negotiators just failed to look at history of Bangladesh-India negotiations. If they had, they could have served the interests of Bangladesh that they have instead sacrificed through poor home work and lack of diplomatic skills. Humayun Rasheed Chowdhury, former Speaker; Foreign Minister and President of the UNGA, had said while serving at MFA that dealing with the Indians required skills because Indians are the descendents of Chanakyya, sometimes referred to as the Hindu Machiavelli, and not accustomed to giving an inch in negotiations. HRC should know better having dealt with the Indians in 1971 when he defected from the Pakistan High Commission to join the war of liberation and then as Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister.

Stephen P Cohen, a South Asia expert with the Brookings Institute in Washington offered a similar description of Indian diplomats in his book titled India. He wrote of the Indian External Affairs Ministry as “inherently conservative”; “Delhi centric” and one of the most skilled in the world in “getting at no.” Our inexperienced negotiating team trusted these skilled diplomats who are masters in extracting their interests without willing to give anything to any party that can’t earn it. The results are now clearly laid out. The Indians have the ULFA terrorists; have a stranglehold on us as far as their security needs are concerned and have already started using our territory as a corridor for carrying all kinds of goods to its northeastern states over our ill equipped roads and even by defiling our rivers.

In return, we have been denied what we were told we would get. We did not get agreement on sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni that we expected would lead to fair sharing of waters of the other common rivers. We did not get any commitment from India not to construct the Tippaimukh Dam where it has decided to go ahead to build an obstruction 150 meters high in gross violation of laws that govern cross border rivers. Despite firm commitments, BSF continues to kill Bangladeshis willfully on the borders. And now Mamata Banarjee has stated that she would not agree to the exchange of enclaves!

All the above is difficult to comprehend because despite the unquestioned diplomatic skills of the Indian diplomats, what India is doing in its relations with Bangladesh is it is destroying its standing in the country. It is pushing a friendly Government led by Sheikh Hasina into a situation where the India factor has started to harm her party badly in politics. Already, the Indians are in need of a nod from her to make land transit that was granted as a trial basis into a long term agreement. The benefits of land transit have opened up huge hopes in states such as Tripura and other States have realized the importance of Bangladesh in their economic development. The Indians also need the continued support of the Bangladesh Government for long term cooperation on security issues.
India could have had these long term concessions from Bangladesh simply for the asking had it reciprocated on Teesta, Tippaimukh and border deaths. Now the Bangladesh Government can go ahead and grant India what it wants only by committing political suicide. Bangladesh Government’s blind trust in India and India’s habbit of saying no has made the India factor stronger as a political issue in Bangladesh than it has even been in the 40 years of such relations.

It is easy to explain Bangladesh’s part in binging Bangladesh-India bilateral relations to its current status. It negotiated with India in a manner that has been naïve to say the least. It believed in India’s good will and gave India what it wanted without ensuring its own interests. Above all, its negotiating team has been disjointed where no one really knew who has been leading and who has been following. Therefore it is natural that Bangladesh has received very little in reciprocity to what it gave India.

India’s part in the current state of Bangladesh-India relations is hard to explain. HRC’s or Stephen Cohen’s description about India’s negative diplomacy provides some explanation. But it does not explain why India has jeopardized the chances of making what Bangladesh has given India, namely commitment on security and long term agreement on land transit, sustainable , that it needs very badly. May be the Indians have assumed that it can force its will on Bangladesh by extending and institutionalizing, as many suspect it is doing, the influence that the Bangladesh Government has provided it over the last three years. Or perhaps, Indian diplomacy has deteriorated and is today negative to the point of being self-defeating.

According to a survey by local English daily survey, Sheikh Hasina’s popularity has slipped from 83% to 38% in the last 3 years. Surely, India is a contributing factor. This is what worries many. Why is India doing this to Sheikh Hasina? The Indian Foreign Minister has postponed his scheduled visit to Dhaka for more pressing reasons in New Delhi and the Indian Finance Minister is scheduled to visit Dhaka later in the month. Even if these visits take place, it may be late already to turn the tide in Bangladesh against India. Something very dramatic has to happen from the Indian side in Bangladesh-India relations and without further delay.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On Indian High Commissioners to Bangladesh

Daily Independent
As I see it column
February 5, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Indian Government is in the process of appointing the next High Commissioner to Bangladesh to succeed Rajeet Mitter. The name that has come in the media is that of Pankaj Saran who was posted to Dhaka early in his career in the late 1980s. He would be coming to Dhaka from the important post of Joint Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office where he has been a part of the team with responsibility for India’s external relations.

Nevertheless, in the midst of the good issues that make Pankaj Saran’s appointment a welcome one, there are other issues that cause worries as well. The fact that Pankaj Saran is an officer of the level of a Joint Secretary is one issue of concern. It goes without saying that it is the prerogative of the sending country to send anyone it wants as Ambassador/High Commissioner to the receiving country that has the prerogative either to accept or reject such an appointment. This fact notwithstanding, the choice is a sensitive matter and a lot of factors are taken into consideration in appointing an Ambassador/High Commissioner so that on this issue, the receiving country is not given any offense.

Among the factors that are taken into consideration is the issue of level and reciprocity. A sending country normally sends to the receiving country as Ambassador someone of the same level as what the receiving country has sent to the sending country. In our case, we have in New Delhi a High Commissioner who is one step beyond the highest bureaucratic level. Our High Commissioner in New Delhi Mr. Ahmed Tareq Karim has been given the status of a Minister of State. He is a retired career diplomat with high credentials.

Clearly, there is lopsidedness on the issue of level here. Such lopsidedness could lead one to conclude that India may have downgraded the importance of Bangladesh. A look at High Commissioners India has sent to Bangladesh in the past would make the point clear . The first Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka was Subimal Dutta who stood as a colossus in the annals of Indian Foreign Service, having held the post of Foreign Secretary when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Indian Prime Minister. He was followed by Samar Sen, another giant in the Indian Foreign Service who was the Indian PR in New York during the birth of Bangladesh and played a very important role in building up world opinion in favour of the Bangladesh.

These two served during the first AL term when, given by the role India played in our independence, it was inevitable that Bangladesh would figure very high in India’s foreign policy priorities. After the change of government in August, 1975 and Samar Sen’s recall, India sent to Dhaka as High Commissioner KPS Menon, son of India’s first Foreign Secretary and later to be Foreign Secretary himself. It was widely known in MFA circles at that time that KPS Menon was sent in deference to the request of Bangladesh to send a non-Bengali High Commissioner to Dhaka.

The only exception in a long list of senior diplomats sent by India to Bangladesh was IP Khosla who was a Joint Secretary at the time he was appointed to represent India in Bangladesh. He came to Dhaka when the country was under military rule of President Ershad for whom the Indians had no love lost. In case of IP Khosla, the Indians may have considered the fact that he and President Ershad took a course together at the National Defense College, New Delhi. Thereafter, India sent to Dhaka IP Chadda, Muchkund Dubey, Krishnan Srinivashan and K. Raghunath, the last three returning to New Delhi to become Foreign Secretary. K. Raghunath was followed by Dev Mukherjee, Mani Tripati, Veena Sikri, Pinak Chakravarty and Rajeet Mitter, all senior IFS diplomats with Veena Sikri having the added distinction of standing first in her batch.

The level of High Commissioners India sent in the past, except in the case of IP Khosla that has an explanation, and that of Pankaj Sarin does not match. Clearly Bangladesh could take offense from the issue of level and reciprocity. The issue assumes serious proportion because as a practice, India sends senior diplomats to all its neighbours as it has to Bangladesh over the years till the case of Pankaj Saran. The appointment of Pankaj Sarin is a curious one not just on the issue of level and reciprocity.

It has come at a time when it is the ill wind that is blowing in Bangladesh-India relations. In response to the courage and vision of Sheikh Hasina who unilaterally granted India full cooperation on it security concerns and land transit, India failed to reciprocate on all of Bangladesh’s expectations. There has been no movement on water sharing; killings in the border continue and India has shown no intention to abandon the Tippaimukh Dam. The optimism in Bangladesh official circles that the Teesta Water sharing agreement would be signed in three months of the failed visit of the Indian Prime Minister has not materialized. Instead Mamata Banarjee has now raised objection to the exchange of enclaves that Bangladesh had heralded as an achievement from Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka.

At a time like this, the general feeling in Bangladesh with the appointment of Pankaj Sarin would legitimately be that India takes Bangladesh for granted to be bothered with its sensitivities. There is however one aspect about the new High Commissioner that is worth noting. He is coming from the PMO where he has worked closely with the National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, the architect of the Indian Government’s policy under which Bangladesh-India relations have been conducted since the AL assumed office in Bangladesh.

In this sense, Pankaj Saran would be coming to Dhaka with better connections with those in Delhi who are important to Bangladesh that could encourage one to set aside his comparatively junior level in the Indian bureaucracy. This may be to Bangladesh’s advantage but then his PMO connections could also work in a negative way. It is the PMO that had fed the Prime Minister the statistics that 25% of the people of Bangladesh are anti-Indian and swear by the ISI. Pankaj Sarin’s connections with SS Menon may also work against him in Bangladesh because of the latter’s role in successfully executing a zero-sum game in Bangladesh-India relations; where India has taken whatever it wanted and expected from Bangladesh without reciprocating.

Therefore, Pankaj Saran would need a lot of diplomatic skill to win hearts in Bangladesh and his connection with the PMO may not really be to his advantage. He would of course also need a lot of concessions from his Government to Bangladesh, concessions and commitments long overdue to launch his tenure in Bangladesh on a positive direction. He should not be misled by his Deputy who recently said Bangladesh-India relations have never been better in a hundred years. It is definitely not which is why the Indian Foreign Minister is taking his trip to Dhaka in two weeks time and the Indian Finance Minister expected to come later in the month.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Why can’t the EC resolve the issue of a free and fair election?

The Holiday
3 February, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The search is on to choose a new Election Commission. The search has begun following the President’s discussions with the political parties during which most of the parties showed very little interest on the issue of the EC but more on reviving the Caretaker Government system. A five member committee has been formed for the search. The Committee has written to the political parties to nominate 5 names for the EC. The BNP has rejected the offer outright.

There is nothing that one can oppose in the initiative to form a search committee for the new EC. In fact, this is quite a positive idea and therefore one must welcome it. Nevertheless, every act in politics or governance is only a small part of a big canvas and whether an act is positive for the body politic or not will depend on how it fits into the political canvas.

The political canvas of Bangladesh as it is now is not a straight forward one where an EC formed in the manner that the President and the Search Committee has set out to achieve it will fit into the political canvas the way the ruling party desires. For a starter, the political canvas is one where the ruling party and the opposition are at each others’ throat on many issues considered by the BNP to be more important than forming the EC. To the BNP, the issue that is of essence is the need to re-activate the caretaker government to hold the next elections instead of holding it under an interim government to be headed by the ruling party.
They see the EC under an interim government headed by the ruling party no matter how it is chosen to be one where it would not have the power and the independence to be the replacement of the caretaker government by a long stretch of imagination. Further, the BNP has also stated that it does not see the initiative to search for the next EC through a committee as constitutional. The BNP’s negative stance on the search for the next EC has put a spanner on the government’s initiative.

The initiative has also not received the sort of response from the other political parties that would give it the sort of credibility that the government needs to sell the idea that an EC so chosen would be an alternative to the CG. In effect therefore what is going to happen if the ruling party insists on holding the next elections under it is that the Search Committee will end up recommending those names that the ruling party would have in any case chosen. Therefore the initiative will do little to resolve the gridlock that has set on the next elections; it fact the way things are moving , it will strengthen the gridlock.

The Government’s argument that the EC would serve the national need of a free and fair national election fails in the reality test in a major way. The EC in India is an example where a body such as the one the ruling party is contemplating could rise above partisan politics and conduct a free and fair election. There are a few important factors that have helped establish the EC in India as a very powerful body capable of holding free and fair elections in the world’s largest democracy. First, the Indian EC is a quasi judicial constitutional body whose powers are derived from the Constitution. Second, India’s democratic institutions are firmly established and not subject to manipulation by the party that goes to power. Finally, the EC in India works hand in hand with the independent judiciary whose credibility is above question and reprieve.

These inherent strengths of the Indian EC notwithstanding, it had to work hard and fearlessly to establish its credibility against the pressure of the party in power. It achieved that credibility in the turbulent decade of the 1970s when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was showing tendency of assuming dictatorial powers following her popularity in India and abroad after defeating Pakistan in the 1971 war and playing the leading role in the emergence of Bangladesh. The Court and the EC acted in tandem to stop Mrs. Gandhi from trampling with the democratic institutions of India, particularly those related to holding free and fair elections.

In Bangladesh, the conditions that have helped the Indian EC emerge as the custodian of free and fair election do not exist. The way politics has emerged in the country, no one would believe that the EC in its right mind would consider declaring election of either Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia void no matter what evidence there would be to take such punitive action. The slight possibility of taking punitive action against leaders of the stature of these two politicians would vanish if one of them would happen to be the Prime Minister.

Our EC, even if it is chosen in a bipartisan manner and given power and independence, would have to depend entirely on the administration over which it would have no control to conduct the election because it does not have the manpower recruited by it and answerable to it to perform its functions. It would have to depend on the civil bureaucracy for the purpose. The ruling party, by general admission, has politicized the bureaucracy and has shown every intention to place bureaucrats loyal to it in the district and local level administration who would play key roles in conducting the next elections. Therefore, no matter how the next EC is chosen, it would be dreaming for the unexpected for it to rise above the party that would be conducting the next elections.

A major reason that those who reject the CG system make is its un-elected nature. The hold the view that a democratic election cannot be held under unelected people. As a debating issue, there could be strong augments in favour of such a view. However when our politicians make this argument, it sounds hypocritical. The idea of the CG did not originate in the civil society. It came from the politicians themselves who argued against their own character to force this concept on the country at great economic costs. The AL with Jamat that championed the CG system argued that under a party government, a free and fair election was impossible because of the ease with which it would be able to manipulate elections in its favour.

By all counts, the tendency of the party in power to manipulate the elections to return to power has become stronger. The quality of politics has deteriorated and the impatience of the two mainstream parties for each other has worsened. This worsening in the quality of politics encouraged the Supreme Court, while recommending the abolition of the CG system, to also recommend that the next two elections should be held under the CG system because it did not believe that the ruling party would refrain in interfering in the elections it would conduct.

The argument that the ruling party makes that it has not interfered in the municipal elections to argue that it would not interfere in national elections held under it does not stand against serious scrutiny. First, municipal elections do not change a government. Second, the media, particularly the electronic media made it impossible for any interference in the municipal elections by its round the clock vigilance. Third, the media cannot play such a role in national elections because of the large number of seats and the huge number of voters involved. Finally, the ruling party proved what it is capable of doing when it refused the EC army support that the Government was constitutionally obliged to in case of the Narayanganj election; support that the EC asked for to ensure free and fair election.

To replace such a system that the Supreme Court feels is necessary for at least two more elections and ask people to believe that the EC would be a democratic substitute is arguing the case by turning a blind eye to the sad state of our politics and reality. Then again, the EC in which the ruling party is placing all its faith is itself an un-elected body. One fails to understand how the case of democracy would be furthered by holding elections under it where the dangers of manipulation of the ruling party as the government with total control of the administration that it has politicized upon which the EC would be dependent for conducting the elections, is blatantly apparent.

The last elections under the CG brought to surface some serious flaws in the system without compromising its usefulness to a free and fair election. Those flaws need to be addressed. In that context, the present initiative for a strong EC chosen by consensus is very important and could overcome the major flaws in the CG system. Nevertheless, such an EC would be able to play a proactive role in conducting a free and fair election only within the framework of the caretaker government and not under a party government. The reason for such a conclusion rests in the fact that the quality of politics in the country remains conflict ridden where the element of trust and the mindset in both the mainstream parties in accepting defeat, is simply and sadly absent.

Therefore the need of the hour is revive the CG first and then deal with matters related to the EC. In any case, with the BNP making its case against the interim government and in favour of the CG system, the ruling party has no alternative but to sit down with the BNP and resolve the gridlock over the issue unless it wants to push the country to the sort of crisis the consequences of which are too dangerous even to contemplate. Selecting the EC and forgetting the CG would be putting the cart before the horse.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan