As I See It Column
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