Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Suranjit Sen Gupta’s resurrection

As I See It Column
The Independent
April 21, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

In Bangladesh’s politics, nothing is impossible. The saga of the former Minister for Railways and now the Minister without portfolio is a case in point. When his APS with a couple of his Ministry’s senior officials were driving from a suburb in Dhaka to his residence, it was only a matter of coincidence that their car was passing the gate of the Border Guards, had Taka 7 million in the car and it was close to midnight.  

If only the car had avoided the BG post, then there would have been no Railway Gate and Suranjit Sen Gupta would still be the Minister for Railways lecturing the nation on the virtues of honesty and integrity and his self-explained expertise on issues of the law and the constitution. Unfortunately for him, the coincidences may not have been just coincidences for the ways of the Lord are beyond the mortals to understand. The way the Minister was going about giving people the impression that he was perhaps the only man around with the sort of virtues he claimed for himself must have upset the Lord. He could take it no more. He had to do something for the Minister was competing with Him and thus those coincidences just happened. 

On a more serious note, the SSG saga proved that in our governance, corruption is so deeply embedded that no one involved with it is really above it. The difference among those in government is not on the substance of corruption but on the extent. On this issue, SSG has deeply disappointed the people because the evidence that has come to light has established on a prima facae basis that the extent of his involvement with corruption in his Ministry and those related to his family were on the deeper side. 

The Taka 7 million that was apprehended in the car was just the tip of the ice berg. It is common knowledge in the Government and the media that huge amounts of money were being illegally collected by senior officials as “money for job” racket for the 7000 jobs offered in his Ministry. One of the officials apprehended in the APS’ car, Yusuf Ali Mridha, was the key senior official in the racket. That he was going with the Taka 7 million to the Minister’s residence was serious incriminating evidence. 

Equally damaging for the Minister was the fact that the car with the money belonged to his APS. It is common knowledge in the Government that the APS is the closest to the Minister in any Ministry; one with whom the Minister confides on issues such as the ones related with Railway Gate. The initial actions of the Minister were also serious mistakes that created suspicion about his complicity. First, he interfered with the authorities for release of the APS and others. Second, he formed make believe committees to clear them.  Third, he sent them on leave at first and then dismissed the APS and suspended the others, hinting that he was utterly confused. Finally, he formed a committee in his own Ministry for inquiry at a higher level. 

These actions prove that the Minister erred in judgment but does not prove his implicit guilt. However, personal facts about him came to light that were questionable. He was scheduled to open the Sen Mall in Sunamgang when Railway Gate was unfolding that he had built at huge costs. His son had paid Taka 5 crores up front a fee for a telecommunications license just days before Railway Gate happened. Till recently, he was employed by an internet service provider for Taka 50,000 a month.  These facts together with those that happened in his Ministry created doubts about the Minister’s lifestyle in reality and what he created for himself in the media. 

The result of the doubts was the call for his resignation was a bipartisan one, the first time it has happened in Bangladesh. Some of his own party colleagues deserted him and went after him like the opposition BNP while none came to his rescue. Former Home Minister Mohammad Nasim stated unequivocally that the Minister must not be allowed to turn the Railway Bhavan into Hawa Bhavan, a statement that just not called him corrupt but also his Ministry and one that even the opposition could not have articulated. 

By the time the Prime Minister returned for her trip to Turkey, it appeared that nothing would be able to save the Minister. When the Minister met the Prime Minister at her residence and came out to tell the media briefly that he would be holding a press conference the next day, no one was in doubt that he had been asked to resign. Indeed the following day, the Minister did what was expected. He resigned and left the Railways Bhavan in a car that did not fly the flag. The indication was clear; that he had been pushed out of the Cabinet. No one cared to ask whether he had sent his resignation letter to the Prime Minister and if she had accepted it. It was taken for granted that SSG’s ministerial career had ended for the time being at least.  

Instead the ruling party Ministers and leaders used his resignation for some serious damage control because railways gate had indeed pushed it politically to a new low. They hailed the Prime Minister’s decision as “historic”, unprecedented and a victory for democracy. Some members of the civil society loyal to the ruling party joined the chorus and not just praised the Prime Minister; they called the Minister’s decision to resign as a courageous one that underscored his commitment to democracy.  

In their enthusiasm, they all forgot that before the Prime Minister had returned from Turkey, the Minister had said in a BBC interview that he had no reason to resign because the accusations were not against him. The Minister of course had conveniently forgotten the democratic principles of ministerial responsibility not to speak of the incriminating evidences of corruption that hinted a serious accusing figure at him. While refusing to resign, he had  failed to show even a hint of the courage to which he was later accredited by the ruling party and the civil society. 

The Prime Minister’s decision to ask the Minister to resign was also hardly a matter of vision or wisdom or any love of democracy. She never liked the Minister and was forced to make him a Minister to please a section in the party who had tried to bring reforms in the party when she was incarcerated during the last caretaker government. Therefore she must have not have been unhappy in showing the Minister the door because the Minister had given her the cause to do so.  

There is little to doubt that when she forced the Minister to resign, she did so not just from the Railways Ministry but from the cabinet as well. She did not like him. No member of her party came forward to back him; in fact some senior members wanted him out. The BNP of course demanded his resignation and the people on a bipartisan basis wanted the same. The Prime Minister, in fact, had managed to contain a lot of political damage that railway gate could have done to the party by forcing the Minister to resign in a manner that the people though had ended his Ministerial career. 

Hence something must have happened in between that helped the Minister’s resurrection. India is being widely credited for the re-entry of the Minister to the cabinet.  The India factor and the failure to live up to zero tolerance to corruption could place on the ruling party’s lap a dangerous political handicap. There is bipartisan disgust among the people on corruption. Disappointment with India is also almost a bipartisan issue with the people because of its failure to deliver to Bangladesh the promises it made. The SSG saga may have thus pushed the ruling party further into political mess and uncertainty. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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