Saturday, April 28, 2012

The SSG drama: Victory for democracy or corruption?


April 26, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

In the case concerning the Minister for Railways, many miscalculated the outcome. Analysts of political events had spoken and written that Suranjit Sen Gupta would retain his post and the hue and cry over the taka 7 million found in the car of his APS when he was coming to his residence close to midnight would die down like similar incidents in the past. They based their prediction on the assumption that the Prime Minister would not sack the Minister, the allegations against him notwithstanding, because that would give political victory to the Opposition. 

When the Minister resigned, everybody thought that he was not just out of the Ministry of Railways but out of the Cabinet as well. There was of course no reason to believe to the contrary. The fact that the Minister was later retained in the Cabinet was a mystery yet to be answered. The members of the civil society were the first to be fooled into the belief that the Minister was out of the Cabinet and ended embarrassing themselves. They went ahead and congratulated the Prime Minister for forcing the Minister out and felicitated the Minister for his courage and his commitment for democracy for deciding to resign. 

The Chairman of the Human Rights Commission also did not waste time to welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to encourage the Minister to resign and the Minister for listening to the Prime Minister as a victory for democracy. One just wonders what human rights issue was involved in the resignation to have encouraged him to come to the media and give the statement he gave. The Ministers of the Government warmly felicitated their leader for her courage, her wisdom and political vision in the service of democracy and called the Minister’s resignation a “historical” event! 

The decision of the Prime Minister to keep the Minister in the Cabinet after raising the optimism that he was in fact sacked showed in bad light those in the civil society who had hurriedly gone ahead to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Minister. In fact, the Prime Minister did nothing unpredictable for she was not prepared to let it appear that she had given to the demand of the Opposition. She just removed the Minister from his post as she had done with the former Minister for Communications, only this time she reacted quickly to give the sense that she was sacking the Minister. 

Nevertheless, if it was just the fact that she was retaining SSG in the Cabinet so as not to give in to the demand of the Opposition, she ended giving the impression  that her claim of zero tolerance on corruption was a mere lip service to the issue. The tall claims made by her Ministers and members of the civil society that the resignation was a victory for democracy was made laughable when the Minister was retained in the cabinet as a Minister without portfolio. In particular, those Ministers who had hailed SSG’s resignation as “historical” should now know what historical stupidity they made by their hurried claim. 

In retrospect, SSG committed more blunders than other Ministers against whom charges of corruption were brought in the past.   He intervened with the Border Guards and the Police on behalf of his APS and senior officials of his Ministry after they were apprehended with Taka 7 million in their car. The fact that they were coming with it to his residence at close to midnight after picking the money from a suburb in the city made the case look more suspicious. If he knew that there was that amount of money in the car when he intervened with the authorities, he made a serious error of judgment. For a politician who took such immense pleasure to rub his self-acclaimed expertise in legal and constitutional issues on the opposition, that act, even unintentional, was unpardonable. 

Unfortunately for the Minister, other facts suggested that he was not really unaware of what he was doing. If indeed there was any need to intervene with the authorities on behalf of the Ministry’s officials on questions of identity, a Minister would normally leave such a matter to his Private Secretary or someone else in his Ministry‘. By intervening himself, the Minister showed a personal interest in the case. Further, in a Ministry’s staff, an APS of the Minister is one who is closest to the Minister. A Minister has the right and all Ministers use it to appoint someone who looks after his personal affairs to such a post. In fact, one appointed to the post of an APS need not even be a serving civil servant at the point of being named to the post. 

The Minister’s first acts proved his knowledge of what those apprehended were up to. The driver of the car as the whistle blower gave the public the reason to doubt the Minister’s innocence. The presence of Yusuf Ali Mridha in the car was another very serious incriminating evidence of corruption. He has since been accused by the employees’ association of the Railway Ministry as being the leader of money for job  racket in the Ministry that has so far netted huge amounts of money from the 7000 posts on offer in the Ministry.

Additional facts emerged from family sources that did not help the Minister in fighting the quicksand to which he fell. His son, just couple of days before the incident later named in the media as Railway Gate, had paid Taka 5 crores up front as  fee for a telecommunications license he was granted by the Bangladesh Telecommunications Board. The Minister’s son was working in an internet provider for a monthly salary of Taka 50,000 till only recently. At the same time, the Minister was scheduled to open his own mall, the Sen Mall in Sunamgang that was built at costs running into huge sums of money. The circumstantial evidence both connected and unconnected to Railway Gate  all piled up to leave the people convinced that the Minister was far from being the epitome of honesty and integrity that he tried to project about himself and his politics.  

The Minister’s 50 years of politics did not prepare him for dealing with the situation that confronted him. He made a series of other silly mistakes to complicate his predicament. He formed two committees, one under his Private Secretary and another under a Joint Secretary in his Ministry for clearing the allegations. He then suspended his APS and then sacked him not knowing what was correct or what would be acceptable to the public. He sent the Ministry’s officials on leave at first and then suspended them. Later he formed a committee to investigate into the whole incident at a senior level.

In the midst of these series of confused behaviour, he ridiculed a BNP lady MP who had asked for a judicial inquiry, calling her a novice who was unaware about the serious business of governance. In hindsight he ended being the novice himself for if he had accepted her demand and asked for a judicial inquiry instead of trying to clear himself by forming committees under officials controlled by him, he would have given an impression of honest intent to the public.

At the height of crisis, he once hinted that if the allegations against him were proven he would resign. He then somersaulted and declined to do so, loudly claiming that none of the charges were against him and therefore he was under no compulsions, under issues of democracy or ministerial responsibility or otherwise, to resign. During the crisis, the opposition made him nervous by loudly demanding his resignation and for probe in to the allegations of corruption.

He could perhaps have faced those demands of the opposition if he had any support forthcoming from his own party. Senior members of his party led by former Home Minister Mohammad Nasim joined voice with the Opposition and asked him to take responsibility for his actions, in other words asked him to resign. In fact Mohammad Nasim’s comment that the Railway Bhavan would not be allowed to become the Hawa Bhavan hurled at the Minister much more serious accusation of corruption than what the opposition could articulate.

When the Prime Minister returned from Turkey and consulted her close aides on the incident, the Minister’s goose was more than well cooked. The Minister was given the post only recently after he was by-passed three years ago because he had annoyed the Prime Minister as a reformist during the period of the last caretaker government. He was included eventually after he had become an embarrassment for the Prime Minister and the ruling party with his criticisms aimed at just not the government but also at the Prime Minister and her family. The Minister, by what he did or failed to do with Railway Gate, gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to snub a colleague for whom she had no reason for compassion. 

Therefore there was no service done  to democracy nor was it intended as the members of the ruling party projected initially.  The Minister, by his actions gave the Prime Minister the opportunity for which she was waiting and she did not miss that opportunity. She did not go to the full extent of humiliating the Minister because she did not want to give the opposition any opportunity to feel that she had acted under pressure from them.   

The whole nation heaved a sigh of relief that the Prime Minister had held a colleague responsible for corruption and moved him from his post quicker than she did with the former Minister of Communications. However, they welcomed it more because they felt that the Minister more than deserved it.   Their only pleasure was that the Prime Minister  sealed the mouth of a politician who irked not just the opposition but many right thinking people by his self-righteousness and the manner in which he ridiculed his opponents on issues of corruption by placing himself on a pedestal of honesty and integrity. 

The Prime Minister would richly deserve the nation’s congratulations only when she completed the process of allegations against the Minister, his Ministry, his wealth and his son’s Taka 5 million, not forgetting from where the Taka 7 million came from and why were the culprits headed for the Minister’s house. Otherwise, her action to force the Minister to resign from his post would be a victory not for democracy but for corruption. Her decision to keep him in the Cabinet as a Minister without portfolio hinted that corruption still had a head start over democracy in winning the Railway Gate case. 

Post script: The Railway Gate had pulled down the ruling party to a new low politically given the fact that it was its promise to fight corruption with zero tolerance that had helped it win a thumping majority in the last elections. When the Prime Minister had appeared to have sacked SSG on that zero tolerance, the ruling party managed to undo a lot of the potential damage that Railway gate had done to it. With SSG now resurrected as a Minister where there was no support for him even from his party and the Prime Minister not entirely unhappy with his predicament, India is being mentioned as the power that intervened on his behalf.  

The emergence of the India factor has created more serious liabilities for the ruling party. By keeping the Minister in the cabinet, it failed to convince the people on its zero tolerance on corruption. Now with the India factor to deal with; the ruling party has a very dangerous combination at hand looking ahead into the next general elections. India’s standing in Bangladesh’s politics because of its failure to deliver on many promises it made to it is now at an all time low. 

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

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