Hard Talk and hard facts
As I see it
August 18, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Prime Minister’s aides/advisers should have advised her against the interviews on Hard Talk and the BBC Bengali programme. Stephen Succor had her where he wanted and exposed the chinks in her armour on issues of Bangladesh’s domestic politics; Dr. Mohammad Yunus/Grameen Bank and foreign affairs. On Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the comment of “blood sucker”, the Prime Minister’s response was astonishing. She said she never mentioned him by name that brought a response of disbelief from the interviewer! On the World Bank letters, those who read the interview of the World Bank Country Director would know better whether her response was truthful. One the interest rates of Grameen Bank, the latter corrected her the day after the interview.
The questions at Hard Talk no doubt were uncomfortable for the Prime Minister. However to her credit, she carried on with Stephen Succor’s questions and queries and gave her supporters the same encouragement she had when she dealt with the World Bank; a never say die attitude. She remained undaunted even when forced to give incorrect answers. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s interview in Hard Talk revealed her mindset on Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank; that she is determined to grind both to the dust without caring for the consequences. Clearly she was not amused with the critical questions or the praises that Stephen Succor showered on the Noble Laureate and the GB.
Immediately upon return from London, she asked authorities to inquire whether the salaries/perks Dr. Yunus enjoyed after he should have retired on completion of 60 years should be declared illegally taken and returned to the government. The Cabinet also decided to strip the Grameen Bank Board members of their powers, members who have risen through poverty, to their positions and place these powers to a government appointed Chairman. The government’s latest actions against Dr. Yunus and GB brought reactions of disbelief in the country. Leading members of the civil society have demanded an explanation from the government. The US State Department has also expressed deep concerns about these latest moves.
In was however the Prime Minister’s comment in her/BBC, Bangla interview about the next elections under a “Small Interim Government” to which she invited the BNP that has created widespread interest in Bangladesh. Many analysts have seen this as a softening in the position of the Prime Minister. They feel that she is inching towards accommodating the wishes of the opposition. Previously, she had insisted that the 15th amendment did not leave her with any leeway to hold the next elections in any other manner but under an interim government to be headed by her and with Ministers that she alone would choose. She had also insisted that the elections would be held three months from the date of the last day of the current parliament’s tenure during which the members of the parliament would not be required to resign.
Either politicians have short memories or they take the public for fools. They keep on changing stances and contradicting themselves forgetting that people have memories too. Take for instance the Prime Minister’s suddenly contrived “new formula” under which she has offered the BNP to join the interim government. Earlier, she has said many times in parliament and outside it that after the 15th amendment of the constitution, there is no scope for her to do anything. Suranjit Sen who was co-chair of the committee for the 15th amendment made it appear like it would be easier to change the scriptures than the constitution of Bangladesh.
The same sacrosanct constitution now appears to be an instrument that the Prime Minister can change at will. Furthermore, the AL today is denying the BNP the same that it demanded of it in 1994-96; an interim government where BNP would not be a part. The BNP had offered the AL to hold elections under an interim government that would have 5 members from the ruling party and five from the AL with Khaleda Zia as the outgoing Prime Minister in charge of the interim government. The AL rejected that offer with contempt and its members of parliament resigned forcing the BNP to go ahead and hold the farcical elections of February, 1996 that the AL did not participate. One good thing nevertheless came out of that February, 1996 elections. It allowed the BNP to give the country the Caretaker Government through a constitutional amendment that the AL demanded and that brought the AL to power.
This time too, the BNP has rejected the Prime Minister’s offer precisely for the same reason for which the AL had rejected its offer in 1994-96. The AL had rejected the BNP’s offer on the element of trust. It felt that it was simply inconceivable for AL to participate in an election where the interim government would be headed by Khaleda Zia. That trust element has deteriorated many times over since then. Therefore it was for the obvious reasons the BNP has rejected the offer to join the “Small Interim Government” and has reiterated its demand for a “neutral, non-party government.” . Some analysts have however seen in the Prime Minister’s offer, a slight shift towards a resolution of the political impasse despite the clear hints from the ruling party that Sheikh Hasina’s position as head of the “Small Interim Government” is not negotiable.
If the Prime Minister would spare herself a moment and reflected at history or her aides had the courage to flag it for her, she would see how strongly she has encouraged the BNP to tread the same path that she had led her party in 1994-96; to go out to the streets and fight for its demands. It does not need a crystal ball to predict the outcome of pushing the opposition to such a path. Only, this time the political situation in the country is more volatile than it was in 1994-1996. At that time the country had just come out of a decade long dictatorship and the whole nation was eager for the two political parties to settle their discords democratically.
In the last two decades or a little less, the two mainstream parties have made politics more confrontational. The people have lost faith in their ability to lead a democratic government. In fact, the situation towards which the Prime Minister is leading the country could again bring the extra constitutional forces as it did in 2007. This time, however, a step in politics by these forces could spell disaster for the country. The threat of death now hangs over those who make an extra-constitutional bid for power. The armed forces would thus be putting their lives on the line if they enter politics either by scheming or due to the failure of the politicians. They could thus act more unpredictably and dangerously than they have with their past interventions.
The Prime Minister’s interviews on Hard Talk and BBC Bengali Service have hinted at dark clouds in the political horizon of Bangladesh. When she is in such a mood, her aides spin it out of control. A senior leader of the AL was thus quick to react to his leader’s mood. He said either the BNP accepts the terms of the Prime Minister or they could leave the country! However, as has become AL’s political style in recent times of switching/contradicting positions at will, the AL acting General Secretary has said that” the door is open for negotiations. You will see development in this regard soon.”
The New York Times and the Economist, at the height of the conflict between Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank and the Government had identified the Noble Laureate’s potential to become a political rival as one of the two reasons for the Prime Minister’s dislike for him. Ironically, the Prime Minister may be pushing the Noble Laureate to play the role that she suspected.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan