Saturday, September 22, 2012

Republicans play foreign affairs and fall on defensiveRepublicans play foreign affairs and fall on defensive

Daily Sun
September 23, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Foreign policy is the Republican Party’s weak link in a Presidential election that is showing signs of shifting positively towards the Democrats following the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this month. In fact, Mitt Romney showed his weak hand at the Republican Convention a week before the DNC when he said that the Russians are USA’s number one enemy leading many to conclude that he showed the same shallow understanding of foreign affairs as Sarah Palin  she had said that she could see Russia from Alaska during the last presidential election! 

The Republicans thus deliberately opted against introducing foreign affairs as an agenda in the elections till recently. They favoured fighting the Democrats on the economy where they think they can tie them down on a sticky wicket. They are conscious that foreign policy is the strong point of the Obama re-election campaign. In Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrats have a foreign affairs expert recognized nationally and internationally.  Joe Biden is a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Of course, in the last four years, the President and Joe Biden have enriched their foreign affairs credentials substantially. 

In the current term, the Obama administration has ended the US involvement in Iraq and has given a road map in Afghanistan under which US combat troops would return home by 2014. The crowning glory of the Obama administration in foreign and security affairs has been the killings of Osama Ben Laden and the top leadership of Al Qaeda.  These successes are significant and the Republicans know that if they get involved with foreign affairs, it would damage the Romney-Ryan ticket. 

The Republicans however could not check the temptations of being drawn to foreign affairs when Israel decided to roll in the dice for Mitt Romney. It is common knowledge in Washington that President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never became friends in their respective terms. Their “famously testy relationship” was revealed during the Group of 20 Summit in Cannes in November last year. Associated Press leaked a private conversation between French President Nicolas Sarkozi and President Barak Obama before the start a press conference after the Summit in which the former said while talking of Benjamin Netanyahu: “I can’t stand him. He is a liar”.  The US President agreed and remarked: “You may be sick of him but me; I have to deal with him every day.” Although respective aides  declined to comment on the leak, it revealed what is now an open secret, that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have not established a good personal equation. 

That personal equation was recently tested when Benjamin Netanyahu called President Obama and had an hour long telephone talk to convince the latter that Iran has crossed the “red line”.  Recently gathered intelligence has convinced Tel Aviv that Iran is 90% of the way to developing the nuclear bomb and has long since crossed the “red line’ and therefore must be attacked to take out its nuclear capabilities. According to NYT, the US President declined to embrace Israeli Prime Minister’s proposal on the “red line”.   

Israel is concerned about a new Obama term particularly when in Tel Aviv; the conclusion is that the race for the White House is slipping out of the hands of the Republicans. As a result, the aides of Benjamin Netanyahu have set aside an earlier unwritten agreement with aides of President Obama that Israel would not interfere in the US presidential election. They leaked to the media that the US President has refused to meet the Israeli Prime Minister on the sidelines of the UNGA session in New York but kept his schedule to appear on the David Letterman Show. 

Mitt Romney instantly took the cue. He slammed the President for turning down the request for the meeting from an important and trusted ally. He flagged his close friendship with the Israeli Prime Minister highlighting their period together as consultant in the Boston Consulting Group in 1976 and the close friendship they developed subsequently. In fact during the Republican primaries last December, Mitt Romney had said that before making any disparaging statement on Palestine, he would get on phone with his friend Bibi (Netanyahu’s nick name) and ask him: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’  He was reacting to a disparaging remark by Newt Gingrich on Palestine to flag his closeness with the Israeli Prime Minister and support for Israel. 

The White House denied the Tel Aviv leak on the appointment in New York, stating that it received no request from the office of the Israeli Prime Minister. It was later revealed that the US President would have to remain in New York beyond his schedule for Benjamin Netanyahu to reach New York to meet him! In retrospect, Mitt Romney played the issue poorly. He gave voters the impression of his willingness to make his administration should he get elected subservient to Tel Aviv. It is important for any candidate in the Presidential race in the United States to be friendly to Israel because of the power of the Israeli lobby. However, the majority of the voters hate to be see their country dictated by Israel. Candidate Romney has stepped into this miscalculation no doubt because of his inexperience and that of his team in handling foreign policy issues. 

Mitt Romney team also made another miscalculation with his reaction to the killings in Benghazi in which the US Ambassador died in the hands of terrorists. He blamed the Obama administration’s weak foreign policy for giving the terrorists the upper hand that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi. In blaming the President, Mitt Romney again  exposed his  naivety on foreign policy because most Americans see such unfortunate incidents as part of the risk  the United States must undertake to remain as the number one power on the world political stage. The dignity and grace with which the President and Secretary of State handled the aftermath of the Benghazi incident enhanced their rating with the voters and went to show that the Romney-Ryan ticket is way short of what it needs to lead the US administration in foreign affairs. 

The Romney campaign team hoped that attacking the President on Israel, the “red line” concerning Iran and the murders of the US Ambassador, all foreign policy issues, would help their cause. Instead the attacks boomeranged.  In fact, since the lack luster Convention of the Republican Party in Tampa followed by the very successful Convention of the Democrats in Charlotte, the candidature of President Obama has widened the gap substantially in all the polls taken since the Convention of the two parties till the time of writing this piece as the election enters its final phase leading to Election Day on November 6.  

To complete the circle of a very bad patch that the Romney-Ryan ticket is passing through  since the Conventions, a video taken  secretly of a Romney fund raiser dinner  where per plate went for US$ 50,000 showed Mitt Romney  stating that 47% of Americans will never vote for him because they are “victims” of dependency on the government. In an election where the Democrats are portraying him as a candidate of the 2% rich Americans with scant respect for the middle class and the poor, the video has made significant negative impact where the undecided voters are beginning to wake up to the fact that this election is one of choice; whether to back a candidate who speaks and stands for the middle class and the poor or to send to the White House a representative of the rich.

Candidate Mitt Romney would have to really make a major impact and President Obama a poor impression in the Presidential debates starting on October 3rd to stop President Obama from getting another term in the White House. The task ahead for the challenger is getting tougher with each passing day. 

The writer is a retired Secretary and a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt




On Cabinet expansion that misfired

"As I See It" column
The Independent
September 22
M. Serajul Islam

In a parliamentary government, expansion/reshuffle of the cabinet is a normal and routine affair. The Prime Minister said so after the induction of seven Ministers to her cabinet. Nevertheless, sometimes expansion and/or reshuffle of the cabinet is anything but routine and are undertaken because of serious political necessities.  No one needed to be told that the latest expansion/reshuffle of the cabinet was not a routine one after Tofael Ahmed and Rashed Khan Menon declined the offers, the first time  Cabinet posts have been offered in public but refused , the Prime Minister’s rather lame explanation notwithstanding. 

Everything about the expansion suggested that it was not a routine expansion. The AL led government had just a year more to go of its five years tenure. This was no stage to expand the cabinet. Under normal circumstances, the AL led government should be gathering the fruits of its tenure to seek voters’ approval for another term in office rather than expanding/reshuffling the cabinet.  The Prime Minister felt, her public stance notwithstanding that she needed to strengthen her Cabinet to deliver the promises her party made to get elected; that her present set of Ministers was far from delivering. There was also pressure from within, particularly the rank and file, to bring Tofael Ahmed to the Cabinet because they were also concerned and frustrated at the failure of the Government to deliver its election promises. 

In fact, the evidence that her cabinet was not delivering was all around for everyone to see as clear as daylight. One did not have to go beyond the Finance Minister for evidence.  He made a mess of the economy where the banking sector was facing scandals serious enough not just to send him running for shelter but also to bring down the government.  Under pressure for his unbelievable behaviour , he publicly admitted that he had been considering resigning for the last 9 months and that he had been officially told to keep his “mouth shut” (by the Prime Minister) that made a mockery of the government. 

His actions brought the severest criticisms not just from the Opposition but also from his own party members. Leading members of the party were critical also of other key Ministers and Ministries. They expressed serious reservations about law and order, condition of roads and railways, corruption; the share market and the banking sector from where many thousands of crores of Takas just vanished into thin air. In fact, never before did a party in power face such criticism as this government.  To make it worse, the government was also at odds with its major development partners.  Relations were on the decline also with India upon which it banked a great deal for succeeding as a government. 

The AL’s allies in the Mahajote were also restless because of the deterioration of governance. In fact, Rashed Khan Menon of the Workers’ Party and Hasanul Huq Inu of the JSD  who were offered Cabinet posts were in recent times playing the role of the opposition in parliament as well as outside it exposing the failures of the government. The biggest of the allies in the Mahajote, the Jatiyabadi Dal of former President Ershad, had already made its intentions clear of leaving the Mahajote for the next general elections in the face of the AL led Government’s failures.   The Prime Minister thus faced real dangers of open revolt in the party and in the alliance that made it necessary to expand/reshuffle the cabinet to please the critics. 

These facts notwithstanding, the real focus in the expansion however was on Tofael Ahmed. It is an open secret that the Prime Minister kept him out together with the late Abdul Razzak and Amir Hossain Amu as punishment for their role during the Caretaker Government when they negotiated with the military intelligence for reform in the AL that was aimed at restricting her powers.  As the AL started failing in governance, there was widespread pressure from the party upon the Prime Minister to take back Tofael Ahmed and his colleagues into the Cabinet in the greater interests of the Party because of their importance and acceptance in the party and experience in governance. 

The Prime Minister relented slowly initially but only in case of those who played minor roles in the demand for reforming the party during the last caretaker government. Each time she took new Ministers; there were widespread expectations within the party that Tofael Ahmed, Abdur Razzak and Amir Hossain Amu would be invited into the Cabinet. That did not happen because the Prime Minister was not willing to allow these stalwarts in the cabinet. In the meantime, Abdur Razzak passed away without winning the Prime Minister’s heart although the trio did their best to please the Prime Minister. 

The Prime Minister did not relent on Tofael Ahmed when she made three earlier expansions/reshuffles although there was pressure on each of these occasions to take him into the cabinet. When the offer finally came, Tofael Ahmed reminded the Prime Minister by his refusal that he did not forget the humiliation he suffered in the last 4 years. His emotion choked voice expressed hurt and humiliation when he faced the media after his refusal. His emphasis that the offer came from the Cabinet Secretary exposed his sadness because he expected it to come from the Prime Minister. He thought and many in his party and outside agreed that he deserved more respect. Therefore there were few takers on the Prime Minister’s explanation that it was correct for the Cabinet Secretary to convey the offer to him and that his refusal to join was not an act of indiscipline. 

The Prime Minister’s attempt to be casual about the decision of Tofael Ahmed was however a poor way to deflect the affront that was hurled at her by the refusal. She knew as did Tofael Ahmed and in fact all others that the Cabinet Secretary was merely a clerk doing a routine duty of a conduit. The Prime Minister did not leave anyone in doubt that she and Tofael Ahmed do  not talk with each other that suggested that although she decided to take Tofael Ahmed in the Cabinet, she did so under pressure and that she was not ready to forgive him for his role during the period of the caretaker government. 

Tofael Ahmed is not an ordinary AL leader.  He has considerable hold and acceptance among party activists and members based on his qualities of leadership and long and illustrious career in the party. He did not refuse to join the cabinet on emotions alone. His decision was a cool and calculated one. He has by his refusal craftily flagged for the Prime Minister that he leads a significant section in the party who are not happy with her leadership of the party and the Government. By her impulsive and arrogant manner of dealing with the expansion of the Cabinet and in particular about inducting Tofael Ahmed, she gave the latter to  opportunity prove to her, the party and the country that she does not control her party in the manner she would like everybody to believe. 

In the end Rashed Khan Menon spilled the beans when he expressed his anger that the offers were made by the Cabinet Secretary. In expressing this sentiment, he clearly embarrassed those who joined; that the Prime Minister did not care for any of them. It also suggested that the idea to expand the cabinet was not taken by her; that she did so due to pressure from within the party where many were weary and worried that governance was so poor that without extra efforts, the party and Mahajote’s chances in the next election were very poor.

The expansion/reshuffle thus flagged the poor state of affairs of the Awami League, this Government and the Mahajote. In particular, it flagged the arrogant and unrealistic mindset of the Prime Minister. In fact, it is one expansion/reshuffle that she would have done better not undertaking because it has misfired upon her.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan. 









Cabinet expansion misfires: Hard truths surface about the AL led government

The Holiday
19 September, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 


The Cabinet Secretary must have been confused (or flabbergasted?) to find himself in the limelight in the cabinet expansion/reshuffle drama. The Prime Minister put him on the spot for phoning Tofael Ahmed (TA) and Rashed Khan Menon (RKM) and seven others to convey the decision to join the Cabinet as if he was appointing them as Ministers. She advised the journalists who were curious why TA and RKM did not join, to call him and find out the answer!  

There is one thing that must be admitted about the Prime Minister. She does not believe in beating about the bush. If she dislikes an issue or any one, she shoots straight. She does not believe in making anything unpleasant she has to say, sugar coated. Even when she does not use unpleasant words, her body language reflects her inner feelings when she wants to convey unpleasant opinion about an issue or any one. Honesty in thought, action and even body language are the fundamental strengths of her character. Even her worst enemy has to admire her for these qualities. 

In this instance, the Prime Minister knew that the journalists would ask her questions about TA and RKM after the swearing ceremony of the new Ministers was over. Indeed they did. The Prime Minister tried to calm their concerns by suggesting that the expansion was a routine matter and everyone should take it as such. However, when questions were raised about TA’s decision to decline the offer to become a Minister, the Prime Minister could not restrain herself in expressing her true feelings. 

The Prime Minister was literally correct when she told the journalists that she did not call TA and others to be present at Bangobhavan to take oath as Ministers. Nevertheless there is no reason except in a state of insanity to believe in the literal meaning and that the Cabinet Secretary on his own asked these individuals to join the Cabinet. Her body language left no one in any doubt that she was simmering inside because TA and RKM declined to join.  By her sarcasm, she tried to divert the affront that the refusal conveyed; for these were affronts pure and simple. The refusal also revealed some unpleasant realities about the Awami League and the ruling alliance or the Mahajote. 

Clearly there was nothing routine about this expansion/reshuffle. The expansion has come when the government is moving into the final year of its five years’ tenure. At this time, it should be busy reaping the benefits of its tenure to flag its successes for winning the next elections. An expansion at such a late stage logically suggests that the government is not succeeding with the existing cabinet to reap the results to ensure its return to power and that it needs extra hands in the Cabinet to revive the falling image and ability of the government. In deciding the expansion, the government even did not consider that the number of Ministers would rise to 53 making the Prime Minister’s council of ministers, minus the powerful Advisers, as heavy as that of the BNP that it had sarcastically and severely criticized as “elephantine” when forming the government. 

The argument about deteriorating governance as a major reason for the latest expansion is also strengthened by the fact that there are serious concerns and criticisms these days in everybody’s mind about this government. If such concerns and criticisms were coming just from the opposition, one could dismiss these as propaganda or exaggerated. The criticisms are coming with more severity from within the ranks of the Awami League and from leaders of the AL’s alliance partners. In fact, the criticisms of the Finance Minister in Parliament by TA, RMK and Hasanul Huq Inu have been so severe that even the Opposition leaders would not have been able to match them if they had been in parliament and taking the floor. 

In fact, the Finance Minister by his recent actions,  has himself flagged for the nation that this government is functioning in a manner that cannot even be called rational let alone successful. He called a scam in Sonali Bank where Taka 4000 crores has been siphoned off by fraud as “nonsense” and a media invention; then apologized for such an incredible statement and then said he has been considering resigning for the last nine months! It is not just the Finance Minister who has given evidence of the sorry state of affairs of governance. The same sad failure is spread over the main Ministries of the Government again not by the assessment of the Opposition but by the senior members of the AL and its alliance partners. The Finance Minister has flagged the serious lack of coordination among the Ministers and their Ministries as one of the reasons for the deterioration of governance. 

A major criticism against the government is its anti-democratic stance of governing with un-elected Advisers in place of the elected Ministers. This criticism has also been flagged by the senior members of the AL who are not in favour with the Prime Minister and leaders of the Mahajote more forcefully than the opposition. In clear violation of the rules, these Advisers sit in the Cabinet Meetings and some are seen regularly in the media making policy statements on Ministries with scant regard or respect for the Ministers. The Prime Minister however prefers the Advisers and underscored this by refusing to ask her Adviser Dr. Mashiur Rahman to resign despite serious pressures even from her own party. 

The criminalization of the public educational institutions is another major evidence of deterioration of governance under this government. The student’s wing of the party has literally taken over these institutions. The recent disturbances Jahangirnagar University, BUET and Dhaka University are alarming. Past governments allowed their respective student’s wings a lot of leverage to indulge in various activities not conducive to maintaining the educational environment of these institutions.  Under this government, the Chatra League has been allowed to control the public universities more effectively than the Vice Chancellors and the Provosts of the residential halls.  

In the most recent conflict in Dhaka University, the Chatra League beat up the leaders of the Chatra Dal in broad daylight outside the office of the Vie Chancellor. They did not care that their acts were being filmed by the private television channels to be shown to the public.  Yet when the Vice Chancellor was asked by the journalists about the incident, he told them that he was unaware of the clashes and could have missed witnessing unless he was in deep slumber as he was in the office at the time!  Newspaper reports also mentioned that the Chatra Dal leaders had gone to meet him after he had given them an appointment. The Vice Chancellor by his action has  thus proven that he dares not do anything that could earn him the displeasure of the Chatra League underscoring the utter depth to which the once “Oxford of the East” has fallen. 

As the proverbial weather bird, President Ershad has been first not just to underscore the falling fortunes of the AL led Mahajote; he has already stated publicly that in the next general elections the Jatiya party would not be a part of the Mahajote. In fact, he has high hopes of becoming the official opposition in the next AL Government (assuming that BNP would opt out on the Caretaker issue) although of late, he even fancies himself of being the next Prime Minister! The left elements in the Mahajote, apart from acting as the opposition in parliament against the Government’s failures, have recently held parleys among themselves concerned that with the government failing, whether it would be appropriate for them to continue in the alliance. 

Added to these pressures against it, the AL led government is also under pressures from abroad in a manner than no past government ever faced. On issues of Dr. Mohammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank, the Padma Bank loan, human rights, etc, the Government has gone on the wrong side of governments/institutions that are crucial to its development efforts. What is simply astounding is that the Government has chosen to annoy these powerful governments and institutions for reasons that everybody except those in the inner circle of the Prime Minister thinks are suicidal for the country. 

The unfortunate state of affairs concerning governance however did not happen suddenly. The deterioration has been gradual and extends not just to areas touched in the preceding paragraphs but also over law and order; failure to deliver power and keep prices of essentials down as it had promised in its election manifesto. Before the opposition could expose the deterioration, the signs were flagged by sections within the ruling party. Fingers were pointed at the exclusion of four experienced leaders TA, Abdur Razzak, Amir Hossain Amu and Suranjit Sen as reasons for the failure of the government to deliver. Thus there was pressure on the Prime Minister from the very beginning to take these leaders into the Cabinet and not to depend on inexperienced Ministers in key and critical Ministries. While the Prime Minister herself recognized that her inexperienced Ministers were failing to deliver having mentioned many times in her Cabinet meetings that they were being watched on their performance, she refused to bow to the pressure to bring TA and his colleagues into the Cabinet. 

In fact, it has been an open secret since the Prime Minister formed her first Cabinet leaving TA and his colleagues out that she were getting even with them for their role during the Caretaker Government. At that time, these four together with many others in the party had decided to support change of leadership in the top of the party including Sheikh Hasina, to democratize it. The Prime Minister did not forget or forgave these leaders for their role. In fact when Abdur Razzak was fighting for his life in a hospital in London, TA publicly regretted that the Bangladesh High Commissioner or his staff in London did not even visit him in the hospital! 

The earlier reshuffles, three before this last one, were also made in the face of widespread criticism of governance and inner pressure to bring back the so called reforists. The Prime Minister nevertheless inducted the less important among the so called reformists in the Cabinet before but simply refused to look upon TA, Abdur Razzak, Amir Hossain Amu and Suranjit Sen with favour. While Abdur Razzak passed away meantime, Suranjit Sen was inducted among the major “reformists” into the cabinet. When however he arranged his own exit on the allegation of corruption by his personal staff, she was more than happy to ask him to resign from the Railways Ministry. Although by some mysterious ways he managed to remain a Minister without portfolio after resigning, he has not been given any charge in the latest reshuffle, suggesting no doubt that the Prime Minister is not really unhappy at his present predicament.  

This time the expansion and reshuffle of the cabinet had again become because of serious deterioration of governance and stronger voice of dissent within the party. Although, the Mahajote showed discontent with the deterioration of governance, those still with their limited influence in the party were not bothered with the alliance partners. With Jatiya Party decided to leave the alliance, it really did not matter whether the parties led by  Hasanul Huq Inu and RKM stayed or not in the Mahajote for their ability to assist the AL in the next elections is very limited.   

It was in fact TA who was the main reason for the latest expansion and reshuffle of the cabinet. No matter who called TA to join the Cabinet, the decision to make him a Minister was one the Prime Minister made because of pressure from her senior colleagues to keep the rank and file in the party happy; rank and file who are disillusioned with the government and believe that TA would be able to help bring the sinking ship to the shores. The Prime Minister’s reaction in the media left little doubt that she is not in talking terms with TA and agreed to offer him the Cabinet post reluctantly because of pressure  and that she was not really unhappy that he did not join the Cabinet, the affront notwithstanding, for she can now blame those who had put pressure on her in his favour for what TA did to  the party’s image that has surely been dented by TA’s action. 

Talk show guests have had a field day analyzing the expansion/reshuffle. A Professor who is a regular guest in talk shows and an unabashed critic of the government went over the rails congratulating TA and RKM for their courage to rise above personal ambitions for democracy. He said that they refused to respond to the Prime Minister because she had offered the posts like the owners of dogs throw crumbs at dogs taking for granted that such offers would be gleefully accepted!  He apologized for the crude analogy but was quite convinced that the refusal was a great victory for democracy.  Many were excited with the refusal for like the Professor, they too thought that it was a victory for democracy.  

For many, disillusioned with the government, the refusals were indeed news to be excited about for TA and RKM  have done what seemed like impossible; that politicians belonging to the ruling party and its allies would ever have the courage to stand up to the Prime Minister. They also agreed that the Prime Minister should have personally talked with TA and RKM to ensure that they would accept the offers before the Cabinet Secretary called them to be told that they were being invited to become Ministers. In case of TA, his position and importance in the party clearly demanded that the Prime Minister herself should have shown this minimum courtesy to him.  

Clearly TA was treated shabbily by the Prime Minister who left no one in doubt that she has still not forgiven him. In the end by her insensitive action, the Prime Minister enhanced the respect of TA in the party and the nation together with also flagging what everyone knows, that there is major dissension within the Awami League and that TA is leading a significant faction in the party at odds with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, by her insensitive handling of the expansion/reshuffle, has   acknowledged this deep division in her party. In a way, she has made the same mistake she made in handling the case of Dr. Mohammad Yunus. By pursuing her personal dislike for the Noble Laureate; she has ended in making him more popular at home and abroad at her expense. In humiliating TA, she has enhanced his position, honour and importance in the party and the country; again at her expense. 

Nevertheless, the refusals are hardly going to help democracy in any way   all the felicitations and congratulations to TA and RKM notwithstanding. What the expansion/reshuffle drama has underscored is that the AL is still firmly in the grasp of the Prime Minister who is still in no mood to share her power with anyone. True those who are appointed as Ministers are informed by the Cabinet  (in fact it is the Joint Secretary and not the Cabinet Secretary who does this job normally) but only to be asked to be at the Bangobhavan at the appointed time for the oath. That such individuals would receive their calls from the cabinet without any prior knowledge of their appointments expresses a mindset where the elements of respect and courtesy are totally absent; where instead there is a clear statement that the Prime Minister does not care for these individuals; a mindset described by the Professor on the talk show for which he apologized. 

This mindset that has surfaced clearly from the expansion/reshuffle drama has also explained by way of collateral damage that the government is in a poor state in terms of governance and the country even worse in its never ending march to establish democracy. The BNP should not gloat from these truths that would no doubt help it to fight the AL; it should take the lessons on the mindset of the Prime Minister so that when its turn in power comes, it does not make the same mistake and suffer the same predicament.  

Then only would the resignations of TA and RKM serve any useful purpose for the cause of democracy the way the Professor thought the refusals would. It is still too premature to conclude such an outcome. This apart, the expansion/reshuffle is not going to serve any useful purpose. Already, issues emerging about those inducted as Ministers indicate that this was one expansion/reshuffle that the Prime Minister would have been better off not undertaking.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan  






Sunday, September 16, 2012

Anniversary of Indian PMs visit: Bangladesh awaits India to deliver

Published in The Daily Sun

The first anniversary of thedisappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka has passed last week without any acknowledgement from the Bangladesh government. Not surprisingly though because India has failed to deliver on their commitments on the Teesta and the land boundary agreement (LBA) even a year after that visit despite repeated assurances from Bangladesh government that India would deliver “soon”. Still, the best the Indians can do is to keep on telling Bangladesh that delivery is round the corner.

The paradigm shift for improvement of Bangladesh-India relations for which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave India full commitment on security and offered it trial run on land transit has not just become stuck on India’s failure to deliver on its commitments; it has
placed the ruling Awami League in an
adverse political spot in the domestic politics of Bangladesh.

Never before in the country's
history has a government faced such problems at home and abroad as those facing
the present government. India’s failure to deliver on commitments has contributed
its share to put the AL led government in its current predicament. When Sheikh
Hasina made unilateral commitment to India on the latter’s vital security needs
and a provided it a trial run for land transit, it was expected, or so the
Prime Minister’s negotiating team told the nation, that India would help make
Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub with vast economic prospects together
with meeting Bangladesh’s expectations on water sharing, trade needs and land
boundary demarcation and on other outstanding issues.

The Prime Minister sent two of her
Advisers to New Delhi last week because she is running out of patience and time.
Their visit has been described by New Delhi as one undertaken to discuss issues
related to the Tippaimukh dam. Dhaka described the visit as routine.
Nevertheless, it was neither. The Advisers went to New Delhi to convey the
growing signs of impatience in Dhaka. The Prime Minister met her Indian
counterpart only recently in Tehran on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit where Manmohon Singh advised her to wait. Thus Dhaka knew that
New Delhi is still in no position to deliver. Yet the Advisers went to New
Delhi to put pressure on India and to be seen in Bangladesh that it is doing
its best to force India to deliver.

Of the two Advisers, Dr.
Mashiur Rahman is in the centre of a major
controversy involving the World Bank. There is an issue
of credibility concerning him. Although he has not been formally charged of any
wrong doing, in the Bangladesh media he has been named as one that the World Bank
would like to resign to reactivate the loan for the Padma Bridge. With a cloud
hanging over his good name, he should not have been sent to negotiate for the
government. In conduct of relations between governments at the ministerial
level, it is enough to rule out anyone from negotiating for his government even
if there is a slight doubt about his/her credibility. The one hanging over Dr.
Mashiur Rahman is a serious one.

The other Adviser in the team that
went to New Delhi, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi was constantly in the
media harping upon the benefits of cooperating with India prior to the visit of
the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka. When a pall of gloom descended upon Dhaka after,
first, Mamata Banarjee withdrew from Manmohon Singh’s delegation, and second,
Teesta was withdrawn from the talks, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi cheered the nation stating
that no harm was done by either of these to the
visit. He gave a positive spin in the media to what was certainly
anything but positive that Mamata Banarjee would come on a separate visit to
Dhaka later He together with the Foreign Minister informed
the nation that the Teesta water sharing agreement would be signed during the
PM’s visit no matter what.

In retrospect, both Advisers need
to do some soul searching and look into their past negotiations if they want to
help themselves and Bangladesh. Dr. Gowhar Rizvi needs to reflect that while he
was informing the nation that Mamata Banarjee would be invited to Dhaka that
she would happily accept, the latter had already made up her mind to deny
Bangladesh the Teesta deal and to use Bangladesh as a bargaining chip with New Delhi.
He also did not seem to be aware that someone had given instruction to the
Foreign Secretary to summon the Indian High Commissioner while the Indian Prime
Minister had landed in Dhaka to be told that Bangladesh would not exchange the
letters to give India land transit on a permanent basis.
Clearly there was a serious
disconnect among those who were conducting relations with India. It was hard to
tell whether there was any coordinating mechanism in the so-called negotiating team
leading to the visit of Manmohon Singh to Dhaka. Therefore when the visit ended
in a fiasco, it did not surprise many in Bangladesh. It exposed the
over-eagerness of the Bangladesh negotiating team to please India that many
found difficult to comprehend. In
particular, many were curious why Dr. Mashiur Rahman thought it would be
“uncivilized” for the Bangladesh Government to charge India fee for using land

The Government of Bangladesh would
also need to accept a few hard facts. First, its negotiating team failed to deliver
because they were negotiating from a conviction that they could trust India and
did not bother to check the history of Bangladesh-India relations and facts.
Second, the Advisers who led the negotiations had no prior experience in
diplomatic negotiations and had no institutional support to guide them. They
negotiated by deliberately keeping the Foreign Ministry outside the loop for
which Bangladesh suffered as the MFA had the facts and figures and could have
helped the Advisers in their negotiations if they worked as a team that they
did not.

Unfortunately, the Government is
still going about doing business with India with the same mindset and strategy.
The dispatch of the Advisers to New Delhi shows that it still does not see the
need to change its negotiating team although bipartisan view about the team is
that it does not have confidence of the nation. Meanwhile, at least one member of
the team has also become controversial.

Meanwhile both the issues that the
AL led Bangladesh Government needs to be delivered to get out of its current
predicament have become inextricably intertwined in the dynamics of India’s
domestic politics. When Sheikh Hasina had made the unilateral concessions on
India’s security needs and given it land transit on a trial basis, times were
better and our negotiators should have move moved quickly
to seek reciprocity instead of harping the Indian song to the people of
Bangladesh and wasting valuable time.

They should have also talked with
Mamata Banarjee and other stake holders instead of trusting New Delhi blindly. In retrospect, while the Advisers were singing
Indian praises and counting chickens from connectivity, Indian domestic
politics was changing with our negotiators blissfully unaware. Our negotiating
team, enamoured by the courtesies and warm words of New Delhi, did not feel the
need to look at Indian domestic politics. In the end, as the Indians had done
with the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974; it merely used the excuse of domestic
compulsions to retract on its commitment.

The two Advisers and the Foreign
Minister should now do themselves a favour. They should look back upon their
roles and ask themselves on what basis they made the promises to the people of
Bangladesh on India’s good will. If they
are sincere to themselves, they will find out that despite the Prime Minister’s
loss of patience and the difficult predicament of AL on the “India factor”, India
really did not make the commitments categorically on either Teesta or the land
boundary agreement. Our negotiators
assumed that India had made the
commitments for reasons they alone can explain.

India now wants to deliver the
Teesta deal and ratify the land boundary agreement because it desperately needs
the land transit and continued cooperation on security where Bangladesh has
withdrawn land transit and no longer as enthusiastic on security cooperation as
before. Unfortunately, in the last one year, the dynamics of India’s domestic
politics have weakened the hands of New Delhi to deliver on either of the two major
commitments to help the AL Government out of its present predicament on the
“India factor”. No wonder then that
neither in Dhaka nor in New Delhi the anniversary of Manmohon Singh’s visit to
Bangladesh was news for any optimism.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Anniversary of Indian PM’s visit: Bangladesh awaits India to deliver

On ministerial coordination and resignation

As I see it Column
The Independent

The Finance Minister is under much more pressure that he realizes
although of late he has admitted a lot about his current unfortunate
predicament. One wonders why his family,
relatives and friends do not advise him to be careful and cautious about what
he says in the media. It did not do him or his position any credit when after
making the stupendous mistake of calling the Sonali Bank scam “nonsense” and a
media invention and stating that Taka 4000 crores is not any amount to cause a
scare, he apologized publicly for his incredible actions but not before his own
party flattened him with criticism they normally reserve for the opposition. He
ended his histrionics in the media by admitting that he has been asked (by the
Prime Minister) not to “open his mouth” in public and that he must be the most
hated man in the country!

With such being the predicament of the Minister in charge of the
critical portfolio of Finance, one really has also to wonder why he has not resigned.
As an honourable man that should have been his only option. Resignation under
this government however may not be as easy as one would want because the Prime Minister
dislikes the idea. If there is any
pressure upon her to remove a Minister, the Prime Minister simply hates to act
even where national interests are linked with such pressure. The Ministers on
their part also show no inclination to resign on their own, despite what they
say or wish in public, to save their reputation.

Drama by ministers over resignation, sad as it is, however
provides the public some comic relief. If ours was a betting country, book makers
would have made good sums of money for themselves and their clients by betting
on whether Abul Hossain would resign when for seven months, his resignation
issue had the nation gripped in intense tension and focus. They would also have
had Dr. Mashiur Rahman to take bets on; whether or not he would resign eventually.
The drama by Suranjit Sen Gupta over the
bag full of cash in his APS’ car could also have been a betting issue.

The Finance Minister’s chances of resigning on his own thus will
remain merely a wish because with the Opposition strongly demanding his
resignation, the Prime Minister would simply not allow him the luxury! There is
however a much serious issue of governance that is being lost and the country’s
interests are being affected adversely in this mindset of the Prime Minister
and the behaviors of the Ministers. In an age where information in any part of
the world in instant information in the rest of the world, the Prime Minister’s
mindset and the way the Ministers conduct themselves are no secret. Surely,
impression about this government and its Ministers outside the country cannot
be positive as a consequence.

Thus while the Government waits for the World Bank to decide on
the Padma Bridge loan; it did not do much to help Bangladesh’s case when the
Finance Minister in one of his regular contacts with the media blurted out that
the World Bank’s Integrity Division is working against Bangladesh with “jihadi”
conviction. Common sense should have required of him not
to make such a statement when the Government has all but prostrated itself for
the loan. Likewise, the way he has reacted in public over
the Sonali Bank scam has become known to all with whom he would be interacting
in world forums that he does regularly. Surely, he does not do his case or that
of the country any good when interacting abroad after the mess he makes of his
conduct at home almost on a regular basis.

It is strange that this Government fails to realize how important
it is to ensure that those who conduct relations abroad on its behalf must have
impeccable credentials to be effective. In fact, it is unthinkable that any
government would send abroad a Minister or an Adviser about whom there are
questions on credibility where there is a demand for his resignation in the
country or from abroad. Yet recently, it sent an Adviser to India who has
become controversial because the Word Bank has asked for his removal to
reactivate the Padma Bridge loan.

While acknowledging the fact that no one is guilty unless proven
so, the point the government seems to miss is that there is no scope of even a
charge that impinges upon the character of a Minister/Adviser to be set aside
to let him conduct negations for the government abroad without resolving the
charge. Civilized governments do not do so. Unfortunately, for some
inexplicable reason, there seems to be the mindset in this government that it
is always right and whatever else the pubic or the rest of the world may think
to the contrary is secondary or of little importance. Surely such a mindset
cannot bring positive results for the country. What is unbelievable is that it
chooses to turn a blind eye to the results before its eyes as a consequence of
this mindset.

The Finance Minister in the face of relentless attacks from his
party and the opposition over the Sonali Bank scam blurted out what in
retrospect was a sad reality about this government’s style of governance. He
regretted the absence of coordination among the Ministries of this government
that he thought affected adversely upon its performance. Inadvertently perhaps,
he highlighted what is a major yardstick for judging the deterioration of
governance of this government. Ministers, particularly the important ones, have
left no one in doubt that they just do not believe in the Rules of Business and
Allocations of Business; two fundamental documents that gives to each Minister
and his Ministry a clearly defined area of duties and responsibilities. In
fact, as far as Ministers’ conduct go, this government can be described as a
believer in free style governance where Ministers need not worry when they
interfere as they regularly do, in affairs of another Ministry if it is done to
get the attention of the Prime Minister or to please her.

The Finance Minister himself is no exception to this interference.
He should spare himself a moment and read the statements on Bangladesh’s
foreign relations that he makes pretty regularly where the rules require
clearance and/or consultation with the Foreign Ministry. He simply does not
feel that in making his statements on the country’s foreign relations, he has
any need to consult the Foreign Ministry.

This government is clearly exceptional on the issues of
resignation of Ministers and Advisers and coordination among Ministries. No
other Government has messed up these issues the way it has. Strangely, it is also
blissfully unaware that its strange way of conducting the business of
government is sadly adversely affecting its performance in a major way. The
Ministers/Advisers are just too busy pleasing the Prime Minister. They could
not be bothered reflecting upon their strange ways which explains why the Minister
of Finance could describe a scam worth Taka 4000 crores as concern over
“nonsense”, prostrate himself and the country before the Word Bank for half
that amount and still remain in his position!

The writer
is a retired Secretary and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

On ministerial coordination and resignation

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

US Presidential election: rich versus poor and middle class Daily Sun

Julian Castro, the 37 year old Hispanic Mayor of San Antonio, as a key note speaker at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina placed before nation plainly what could be the defining theme in this year’s presidential election. He said that the Republican candidate Mitt Romney visited a university in Idaho on his campaign trail where he advised students on starting small businesses. When a student asked him where he would get the capital to do so, Mitt Romney’s reply was instinctive:“borrow money from your parents”. His father had so much money that he thought everyone else wanting money had a rich father to turn to!

Julian Castro’s target was theaffluent background of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party leadership todefine this election as one between the rich America and the poor and middleclass America. The Republicanspassionately stand for less government interference in the lives of Americansto appeal to the average conservatives. However, its leadership activelysupports less government for a reason different from the average conservative.They do so to protect their wealth and well being from being taken away by moretaxes to help the middle class and the poor. The Republican leadership argues that ifpeople are poor, it is their bad luck and should not expect that the Governmentto help them out. In fact, the Republicans see any measure to help out the poorand the needy as socialist or more government control over individuallives and therefore despicable.

It is this mindset that has ledthe Republican Party to vow to destroy President Obama’s affordable healthcareprogramme that they derisively call Obamacare. The Republicans have made this amajor issue in the presidential election although it offers affordablehealthcare to nearly 50 million Americans whose only recourse to treatment whenthey are sick is prescription drug over the counter. Such apathy to the poorand the underprivileged makes the United States stand on its own among the developed nations where 1/6th of its population have only God to lookup to when they need hospital care for their ailments without which they coulddie.

Those lucky to have insurance andmiddle class however are not guaranteed treatment when they reach the cap ontheir insurance. Terminally ill patients are sent home by hospitals to die athome because they have reached their insurance caps. People with pre healthconditions are not allowed health insurance even if they can afford one. PresidentObama’s affordable healthcare programme helps these unfortunate Americans. TheRepublicans want to destroy this pro-poor and pro- middle class programme that thelives of rich and the privileged are not affected to help out their lessfortunate fellow Americans. To get support, the Republicans argue that it wouldtake money out of Medicare that benefits the elderly.

The Democratic Convention isattempting to flag the concerns of the poor and the middle class, the majorityof the Americans, with this healthcare programme, its tax proposals, the womenvoters, the elderly and the war veterans. It gave a face to each of theseconcerns to reach respective constituents effectively. To put across thehealthcare programme, it brought to the convention the mother whose daughterwith congenital heart disease would now have hope instead of being left to diebecause the insurance companies would now have to pay for her operations thatshe and her husband could not afford.

To reach out to the mothers whoare expected to influence the outcome of the election, the Convention fell backupon First Lady Michelle Obama. She reached out to the mothers of America byputting her role as mom-in-chief ahead of all the other activities that she nowhas as the First Lady. She was introduced by a mother whose four sons are inthe armed forces to send a strong message of support to the veterans and theirfamilies and men and women in uniform and their families. She also gave PresidentObama a human face based on the values of the middle class whom time andposition has not changed.

The Convention brought toCharlotte Lilly Ledbetter who has become the icon for women demanding equalrights as men in work place for doing similar work. Her efforts led to theadoption of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that now ensures that it isillegal for employers to pay women less than men who have similar jobs andresponsibilities.

The Convention reached out to themen and women in uniform also through Tammy Duckworth, the war veteran who losther two legs in Iraq and now a candidate for a Congressional seat fromIllinois. Tammy Duckworth also flaggedfor the nation the failure of the Republican Convention to mention the Iraq andAfghan wars in which thousands of Americans laid down their lives and whereAmerica spent over a trillion of dollars o tax payers’ money that is one of themain reasons for US’ current economic predicament.

CNN’s Piers Morgan interviewedRepublican Vice President Candidate Paul Ryan on the opening day of theDemocratic Convention. He asked him whether the Obama administration could begiven some leeway for being given an economy by President Bush that was inruins. Paul Ryan acknowledged that PresidentObama inherited an economy in bad shape from his predecessor but held himresponsible nevertheless for his failure to revive the economy and reduce theunemployment figure. In particular, he harped upon the line that theRepublicans have taken on the high rate of unemployment that is currently at8.4% to register it firmly in the voters’ mind because no candidate ever madeit to the White House with such a high unemployment in recent history.

The Democrats are using thisacknowledgement by Paul Ryan that PresidentObama inherited an economy in ruins that he is now bringing back on rails toswing focus away from the current stateof the economy, particularly unemployment. They are using thecase of the automobile bailout that has saved the automobile industry as anexample that the President’s policies are working. The Democrats are trying tosend the message that the Republicans want less government to stop programmesto help the poor and the under privileged. Most importantly, they are trying tosend the message to the middle class that they stand for them while theRepublicans want to tax them more to make the rich richer.

If the Democrats can successfullysend across this message from Charlotte then only they would be able to getover the issues of the economy and unemployment to re-elect President Obama for another term. The speakers in Charlotte on the first day of the Convention made a very good case. Fingers are crossed but feelings are high that with President Clinton billed to speak on the second day, they would be able to make their case more effectively by energizing the middle class across the country.

In an election that is still too close for call, the Republicans failed to get any momentum from their Convention in Tampa last week. If the first day at Charlotte is any hint, the Democratic Convention could make the difference between the two campaigns.

The writer is former Ambassador to Japan.

On theSonali Bank “Nonsense”

As published in the "As I see It" column, The Independent

There is something eerie about the way this government isconducting business. Huge sums of public money just seem to vanish into thinair with the government not even bothered. Not too long ago, a committee formedby the government and headed by Ibrahim Khaled, Chairman Krishi Bank and formerDeputy Governor of Bangladesh Bank reported that well known individualssiphoned off thousands of crores of Taka by well laid out scams. To date, noaction has been taken against any of them.

The mind boggling scam in the Sonali Bank should have scared theGovernment out of its wits. Instead, theFinance Minister and the Governor of the Bangladesh Bank thought it fit tofight over turf instead in an unbelievable response to the scam! It seems as ifa few thousand crores is hardly a sum to bother this government. Nevertheless,the same government has prostrated itself before the World Bank for funds tobuild the Padma Bridge that is substantially less than what has been alleged tohave been looted in the Sonali scam! Something does not make sense.

The Finance Minister dismissed the scam as “nonsense”. In a roundtable discussion, he accused the media for blowing a “minor” issue out ofproportion to give the impression that the banking sector was breaking down. Inthe round table, he said “Here, my banking crisis – which is not a crisis atall. It is a matter of 3000, 4000 crores. Nonsense! But you [media] are harmingthe banking sector by publicizing it. Banking sector is confronted withquestions whether all of it had crumbled down."

Meanwhile, the Directors of Sonali Bank have cleared themselves ofany wrong doing. The name of an Adviserto the Prime Minister has surfaced as one who may have had a major role in thescam. This has helped take the heat off from the Directors of whom at least fourare former members of the student’s wing of the ruling party that is now agovernment unto themselves in turning the public educational institutions ofthe country into their fiefdom. Most of the other members of the Board of theBank have been appointed by the Government on political considerations.

The ease with which the Hallmark Group siphoned the money raisesserious concerns whether the country’s huge national banks are in safe hands. Evidenceof the fraud by Hallmark that came out in the media revealed that itwascommitted with consummate ease. It was only because of the insistence of anofficial in the Bank’s audit department that the scam was exposed. If thisofficial could have been won over by bribe to be a part of the good number ofinsiders who assisted the scam, then Hallmark would have digested the Taka 3547crores and ready to grab more.

According to Bangladesh Bank regulations, there are number ofmeasures to check such fraud in the private and nationalized banks. The bankshave internal audit and the Bangladesh Bank itself acts on a day to day basisas the watchdog over scams such as the one in Sonali Bank. It seems none ofthese safety nets worked in case of Hallmark that raises serious questions aboutinvolvement of many more Sonali Bank officials other than those against whomcharges have been brought after the scam was exposed.

The credit line that was exposed to Hallmark against projects thatwere never there raises serious questions on the conduct of the Bank’s topmanagement. The branches that gave Hallmark the credit lines did not have thefinancial power to do so. Hence the Managing Director of the Bank would need tobe questioned about his role. If he was not involved in the scam, then he couldsurely be faulted for his failure to check the fraud that people working underhim have committed.

The role of the Chairman and the Board would also need to bereviewed to determine whether they have had been any part of the scam. TheBoard is there to ensure that not just rules and regulations laid down by theBangladesh Bank are followed meticulously but also that the Bank officialsconduct their business on ethics and morality for they deal with money depositedmostly by the public in good faith. . Relevant officials in Bangladesh Bankshould also be question to explain the ease with which the scam was carriedout.

The government, however, seems to believe otherwise; that thesebanks are its property where rules and regulations together with ethics andmorality can be dispensed with at will. The Finance Minister’s “nonsense” thereforeassumes significance because in uttering his favourite word he failed tounderstand the significance and seriousness of dealing with public money! Byhis sarcasm, he has highlighted the factthat neither he nor the government can be trusted with public responsibility.That the government really gives a damn to the outrage in the media over thescam was underscored when it extended the contracts of the Chairmen of thenationalized banks, including the Sonali Bank after the media speculated thatthe latter was on way out. The extensions perhaps may have been thegovernment’s response to this speculation!

The Finance Minister’s reaction may have been intentional; todivert attention to politicization of the banking sector to which he hascontributed wittingly or otherwise. Earlier governments politicized the civilbureaucracy and stopped there. This government has made the civil bureaucracyan extension of the party but did not stop there. The public universities havefallen victim to this mindless politicization where party activists have beenappointed as Vice Chancellors. In such mindless politicization or to use abetter term, a spoils system gone haywire, the Awami League has given itsactivists positions of Directors in the nationalized banks. These positions donot give the incumbents any salary or any other privileges except an honorariumfor attending the meetings of the Board. Nevertheless, the Directors haveconsiderable power if they choose to exercise it. It is the Board that approvesall credit lines, importantly, the credit lines like those given to Hallmark.

It is common knowledge that Directors in private and nationalizedbanks routinely use their influence in favour of businesses in which they have directand indirect interests. They are also known to use such influence for personalbenefit. In fact, one of the major concerns of the Bangladesh Bank is to ensurethat the Directors of these banks do not misuse their positions for businessesin return for personal favours. Thus when this government appointed partyactivists, many with Chatra League background, to the board of nationalizedbanks, there was widespread concern inthe banking sector that they would misuse their position.

Ibrahim Khaled highlighted the danger of appointing former ChaatraLeague cadres as Directors of the nationalized banks when asked to comment onthe Sonali Bank scam. It is to this danger that the Governor of Bangladesh Bankalso alluded when he wrote to the Finance Minister to reconstitute the Board ofthe Sonali Bank. It is therefore extremely surprising that the Finance Ministerwho appointed these party activists asDirectors in the nationalized banks has failed to see the real danger to whichthe Governor and the Chairman of the Krishi Bank have tried to draw thegovernment’s attention. Unless immediate steps are taken to reconstitute theBoards of all the nationalized banks, the fears which the Finance Minister has sarcasticallydismissed as “nonsense” may in fact take down the whole banking industry whichaccording to many insiders is in real need of overhaul and restructuring.

The Sonali Bank scam brings to memory the way the first AL Governmenthad nationalized the industries immediately after independence and had placedparty activists in key positions. These party activists behaved as if theindustries were theirs to plunder and loot that they did merrily thatcontributed in a major way to making the government unpopular. It is thereforesad that this Awami League led government is repeating the mistake and evenmore sad that the Finance Minister is dismissing as “nonsense” the warningsthat the media is sending to it for the good of the party, the government andthe country.

The writeris a former Ambassador to Japan.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The GB Ordinance: Three cheers for democracy, women empowerment and poverty alleviation
Daily Sun
Septembr 2nd., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The government has chosen to issue the  ordinance on the Grameen Bank (GB) by-passing the Parliament raising question whether the country is under parliamentary democracy or otherwise . The ordinance has been described as a “black” law by the civil society and all except those who support the ruling party right or wrong. The irony is that such an ordinance has been passed by a government that claims to be democratic, pro-women and pro-poor when on even a casual look, the ordinance is anti-democratic, anti-woman and anti-poor. 

The actions of the Government of Bangladesh in the past couple of years concerning the GB and Dr. Mohammed Yunus have attracted adverse attention worldwide. Important world leaders  have been aghast at the actions, one after another, by the Bangladesh Government against the Noble Laureate and the GB. They have pleaded, plodded and even gone to the extent of putting direct and indirect pressure upon the Prime Minister and the Government to leave the two alone but to no avail. 

In fact, every time pressure has come from outside, new action have been initiated against Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the GB by the government. After she was embarrassed at the Hard Talk by Stephen Sackur on issues related Dr. Yunus and the GB, the Prime Minister ordered a NBR investigation against possible acts of wrong doing in the Grameen Bank affiliates headed by the Noble Laureate while he was the Managing Director. 

The latest ordinance came after a hearing in the US Congress had expressed concern that the Bangladesh Government was about to bring the institution directly under its control. A US State Department statement also expressed the same concern. A former US Ambassador to Bangladesh William B Milam who is now a Senior Scholar at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington wrote a damning piece in the Wall Street Journal recently where he recommended that the western donors and World Bank should withhold all aid and concessional assistance to Bangladesh to force the government to take its hands off the Grameen Bank.

The concerns have all fallen on deaf ears. None of the investigations against the GB and Dr. Yunus have fond any credible evidence of wrong doing leaving the international community to conclude that the Government is pursuing a vendetta against the Noble Laureate (NL) and the GB. The “original sin” that started the nightmare for the NL, the Norwegian documentary which “alleged misuse of a 1996 donation from Oslo” was quashed by the Norwegian Government almost immediately after it was made public.  

The government later constituted a committee to investigate the Prime Minister’s accusation that the GB was a “blood sucking” institution. The Committee’s Report cleared the GB of this major accusation and named two leading NGOs that charge higher interest rates than the GB. The Government has used lawyers/auditors to go through papers and documents in the GB to find evidence for credible charge against Dr. Yunus and the GB since removing him from the GB more than a year ago. 

 Nothing has come out of such single minded efforts of the government against the GB. In fact, the latest action of sending the NBR after GB revealed that it is the government that owes nearly taka 10 crores to the Bank that it has illegally collected! A committee headed by a former Secretary is now looking into the affairs of 54 affiliates of the GB to find out if Dr. Yunus could be connected to some financial or any other wrong doing in these institutions. The Committee has been given a three months time frame and is close to ending that time limit. There is no hint coming out of this committee so far that would suggest that it has found any skeleton in the cupboard left behind by the NB. 

Dr. Yunus, unfortunately for the Government, is unlike most of the people in public life in Bangladesh. The man is above corruption to a fault and has thus denied the Government the opportunity to finish him off in a manner that it wanted, in utter and total humiliation. Instead, the Government’s efforts have enhanced his honour, reputation and acceptance both at home and abroad. The ordinance is an attempt of the government to ensure that the GB, create from scratch by Dr. Yunus to a world class institution that is now accepted as a model for micro-credit in 76 countries of the world, comes under its absolute control where there would not even be a trace of the Noble Laureate.

The ordinance is as they cliché goes, the final nail in the coffin of a government’s actions that defy both reason and logic. The ordinance takes the power of appointing the Managing Director away from Board that represents its 8 million subscribers and gives it to the Government appointed Chairman who will henceforth exercise total power in the affairs of the Bank. It thus destroys the democratic foundation of the Board.  It takes power away from nine of the 12 members of the Board who are who are women who have challenged poverty and discrimination to successfully rise to a position where the world now feels proud of them.  

The GB ordinance penalizes these women because of their audacity to challenge the government to choose a MD that the 8 million members of the Bank who are women, want! It is thus also against women empowerment as well as anti-poor. The government has gone ahead and brought these changes while owning just 3% of the Bank’s paid up capital. The ordinance   thus can very easily claim to be the most powerful challenge to democracy, women empowerment and poverty alleviation introduced by a government that claims to be democratic, pro-women and pro-poor. 

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, in a critical piece in the Opinion column of Times described the ordinance as a “seizure of the Grameen Bank” that “is a tragedy.” He asked the “international community to break its silence and stand up for the wonderful work of the Grameen Bank.” He argued if the World Bank can stop its US$ 1 billion for the Padma Bridge because of corruption, Britain should threaten to stop its promised aid of US$ 1.6 billion to stop the Bangladesh Government from destroying the Grameen Bank. 

The latest scam in the nationalized Sonali Bank where Taka 3500 thousand crores have been swindled right under the nose of the Ministry of Finance and the Bangladesh Bank could not have come for the government in a worse moment. It showed its efforts to nationalize the Grameen Bank, the only impeccably honest institution of its size in the country, as a move to bring down this world class institution to the level of the other nationalized banks that are swimming merrily in scams and corruption with the Finance Minister and the Governor of Bangladesh Bank fighting over turf!                                                                          

When history would someday judge this period, the actions  against Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank would no doubt be described as the time when insanity had taken grip of those conducting the affairs of the government. The Finance Minister showed a glimpse of this when in a recent event of the TIB he went off the rails and called Dr. Yunus a “liar”. He then pointed at himself, mentioned his name out loud lest  no one had any doubt who he was speaking about, and  said that he has contributed many times more to growth of micro-credit in Bangladesh than Dr. Mohammad Yunus! 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.