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