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.