Tuesday, November 20, 2012

USA and China leadership changes and Bangladesh

Daily Sun
November 18,2012

M. Serajul Islam  

The two most powerful nations in the world have just changed guards at their respective top level of government. The US voters went to the polls on November 6 to elect their President for the 2013-2017 term as well as their legislators. The Chinese through a vastly different system met for a week at the Congress held once in five years to choose a new president and a new prime Minister as well as members of the 205 members strong Central Committee, the 25 member Politburo and the 7 member Standing Committee (brought down from 9) upon whom the state’s power will be entrusted for the next five years and most likely to be extended for another five years. 

In the United States, the President was given another term. In China, the leaders who ruled for 10 years have given way to the “fifth generation” leaders. Hu Jintao has been replaced by his Deputy Xi Jinping as Head of the Communist Party and the President of China while Premier Wen Jiabao has been replaced by his Deputy Li Keqiang. In their different ways, China and the United States have chosen in favour of continuity. In the United States, Governor Romney had promised to change directions in foreign and domestic policies that would have affected policies on handling the economy and taxation, healthcare; immigration and women issues as well as its foreign policy profoundly.  

With President Obama re-elected, the United States will no doubt continue with the economic/taxation policies that are now showing clear signs of bringing the country out of the cold. In his new administration, his healthcare programme called Obamacare will see its fruition. In foreign affairs, the President’s second administration will no doubt pursue the policies of the first term where the voters generally gave the President full marks. In fact, if foreign affairs had figured ahead of the economic issues, then the President would have won by a landslide. In a poll taken just on the eve of the election, over 80% of respondents interviewed in 35 countries wanted President Obama to return. In fact, the rest of the world is happy that he did. In this term thus the President will need to consolidate the gains of the first term in Afghanistan by ending the war there. In Iran, his policy was one of engagement against Mitt Romney’s war cry. That policy will no doubt be the preferred one in the President’s second term. In view of the rest of the world’s welcoming gesture to his second term, the President will be better advised to build up USA’s falling image in the world by responding positively to what the rest of the world thinks of the USA. 

The Middle East has changed fundamentally with the pro-people upsurges in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Syria remains a thorn. In the second term, the President will need to spin the gains for democracy in the region that he did not seriously pursue in his first term. He has neglected Palestine. He will need to do all these in his coming term if he has any intentions of going down in his history as a great President. Those who were disappointed with President Obama’s neglect of the Palestine issue have been relieved at the failed attempt of Governor Romney who left no one in doubt that he would have, if elected, allowed Tel Aviv to run Washington’s policies with regards to Palestine. 

A second term of President Obama will be gain for Asia. The USA-China strategic alliance is expected not just to enhance Asia’s importance in Washington but that of South and Southeast Asia. Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar has opened tremendous possibilities and the news that President Obama will soon be visiting the once reclusive country has opened great possibilities. One huge change in President Obama’s new administration however will be the departure of Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State under whom most of the foreign policy initiatives were initiated and undertaken. Fortunately, her departure is her decision and she will continue to remain a major force in US’ domestic and international politics as she is expected to be the party’s next Presidential candidate.  Thus in foreign affairs, there is little chance that the second administration will depart from the ground work laid by her. In fact these initiatives are expected to be strengthened. 

China’s new leadership has been carefully chosen over the past five years by the outgoing leadership. In the new leadership, Xi Jinping will formally emerge with more powers than his predecessor who resigned from his position as head of the powerful military, a position that will now go to his successor giving him more authority. Nevertheless, in contrast to what the rest of the world perceives, Chinese top leadership is not “decisive and all powerful in reality.” The reason is in that top leadership is represented by individuals who represent different factions in the Chinese Communist Party that yields power without any challenge. Within the party, the new supreme leader Xi Jinping is backed by the party’s patriarch the octogenarian Jang Zemin while the new Premier is backed by leader of the other main faction the outgoing Supreme leader Hu Jintao. 

Except the fact that the “fifth generation” leaders are younger; there is little that will change in their leadership of the China they will inherit. In fact, the new leader Xi Jinping has already made it known that under his leadership and that of his compatriots, China will follow Deng Xiaopeng’s famous dictum of “communism with Chinese characteristics.’ The new leadership has been painstakingly crafted by the outgoing one where there is a clear choice of not putting at top leadership any individual with charisma, a lesson that China has learnt after its tryst with the charismatic Mao Tse Tung. The new leadership is even more innocuous than the outgoing one; something the world saw when Xi Jinping made his speech at the concluding session of the Congress that elected him and his compatriots. 

For Bangladesh, the new Obama administration will bring hope that with a new face in charge of the State Department, there could be a new beginning. The tension and animosities that had come into the relations over Dr. Mohammad Yunus could lose a little less focus. Nevertheless, in the second Obama term, the Bangladesh Government will need to demonstrate its willingness to leave the past behind to get on the right side of the second Obama administration. It should bear in mind that the Dr. Yunus issue did not only upset Hillary Clinton; it also made President Obama unhappy because Dr. Yunus is also the recipient of two of US’s most prestigious medals, the President Medal of Honour and the Congressional Medal. 

China’s new President Xi Jinping had visited Bangladesh in 2010. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited China later. Thus there has already been contact between the Bangladesh Government and the new leadership. The BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia recently visited China and also met the new leadership. The country is thus well poised to carry forward the excellent relations that have existed with China. The hiccups in relationship that came in the way when the AL led Government tended to lean heavily on the Indians have now been overcome helped partly by the fact that the Indians failed to deliver to Bangladesh what it had committed after Bangladesh had established its goodwill by delivering to the Indians the land transit on a trial basis and ensuring that Bangladesh’ soil would not be used by Indian insurgents. China has of course benefitted by its trade with Bangladesh where the balance is heavily in its favour. China has continued to remain the principal supplier of the needs of the Bangladesh armed forces. 

The recent proposal about a Bangladesh-China-India Consortium with a deep sea port at Sonadia that the Chinese discussed with Begum Zia when she visited Beijing has now attracted positive attention in New Delhi. Thus a positive spin to this by the new Chinese leadership with support from Bangladesh will no doubt make the ushering of the “fifth generation” leadership in China a positive development for Bangladesh and the region provided of course the Indians come on board. In spun with a positive mindset by the three countries, this Consortium could even attract the second Obama administration.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

On Ministerial gaffes and governance

 "As I See It" column
The Independent
November 17, 2012
M. Serajul Islam


Right to information about what the government does is now accepted as a right of a citizen worldwide. For the media whose duty it is to find out what the government does and write about it or report on it on a continuous basis, the right to information is not just a basic right but a very important one; its professional bed and butter. Ultimately the public is the sovereign in a democratic state and it is the media that is one of the watchdogs on its behalf to help it exercise that sovereign right and restrain the government from becoming arbitrary or dictatorial. In a country such as Bangladesh where the mainstream parties have rendered the main watchdog of the people namely the parliament innocuous, the media’s role is a bigger one for assuring citizen’s right to information about government and governance. 

In a way, Bangladesh gives the façade of the most democratic government in the world when it comes to the government’s eagerness to give information to the media  Thanks to the 25 plus private TV channels and the unbelievably large number of daily newspapers, Dhaka is flooded by a over subscription of media people pursuing the government for information.

The government represented by the Ministers is equally game to talk to the media and freely, no doubt giving the impression to an outsider that the country is a light of democracy and a haven for the media in pursuit of information as a watchdog for the people. Under this government that has helped achieve an explosion of the private TV channels; the propensity of the Ministers to talk to the media however has crossed all limits and has become counterproductive. Like movie stars, our Ministers are always prepared to talk to the media as if they are running the government under media glare. Like the film stars, they perhaps feel if they have no media exposure, they have no political career.  

Unfortunately, many of them in their over enthusiasm are committing gaffes galore that are now raising serious questions about the government’s credibility. Therefore, the question to ask now is whether this interaction of the Ministers with the media is helping the citizen’s right to information or the government in running the country in a transparent and democratic way. There are serious doubts that either is being achieved. Take for instance the first case, whether the free interaction of the ministers with the media is in anyway helping the people’s right to information. In recent times, people of the country have scratched their heads for information relating to the exchanges between the Government and the World Bank on the issue of the Padma Bridge.  

We have a Minister of Finance who among the Ministers is the most media friendly. Yet the media was unsuccessful to get from him any information about the letters the World Bank had written to him and his Ministry on the Padma Bridge. The World Bank through its Dhaka Office had stated in the media very clearly about its sacrosanct policy of not releasing any information to the media about exchanges between it and a sovereign country on ground of confidentiality. The Bank had nevertheless said if the Bangladesh Government wished, it could go ahead and release the letters in the media. 

The Finance Minister ignored the Bank’s suggestion and the media was unable to encourage him to release the letters for information of the public.  The same Minister however never failed in the past to talk on other issues in which the public was interested and also on issues that the public felt would have been better for the Minister and the Government if he had kept to himself. His comments on the share market were ones that did not make him very popular with the public; it did not also help the Government either in terms of its popularity or credibility. 

The Minister’s latest over indulgence with the media, particularly the electronic media has now landed him and the government with a gaffe of very serious nature and an extremely embarrassing one. The Minister in one of his regular and instant media appearances under glare of the TV cameras was heard saying:  “Prof Amartya said that so many good things are happening in this country but they are not projected anywhere in the world only because of Prof Yunus." When a surprised media asked him how an individual could carry out such a successful campaign on an international platform against his own country, the Minister was quick to respond that Dr. Yunus has“wonderful publicity machinery!” 

Millions who watched the Minister on TV making the statement were bewildered and confounded. Many thought that even if Dr. Sen made the comment, why on earth would the Minister embarrass him in public? Dr. Amartya Sen however put the record straight. In a written statement to a leading English Daily of Dhaka, he expressed astonishment that “the alleged utterance is not close to anything I told Muhit when we met briefly at the VIP lounge in the Bangkok Airport last month.”  He went on to state : “Rather, I was pointing to the fact that the treatment of Yunus -- and its interpretation in the outside world -- have been strongly inhibiting factors working against the justified acclaim that Bangladesh's stellar achievements could otherwise be expected to get in the world.”

In a strange twist to the tale thereafter, the Finance Minister told the media that “Amartya Sen did not make any such comment about Prof Yunus. It was my comment."  The English Daily to which Dr. Sen sent his statement quickly put on the internet the video clipping of the Finance Minister telling TV journalists what he later denied! Unfortunately, the Minister’s denial was also ill advised because Dr. Sen had made a very positive comment to him about Dr. Yunus that he misrepresented that many in the country and outside will interpret as part of the government’s policy to humiliate Dr. Yunus. The incident has seriously dented the Minister’s standing. It also flagged a serious problem of this government that it refuses to acknowledge. It allowed its Ministers a free hand to talk to the media from the very first day it came to power. As a consequence, there is perhaps not one Minister who has not embarrassed himself/herself and the government in the process.

The Finance Minister’s latest gaffe has unequivocally highlighted the grave dangers of appearing before the media unprepared. It serves nobody’s interests. In this instance as in many instances before, our Minister’s have committed gaffes in the media because they appeared before it unprepared and where there was no need for them even to appear. Such indulgence of Ministers with the media has also not served the interests of the people who are not interested in the Ministers speaking in the media just for the sake of speaking.  It is time therefore for the Government to draw a line and send out instructions to the Ministers that they should refrain from appearing unprepared before the media. In the face of the Government’s silence, it was an ex-Minister of the ruling party who appeared in the media and asked the Finance Minister to shut up which again was a strange example of governance!

It is high time to revert to the old system when Ministers spoke to the media through a Spokesman  and appeared personally before it only when the issue demanded his/her presence and with due preparation. Such is the system everywhere. It is in Bangladesh only that the Ministers interact with the media the way they do and end up embarrassing themselves, the government and in case of the Finance Minister’s strange gaffe over Dr. Sen, the country as well. Not too long ago, the Finance Minister faced censure in a Cabinet meeting from two of his senior colleagues over his indulgence with the media that led him to threaten to resign. A serious situation was calmed when the Prime Minister intervened but it seems the Finance Minister did not take the message from his colleagues seriously.   

The writer is a former career Ambassador and retired Secretary.




Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On Begum Zia's visit to India

 "As I see it" column
The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

Politics make strange bed fellows. Before the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011 that ended in disappointment, a meeting between an Indian President and Begum Khaleda Zia would have been impossible to imagine and that too in New Delhi while Bangladesh had an AL Government. It was nevertheless very pleasing to see   Pranab Mukherjee receiving Begum Zia at Rastrapati Bhavan, New Delhi. Going by what appeared in the media, their meeting was positive where they agreed about the need of building mutually beneficial bilateral relations by looking forward instead of back. 

A lot has been said about the BNP’s past anti-Indian stance as if this was why the BNP leader was invited. In fact, some of the BNP leaders themselves acknowledged that past with regret to give such a feeling.  One who had spearheaded the anti-Indian stance of the party while the BNP was in power during the 2001-2006 period, former Foreign Minister Morshed Khan said that the party’s past stance on India was a “mistake.” Unfortunately, the BNP leaders who are in a hurry to acknowledge their “mistake” have not done themselves or their party much credit. They failed to understand that India’s interests and changes in international politics were as much, if not more, the reason for the visit to which the softening of BNP’s stance towards India helped. They also failed to highlight that BNP’s past anti-Indian stance t was to a large extent the result of India’s failure to be fair to Bangladesh and condescending with it.  

Take for instance the meeting between Begum Zia and Pranab Mukherjee in Rastrapati Bhavan. One must welcome this meeting for there is a huge potential here for the future of Bangladesh-India relations.  Nevertheless, while acknowledging their “mistakes”, the BNP leaders must keep in mind about what led to the BNP’s anti-India stance in the past. When Pranab Mukherjee as Foreign Minister came to Bangladesh as a Special Envoy in February, 2009, he declined to meet Begum Zia on the lame excuse that he had no time for the meeting. He in fact had time for meeting by then the discredited Army Chief General Moyeen U Ahmed and opening a building in Dhaka University that India funded.  

At that time, New Delhi did not care much for its policy of reaching out to the democratic multi-party polity of Bangladesh. Its main interest then was to keep Sheikh Hasina happy. In fact till the ill-fated visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011, New Delhi did not feel any necessity to reach out beyond the Awami League that was  giving India what past Indian governments were desperate to receive from Bangladesh; namely a full assurance for its security needs and the land transit. In fact, the negotiators of the AL led government gave/promised these Indian needs even without being asked and without seeking reciprocity.  New Delhi nevertheless promised on its own that for these concessions, it will make Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub and provided Banagladesh with a US$ 1 billion soft loan and later converted US$ 200 million out of it as grant. 

It was only after the edifice of Bangladesh-India living happily ever after was brought down by Mamata Banarjee that New Delhi realized that even an obliging government in Dhaka cannot give India anything without reciprocity as the AL led Government quickly withdrew its offer of land transit once India failed to deliver the Teesta deal.  Nevertheless,  the negotiations between New Delhi and Dhaka  succeeded in highlighting the benefits to both sides of building bilateral relations where each showed the political will to carry relations forward. India saw the tremendous benefits of the land transit and security assurance and Bangladesh, the benefits of becoming the connectivity hub and of course the prospect of revolving its water, trade and land boundary issues through positive engagement. 

On the Bangladesh side, the negotiations also succeeded in convincing the BNP to change its anti-Indian stance because it felt for the first time that India was willing to deal with Bangladesh fairly. It also felt that the Indian promise of making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub was sincere. The BNP also watched favourably the concessions that India gave on trade that is helping Bangladesh close the trade gap weighed heavily in favour of India. It of course acknowledged with a sense of gratitude India’s contribution to Bangladesh’s war of liberation.  It believed   that New Delhi would have given Bangladesh the Teesta Deal as well as the LBA  had it not been frustrated by Mamata Banarjee and the BJP. The BNP nevertheless now feels that the Congress led government is in no position to deliver either of these to Bangladesh but that if negotiations are kept on the right track, these needs of Bangladesh will come Bangladesh’s way eventually.  

New Delhi also learnt a few lessons while noting favourably the change in the BNP’s stance. New Delhi realized that concessions given by the AL without the BNP on board will not be sustainable. Therefore it is reaching out for the “democratic multi party polity of Bangladesh”, particularly because it is concerned about the waning political strength of the Awami League. International politics has also added to change the political scene dramatically to make strange bedfellows out of New Delhi and the BNP. India’s strategic alliance with USA with the intent of containing China and Myanmar’s decision to forge relations with USA has added to the geopolitical importance of Bangladesh. Both India and USA are therefore interested in political stability of Bangladesh for more or less the same reasons. 

Recent politics in Bangladesh has left little doubt in New Delhi and Washington that Bangladesh will slide to political disaster if the AL carried out its way of conducting the next elections in Bangladesh. In both capitals, there is consensus that the change in Bangladesh should reflect the popular will.  At the same time, both India and USA have doubts about the BNP over its Jamat connections. In fact, in both the capitals, concerned officials would compare notes on what the BNP leader said about its alliance with Jamat to her Indian hosts though from the media briefing given by the aides of Begum Zia, there has been no mention whether at all this subject was raised by the Indian leaders with Begum Zia. Assuming this was raised and Begum Zia’s stand has cleared the minds of the Indians, then one would no doubt see India and USA take positive stand for an election in Bangladesh where the BNP would also participate. 

Assuming on the other hand that this subject was not raised, that seems very unlikely, or that it was raised and Begum Zia’s explanation was not convincing, there is still the strong likelihood that India and the USA would ultimately seek a level playing ground for the next elections in Bangladesh. Begum Zia has done enough to encourage the Indians to do so. Her firm commitment for India’s security concerns and connectivity or land transit in exchange for Bangladesh’s water, trade and other demands must have been received in New Delhi very positively. In fact, her upgrading connectivity to the concept of Bangladesh-China-India Consortium with the deep seaport at Sonadia have enough prospects to attract India more than just connectivity leading to making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub.

Begum Zia’s visit has also helped in creating awareness in New Delhi that despite the AL and the BNP being on each other’s throats, in their conflicting ways they have sent a consensus message to New Delhi that no party in Bangladesh can give India anything unless India is willing to reciprocate. The visit has underscored the fact that Bangladesh-India relations can move forward only on a quid pro quo basis.     

The BNP will now need to build on a successful visit of its leader to benefit from its outcome that could be positive for it and the nation provided if it carried out future negotiations professionally and out of the media. It should insist with New Delhi privately that the immediate need for Bangladesh is to have an election where it could participate and that it will keep its commitments, provided India kept theirs, no matter whether in government or in the opposition after the next general elections. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary to the Government.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Begum Zia in New Delhi


Promises of positive development in Bangladesh-India relations


Holiday, Friday 9, 2012

Khaleda Zia with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

M. Serajul Islam


Former Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia’s just concluded visit to New Delhi is an important one by any yardstick if the objective is betterment of Bangladesh’s relations with India. It has achieved at the bare minimum two major positive changes in the way the two countries conducted relations so far. First, the BNP is willing to leave its anti-Indian stance in politics behind for mutually beneficial relations. Second, India is serious about its new strategy of pursuing relations with the “democratic multi-party polity of Bangladesh.”

With BNP representing the opinion of roughly half the nation, sustainable relations with India cannot be built without the party’s support. In this sense, BNP’s willingness to end its anti-India stance is good news.

Equally, in the past New Delhi had shown little interest in the “multi-party democratic polity” of Bangladesh and preferred to deal with only the Awami League. The visit has highlighted a major change in that Indian stance — a recognition that without the BNP, positive Bangladesh-India relations will not be sustainable. In New Delhi, Begum Khaleda Zia met the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. Prime Minister Manmohon Singh hosted a luncheon in her honour after an hour long official meeting. BJP leader L K Advani was present in the luncheon and had a 15 minutes meeting with her. Begum Zia also met BJP leader in Parliament Sushma Swaraj and BJP President Nitin Gadhari on separate occasions. She also met two key officials in conduct of Bangladesh-India relations, namely the Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and the National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon. Begum Zia’s visit was thus given a profile befitting not just her position as Leader of the Opposition in Bangladesh but also her past as a two time former Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She however did not meet Sonia Gandhi.


High profile visit

That the Indians have given her visit a very high profile was apparent from reactions in Dhaka from some of the close aides of the Prime Minister. The party General Secretary and the Foreign Minister made statements of contempt against the visit and the BNP to belittle it. Other leaders of the party also gave statements in the media trivializing the visit. However, their efforts hinted that the visit must have caused serious stomach cramps in the AL leadership for it no doubt raised questions in the public mind whether New Delhi has faith about a return to power by the AL. The meeting of the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka with the Prime Minister while the BNP leader was in New Delhi was therefore no coincidence. It was New Delhi’s way of assuaging the hurt sentiments of the Prime Minister.

The High Commissioner’s meeting with the Prime Minister was also a message to the BNP and those who are eager to see a great deal into Begum Zia’s visit in the context of Bangladesh’s conflict ridden politics that for New Delhi, the Awami League is still its party of choice. Nevertheless, the discussions that Begum Khaleda Zia had in New Delhi are also going to have a very important bearing on the extent to which New Delhi will be willing to back the AL-led government in Bangladesh as the country comes closer to the next general elections now just a little more than a year away. Clearly some of the commitments that the BNP leader made in New Delhi will be seriously considered because Indian interests will be better served by accepting the positive stance of the BNP instead of rejecting it just to please the AL especially when the latter’s political strength in Bangladesh’s politics is badly waning.


Take for instance the issue of security that is at the heart of what New Delhi wants desperately from Bangladesh. On this crucial issue, it has already received unequivocal commitment from the AL. This fact notwithstanding, Indian insurgents have always had sanctuary in Bangladesh since the Pakistani days. When AL has been in power, these elements did not have indulgence from the political leadership but there has always been indulgence for them at the level of the intelligence. In this context, the present AL government has been different. It decided to dismantle the support for these insurgents at the level of intelligence and has been doing so with sincerity based upon its conviction that such elements are evil for both Bangladesh and India. 


Bipartisan support

Nevertheless, even at the talks at the level of the Home Secreteray held very recently, the Indians have reiterated that there are still many camps of the Indian insurgents in Bangladesh. After the recent incarceration of a Bangladeshi in New York for attempting to blow up the Federal Reserve Building in New York, the Chief Minister of Tripura has also underscored the Indian fear that all terrorists’ camps have not yet been dismantled in Bangladesh. These apprehensions suggest that New Delhi will need more time and continued cooperation from Dhaka and that AL alone will not be able to give them that assurance. The Indians need bipartisan support from Bangladesh to ensure that the country is no longer the soft underbelly of its security concerns; concerns that are enhancing as Bangladesh goes closer to elections with the AL’s chances of returning to office in question.


Therefore the commitment given by Begum Khaleda Zia in her meeting with the Indian Prime Minister not to allow Bangladesh soil to be used for any acts of insurgency or terrorism against India is very good news for New Delhi. The other big issue that Begum Zia discussed with the Indian leaders that must have made her hosts happy was her tacit support for connectivity that is the old concept of land transit that the BNP had been reluctant to discuss with the Indians in the past when it was in government. In the negotiations that the Indians have conducted with the AL-led government in the past four years; the two sides have succeeded in placing before the people of Bangladesh the benefits that granting land transit to the Indians will mean for the country. It is now accepted across the political divide that if the Indians keep their part of the deal, Bangladesh will become the connectivity hub of the region by granting land transit to the Indians with significant economic benefits.


Consortium for development

The BNP Chairperson expanded on the connectivity and the regional hub concept in her discussions with the Indian leaders, calling land transit “inevitable.” She developed the concept of connectivity beyond what the negotiators of the AL-led government had discussed and agreed with the Indians. She offered the Indians to join a Consortium for the development of the region where China will also be a stake holder. She informed her Indian hosts about her discussion in China about this Consortium and that the Chinese have shown active interest in building a deep sea port in Sonadia for the development of the region under a China-India-Bangladesh consortium in which the other countries of the region also could join. The Indian National Security Adviser Shiv Sankhar Menon expressed keen interest in the Consortium and sought details from the BNP leader. 


Begum Khaleda Zia thus offered the Indians what the Indians expected to receive from the AL-led government but did not get when it failed to deliver the Teesta and the land boundary agreement (LBA) deals. She made these offers together with a commitment that must have pleased the Indians a great deal. She committed the BNP against pursuing an anti-Indian stance for the sake of politics that it has done in the past.


 Nevertheless, she differed from the AL in the way she made the offers and the commitment. She subjected these to India providing Bangladesh its legitimate share of waters of the common rivers and fair resolution of the other issues that have remained outstanding over the years. She said that the Teesta Agreement could start the process of legalizing the water sharing issues of the other common rivers. Begum Zia also asserted that India must stop the border killings and ratify the LBA in order to allow her party to give the green signal to India for the land transit and for friendship of her party for mutually beneficial relations through resolution of the other issues outstanding between the two countries. 


New beginning

There has been little official reaction from the Indian side on the visit in the media. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Akbaruddin said that the visit of Begum Zia “marks a new beginning, and let’s not look back at the rear view mirror.” The Indian Prime Minister in his meeting with Begum Zia mentioned a zero tolerance on border killings and assured her that India will not do anything to harm Bangladesh. He reiterated India’s commitment for working with all parties for strengthening democracy in Bangladesh. In fact, he and the other leaders Begum Zia met did most of the listening while the latter did most of the talking.

Former diplomats who were actively involved in Bangladesh-India relations in the past when India’s attitude towards Bangladesh was condescending were sceptic and were unwilling to give any positive spin to the visit. The Indian media though has taken a serious and in-depth look at the visit. All leading newspapers carried news of the visit with an air of expectancy and felt it was a positive development in Bangladesh-India relations. The right wing papers like the Pioneer nevertheless refused to accept that the BNP could change its anti-Indian stance so easily. Former editor of the Hindustan Times Hiranmay Karlekar writing for the Pioneer dug into the BNP’s past. 

The views of the former Indian diplomats and journalists like Hiranmay Karlekar are ironically shared by a section of the BNP leadership that has expressed disappointment at the commitments their leader has made in New Delhi. While the anti-Indian views of the BNP leaders have been stressed and in fact over-stressed, India’s failure to deliver and be fair to Bangladesh has been ignored by these diplomats and the likes of Hiranmay Karlekar; attitude that has created and sustained the anti-Indian stance of the BNP. 


Removal of misgivings

Equally, in negotiations by the AL-led government as well as by Begum Zia in New Delhi, what has not been stressed or highlighted is what land transit and security means to India. The security card is priceless; the key to tackling Indian concern that Bangladesh is the soft underbelly of its security on its eastern border. The land transit card is the key to integrating India’s fragile northeast to its mainland which is a major security issue of India and also of tremendous value to it in economic terms.


Nevertheless, the discussions Begum Zia had in New Delhi have been serious and will not fail to attract New Delhi and have a positive impact on the future of Bangladesh-India relations. The China-India-Bangladesh Consortium, for instance, will be attractive to the Indians for a number of reasons. First, it will give it the land transit that is extremely important for it for economic and security reasons. Second, it will make China a stakeholder in the welfare of the region, thereby allaying a lot of India’s misgivings about China’s role in Indian northeast. Finally, it will remove a lot of misgivings that exist among the stakeholders by putting common economic prosperity in the driver’s seat. The prospects are for a sea change in the relations of the three countries if the concept of the Consortium is expanded and realized to its full potentials. 



One of the most important outcomes of the visit of Begum Zia is however an ironic one. She has offered to India exactly what the AL has offered. In other words, she has delivered to New Delhi a clear message that there is a consensus in Bangladesh about giving India land transit and security assurance but only on reciprocity. Begum Khaleda Zia has highlighted this reciprocity in no uncertain terms. The AL led government did not seek reciprocity but when India failed to reciprocate it withdrew negotiations and the movement towards a paradigm shift in bilateral relations was rudely halted. In their separate ways, both parties have now made it clear to New Delhi that they are on the same page; that India can get from Bangladesh what it wants if it delivers what Bangladesh wants. The ball for moving the future of Bangladesh-India relations positively is now squarely in the Indian court.

The BNP now has to proactively engage with New Delhi. As a measure, the BNP should seek New Delhi’s support for the future of multi-party democracy in Bangladesh; a commitment given by the Prime Minister of India to Begum Zia. The BNP must tell New Delhi in no uncertain terms that the most important issue facing Bangladesh now is to assure a change of government that reflects popular will. It must further tell the Indians that unless the change is through a popular will, the country will face political turmoil that will obstruct Bangladesh-Indian bilateral relations, with devastating consequences for the country and the region. In seeking New Delhi’s support, the BNP should commit itself that it will accept the verdict of a free election and even if it is in the opposition, it will pursue the commitments the party leader made in New Delhi on the basis of Indian reciprocity.


Multi-party democracy

The BNP must of course put the party together on relations with India and impress upon the disbelievers that it will not be just the BNP but Bangladesh that will benefit as a result of positive relations with India provided of course if India is also sincere about the hand of friendship that it extended to the BNP based on its newly adopted policy of reaching out for the “multi-party democratic polity of Bangladesh.” Times are changing and following an anti-India stance for the sake of one will isolate the BNP not just from India but from the US and the West because India’s new policy towards Bangladesh has the blessings of the latter. Equally, the BNP must also rein in those, like former Foreign Minister Morshed Khan who are saying BNP’s past anti-India stance was a mistake. The bottom line for the BNP is that it should also be careful in not putting the cart before the horse; it must wait for India to deliver on its commitment for assisting the democratic process in Bangladesh before it can expect the BNP to support the commitments made by Begum Zia in New Delhi in public. 

The BNP should also take lessons from the AL negotiators to correct its negotiating style and strategy. Too many BNP leaders are speaking in the media and contradicting one another. BNP must keep in mind that India needs Bangladesh more today than the other way round for reasons of its own domestic compulsions, security needs and recent developments in international politics that has enhanced Bangladesh’s geopolitical importance. The BNP should keep in mind its strength and not what some of its leaders are wrongly suggesting, its past mistakes while engaging with New Delhi.


The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and retired Secretary



Wednesday, November 7, 2012

US Presidential election: Towards a cliff hanger

The Daily Sun
November, 6, 2012 
M. Serajul Islam

With less than a day to go for the Presidential elections, US voters have equal chance of re-electing a President or sending to the White House for the first time a Mormon Christian according to media predictions. In the latest opinion poll, the candidates are tied at 48% each among the voters nationally.  However, in the swing states that are expected to determine the results, the President is faring better.  Nevertheless, analysts are taking the tie at the national level and the momentum of Governor Romney in the swing states in closing the gap to predict that this election will be a cliff hanger. Some commentators are thus looking into unusual factors of history to predict the winner. One analyst dug out the victory of little known US President to predict a likely winner.  

In the election of 1845, James K Polk, a Democrat won the White House despite losing North Carolina, his state of birth and Tennessee, where he lived and worked. That feat was a rarity and he was the only presidential candidate to have gone to the White House without carrying his state of birth and his home state. In this year’s election, Mitt Romney is trailing the President in Michigan, his state of birth by 6 percentage point and by a wider double digit margin in Massachusetts, the state where he lived and was Governor. Therefore Governor Romney will have to achieve a historical rarity to win the White House if he loses both the states which appears likely. The two states together have 27 electoral votes or 10% of the total of 270 needed to win. 

These two states will have a significant bearing on the outcome of the election although Mitt Romney could still win the election even if he loses both these states. Nevertheless, the need of carrying home state/state of work is very important in a US Presidential election. In 2000, Al Gore would have become President if he had not failed to carry his home state of Tennessee. The President is also leading in 21 of the 27 swing states in polls released 72 hours before the polls. In the critically important of the swing of battle ground states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania the President has the edge. In Ohio, the President has a 6 point lead and in Pennsylvania, 4 point.  The fact that no Republican candidate has gone to the White House in recent times without these two states gives the President’s team hope. The President has also a slight lead in Florida. The Romney team is basing their hopes on the fact that they have closed the gap in the key battle ground states and succeeded in taking the President’s lead within the margin of error in many of the key swing states and that leading to Election Day, the momentum is on their side.

The President and the Governor have rested their case, both fatigued and on the verge of losing their voices in what is turning out to be one of the most fiercely fought presidential election in memory.   Both candidates have accepted, the President reluctantly, that voters will take the health of the economy as the yardstick for casting their votes. The President has told the voters that they can trust him; that he has got a grip of the economy and that his economic policies are on the right track. He has stated that the latest unemployment figure of 7.9% and a job creation figure of 1, 75,000 for October are positive signs of the economy coming out of the recession. He has also used the IMF’s latest report on the World Economy that has mentioned that in the next 4 years, the US economy would grow at 3% and become the strongest among the developed economies. President Obama has sought another term to carry forward the positive economic trends. 

Governor Romney has stated that the unemployment rate of 7.9% is not good enough. It indicated that the economy is stagnating. He also deplored the general health of the economy that he said continued to remain in recession. He faulted the President’s administration as a high spender and his tax policies as impediments to business and investment. He turned around a key and successful Obama campaign theme of the 2008 election and used it as an arsenal to attack his candidature with some degree of sarcasm. He said that the President promised “change” but failed to change anything. He asked support of the voters so that his administration could achieve the change that the President had promised with his policies that have at the core a small government that will take the country forward. 

The President’s better standing in the swing states have largely been ignored by many political analysts and commentators who are predicting that this election will be a cliff hanger. They believe that the economy will motivate many voters to conclude that the economy is not improving under the President and a change is needed to take the United States out of its worst economic predicament in many decades. Under the early system of voting, nearly 27 million voters have already cast their votes in 34 states. In the early voting, President Obama has fared better than his opponent in several key states. These are popular votes and there is no way to know how these votes will translate into electoral votes until the voting is completed. Nevertheless, the indication of the early voting has failed to encourage  the media to predict an outcome favourable to the President and are convinced that the election will go down to the wires.

One commentator has written a piece that just about highlights the fact that the political analysts have run out of ideas, ways and methods, to predict a winner. Writing for The Telegraph, Charles Moore has predicted that Governor Romney will win the election because of the many gaffes he made during the campaign! He believed that each of his “gaffes” ironically reflected a truth that few were inclined to reveal, let alone question. He wrote that through these gaffes he touched base with a large number of voters who have distanced themselves with the President because they thought he entered the race believing the second term is his and he has to just go through the process. They also think he is too professorial and intellectual for their liking. 

Charles Moore has also written that the President has lost his “heroic status” status that helped him win the last election and people are “now seeing beyond the simple, wonderful fact that a black man can be elected President.” The writer referred to the gaffes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and how their gaffes eventually took them to the top political post in their respective country. He concluded that the same will happen with Mitt Romney’s “gaffes!”

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

US Presidential election: Going down to the wires

The Daily Sun
November 4, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

With days to go for the November 6th US Presidential election and with the debates over, the fate of the US Presidential election is now in the hands of the voters. The candidates are targeting undecided voters in swing states knowing that voters in majority of the states will vote as they always do for one of the two parties going by their historic preferences. Super Storm Sandy gave the President some undue last moment advantage when he had the centre stage managing the national emergency and Governor Romney officially pausing his electioneering as a show of sympathy for the millions on USA’s east coast facing the Super Storm. Nevertheless, as the two candidates look down the barrel, the outcome is anybody’s guess polls taken after the debates placing the candidates neck to neck. 

Early voting is already underway in some of the states (suspended in the east coast due to Sandy) and the President himself has already voted! There is extreme tension in both the teams because to quote a cliché, this one is going to go to the wires. For the President, this should not have been so. The Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina in the first week of September that was held after a lack luster Republican Convention a week earlier had set the President’s campaign on the right track to cross the November 6 finishing line comfortably. The DNC was extremely successful and helped the President increase his lead in opinion polls alarmingly for his opponent. Perhaps, the President’s team was led to a false sense of complacency as a consequence and slowed down  their efforts, assuming that they were already in the comfort zone. In the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the outlook was good. 

Thus going to the Presidential debates, the Republican team was wary of the way the fortunes of the two parties were shaping. On the way to the debates, the Republicans added more to their discomfort when Governor Romney was caught in a secretly taped video making disparaging remarks about the US middle class. That gaffe was spun successfully by the media sympathetic to the Democrats and was nick named “the 47% gaffe” with significant potentials to damage the Governor’s campaign. Many supporters of the President expected him to use the “47% gaffe” in the first of the 3 presidential debates to portray the Governor as a candidate of the rich with no sympathy for the middle class that they were convinced would further increase his lead over his opponent. 

Thus Governor Romney was hoping for something unexpected to bring him back to the race while continuing to blame President Obama for the current economic ills facing the United States on way to the presidential debates. The key element in that strategy has been the unemployment rate that was 8.2% before the debates, a figure with which no presidential candidate has entered the White House in recent memory.  The other elements in that strategy have been the huge national debt, high spending by the federal government and the economic recession of the country from where it is coming out painfully slowly for comfort of voters across the political divide. The President’s team was convinced they had been able to explain to the voters that the economic recession facing the Americans has not been the doing of the President and his administration but the outcome of the eight years of President Bush and his two wars that drained the national coffers of huge amount of tax payer’s money. They were also led to believe that the President’s policy with regards to the auto industry had convinced voters that his bail out policy for the economy was working. 

Thus a complacent President Obama went to the first Presidential debate thinking he did not have to do much other than appear “presidential” and get the debates out of the way. That complacent attitude, should he fail in his re-election bid, would no doubt be considered his major failure. By his complacency, he answered Governor Romney’s prayer for something unexpected. For not once in the course of that 90 minutes long debate did he mention the Governor’s infamous 47% gaffe.  He allowed Governor Romney instead to paint the President as distant to the sufferings of the average Americans who are in the middle of their worst economic recession for many decades and without a plan to bring them out of it. What the President needed to do was to reiterate what President Clinton had said in his NDC speech,  that the current economic predicament of Americans did not drop suddenly 4 years  ago but was the result of the failed policies of the  President Bush and that Governor Romney was promising to take the country back to that economic predicament, if elected.   

The President failed to make these crucial points and failed badly in the debate and lost it and with it, the momentum. In fact, in the period after that, the Governor has closed the gap dangerously for the President and before Sandy, was even with the President in the opinion polls. Although the President rebounded in the next two debates and Vice President Joe Biden made a major impact in the only Vice Presidential debate, these efforts have not been enough to halt the Governor. Even the fall of unemployment rate under 8% for the first time during this administration to 7.8% that came after the first debate went un-noticed, a figure that although still high, no doubt indicated that the President’s economic policies are working. 

Thus Governor Romney, despite his 47% gaffe against the middle class and another he made about the women in the second Presidential debate, the “women in binder” reference, has gained momentum with his strong performance in the first debate. The Governor used the major slip of the President in the first debate to establish in the mind of the voters that the economy is in a deplorable state and the President cannot be trusted with another term to take the country out of its current economic predicament. As a consequence till Super Sandy hit the east coast as one of the worst natural disasters in US history, there was practically nothing dividing the candidates.  

Super storm Sandy may have given the President the edge that he now desperately needs having done an excellent job before the storm hit and then in managing the aftermath of the disaster.  Lot is being made of the praise that the President has received from the Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie for his management of Sandy. The Governor had delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, news of the economy emerging in the critical days leading to the election is also encouraging for the President. The IMF while writing its latest report on world economy has said that over the next four years, the US economy will grow at the strongest rate among the developed nations; at 3% compared to France and Germany’s 1.2% and Canada’s 2.3%. Commenting on the IMF report,  Fareed Zakaria has said that the strong growth of the US economy is a sign that it is recovering “thanks to Obama and Bernanke”. The serious question that would only be known after November 6 is whether the President and his team succeeded in conveying this message to the voters together with the palpably damaging issues to Governor Romney such as his 47% gaffe, his dislike for the middle class and his indifference to the women voters.

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


Are we living in a healthy society?

"As I See It" column
The Independent
November, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

When I open my morning news paper, as part of a very old habbit, I can’t help being disappointment. Often I see half and sometimes more than half of the front page of the paper I read given to advertisements! The more well circulated the newspaper, the more is the inclination towards using as much as possible of the first page for ads.  I have lived a good part of my life as a diplomat that was spread over 30 years, overseas. Both by habit and professional requirements, I had to read as many newspapers as I could lay my hands on. I have not seen anything like this anywhere in the capitals where I have lived and worked. 

It is not that the newspapers in other world capitals have no need of advertisements or that there is no demand for space in the papers there for advertisements by the business communities of the countries concerned. In fact, these countries are much more advanced and hence the business much more vast. So is the latter’s need for paid publicity or advertisement. Yet they rarely use their front pages the way our newspapers do. The reason for this strange difference in the front page of our newspapers and those in other capitals is of course the urge for making money. Our newspapers have an extremely high rate when an ad is carried in the front page. Hence, they allow such an unusually high proportion of their front page to make money. Newspapers abroad do not do so because they do not think it as decent. 

Our independence has not just established us as a sovereign country; it has also given us the freedom of expanding ourselves as a nation on all aspects of our lives. We have expanded in many ways and the signs are visible for all of us to see. Yet today, talk to the vast majority of the people; they will tell you that their lives have become more complicated and problem ridden. However, for a small section of our people, independence has been a boom for they have been able to acquire riches and pleasures of live that they could not have dreamt when the country was not free. The life style of this small section of our people would be the envy of rich people abroad in the way they enjoy their riches.   

In contrast, those who are directly involved with building the society and the country, the civil and public servants, have a different life style for whom independence has come with a heavy price. Take for instance the case of the civil servants. In the Pakistani days, they were in the centre of development of the country. A civil servant was a respected member of the society. His respect was backed by the government paying him a salary and providing him with other perks that allowed him to maintain a decent standard of living; most importantly to discourage him from corruption. Only greedy civil servants were corrupt those days.  

Today, the honest civil servant has lost his/her respect while the salary and perks he/she receives are so low compared to the price line in the market that honesty comes with almost starvation. Unfortunately for the country but fortunately for the civil servants, the law of nature has worked where the government has been oblivious to the needs of the civil servants. Many of them have liberally used their power and position to make the shortfall in their needs that the government should have provided. In fact, those among the civil servants in powerful offices have used their power to compete successfully with the rich but for a price. They have sold their morality as the price and society has been the worse off as a consequence.  

The same is the case with public servants, the elected officials, like the Ministers, Members of Parliament, etc. In the Pakistan era, getting elected to public offices was not a costly affair as it is today. Therefore, when an elected official became a Minister or a MP or was elected to the other elected offices; he did not have the compulsion to make through his office, the crores of Taka that he has now to spend for his nomination and then for  his election.. Therefore like with the civil servants, the public servants also have fallen into the same predicament; they have been compelled to use their offices to make money by corrupt means. The recent report of TIB on the parliamentarians thus should not have raised any eyebrows. If you allow a pond full of fitly water, you create the conditions for mosquitoes to breed for natural reasons.  

Thus in Bangladesh, the sectors in which people work to build the nation have been placed in a position where the temptations of corruption are great and often insurmountable, conditions created not by these individuals themselves but by the type of country we have built upon our liberation. Those who do fall to the temptations of corruption are in a predicament from where they can hardly contribute positively to nation building. Corrupt people do not build a healthy nation. Those who are not part of this endemic corruption are in no position either to help themselves or the nation. This is why we are engaged in the process of destroying institution that we have inherited in 1971, institutions that were perfectly poised for nation building waiting only for political direction in which we have failed so far. 

As a consequence, we are today still looking to become a middle income country where the head start we got by becoming independent in 1971 should have already made us one and taken us beyond. Instead we are hovering in the realm of countries close to failing. This is why we  see things happening in Bangladesh that are peculiar to us only, like the newspapers devoting almost all of their front page to advertisement in a naked expression of commercialism where the Prime Minister has to compete with an ad model and lose in terms of space allotted. This is why we have in Dhaka so many newspapers that no one really knows how many. This is why we have 25 odd (or it is 35?) TV channels in Dhaka with many more applications for more TV channels; TV stations whose main national duty is news/talk shows and propagating their own credentials. Talk show guests and hosts are claiming they are an alternative to the parliament and the Prime Minister by her attack on them seems to be agreeing! 

These are all symptoms of a society in poor health. Of late, when we are watching thousands of crores being defrauded out of the nationalized banks, the Finance Minister and the Bangladesh Bank Governor are exchanging blames without either showing the sense to realize that they need to take joint responsibility because they are responsible for the banking sector and answerable to the public. These symptoms of ill health notwithstanding, it is the private sector that has somehow managed to remain out of the grip of bad governance in the country and the 7 million expatriates most of whom  have gone abroad despite the government that are keeping Bangladesh floating and even showing glimpses of succeeding. Unfortunately even in the private sector where the RMG sector is dominant, we see serious problems in the context of low wages paid to the garment workers whose sweat earns these RMG owners earn their huge profits. As for the expatriates, their saga of misfortunes, despite their contributions to the economy, is one of the major untold stories of Bangladesh.


The writer is a retired  career Ambassador and  Secretary to the Government