Sunday, October 27, 2013

The plans: Light at the end of the tunnel

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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam 

The two leaders have spoken. The Prime Minister went first; the BNP leader followed. Understandably, each side rejected the other side’s proposal. Nevertheless, the two proposals have encouraged a nation hostage to the country’s politics of conflict to think that the two parties are considering a negotiated way out of the dangerous political impasse over the way to hold the next elections.

The Prime Minister’s speech raised optimism because she moved from the extreme position of holding elections under Interim Government to be headed by her and a cabinet of Ministers from the Awami League who would be members of the current parliament to All-Party election time Government that would include BNP members of parliament. The Prime Minister also did not mention who would head the All-Party Government leading many to hope that she would step down to encourage the BNP.

That hope was short lived. Prime Minister’s Adviser HT Imam poured cold water on it by stating in the media that the Prime Minister would head the All-Party Government. To make matters worse, the DMP imposed ban on all forms of assembly/meeting, even those held privately in homes. Such draconian measures reminded people of the worst days of the Pakistani times and destroyed the hope that the ruling party intended to hold “inclusive” national elections. The BNP that was under pressure from many quarters, including diplomatic quarters with the British High Commissioner taking a public stand in favour of the Prime Minister’s proposal, took time to respond.

It was good that it did because meantime HT Imam and his colleagues and the DMP undermined the PM’s proposal. Thus when Begum Khaleda Zia rejected the AL proposal and gave the BNP’s plan, the people were convinced that the spin given by HT Imam, et al and the DMP did not leave the BNP any alternative. The BNP offered a new type of the Caretaker Government where the 10 members of the poll time government would be from the Advisers who had served in the 1996 and 2001 Caretaker Governments. The 10 Advisers would be given democratic credentials by having them elected to Parliament indirectly by the current Parliament. The two parties would also choose a Prime Minister by mutual agreement who would also be elected to the post by the present parliament. The plan would take care of a major AL demand that unelected individuals could not elect a democratic government.

The Plan has another interesting angle. The 1996 CTG had elected the AL to power; the 2001, the BNP. Besides these positive points, polls in the country, particularly the much talked about one conducted by Prothom Alo had shown that over 90% people favoured the CTG for resolution of the impasse over the poll time government. The BNP Plan resembles one floated recently by The Dhaka Forum (TDF) at a seminar held in end of September. Members of TDF, former Governor of Bangladesh Bank Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed and former bureaucrat AM Raza Chowdhury wrote articles on the TDF plan that was carried in the newspapers.

The AL rejected the BNP proposal outright on the same reasons it had articulated before; that the BNP Plan revived the CTG system that is unconstitutional and undemocratic. The AL did not take into account the fact that the BNP plan intended to elect the caretaker government indirectly by the present parliament. The civil society leaders however received the BNP proposal positively but they felt that the implementation would be difficult. They concluded that the proposal would need acceptance by the AL for, among other things, to carry out the necessary constitutional amendment. The BNP Plan also has some inherent problems. Some Advisers of the 2 CTG Governments of 1996 and 2001 have died, some have crossed the age limit of 72 years and two have privately declined to be considered for the BNP’s proposed CTG.

The AL’s plan is constitutionally the correct one. But then the constitutional argument for the AL plan is a weak one because it is really the Prime Minister’s personal plan that her party is circulating as something sacrosanct that cannot be touched or altered. It is now known to everybody that the Court that had annulled the CTG had recommended two more elections under it. The Parliamentary Committee that had drafted the 15th Amendment wanted to accept the Court’s recommendation. 8 of the 10 Amicus Curie that the Committee had asked for opinion also had recommended two elections under the CTG. In the end, the 15th Amendment did not accept the necessity of any more elections under the CTG because the Prime Minister alone willed it so.

The Prime Minister with her plan has moved away from the Interim Government to All party Government underlining the fact that if she wished, the constitutional hurdle is not a serious one. She could within the constitution accept the BNP’s plan or use her party’s 3/4th majority to make the amendment to accommodate the plan easily and effortlessly. Further, the AL should pause a while and take a look at the country’s politics in 1995-96. At that time, it had dismissed Sir Ninian Steven’s plan that was exactly what it is now suggesting to the BNP. The AL, after dismissing Sir Ninian’s plan went to the streets and forced the BNP to amend the Constitution so that an “undemocratic” caretaker government would conduct elections.

There are a few more mitigating factors that the AL should consider. First, in 1995-96, the lack of trust between it and the BNP was not as bitter as it is now. Meanwhile, the civil bureaucracy and police administration have been politicized and the EC has become controversial unlike in 1995-96. Therefore, the AL would need to reconsider the Prime Minister’s plan and make concessions to it for reasons that it can refuse to accept only by denial. The BNP would also need to show signs of compromise on the plan it gave because it would need the assistance of the AL for its Plan to have any impact at all. There are ifs and buts in the Plan that realistically cannot move even a little without the AL giving it the helping hand.

Nevertheless, the two plans, despite their problems, have achieved something that has emerged as the only positive sign in the country’s politics for a long time. People are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel that the two parties are responding to each other, albeit still in a manner of conflict instead of compromise. The General Secretaries of the two parties have spoken. The nation is waiting expectantly almost kneeling in prayer. In any case, the outcome is almost entirely in the hands of the ruling party as it is almost always in case of conflict between a party in power and another in opposition. It could either strengthen its own Plan by ensuring that someone acceptable to all parties, including the BNP, would head the All-Party Government.

Alternatively, it could give the BNP’s plan the go ahead with necessary amendments in the details, as it may consider necessary. Among the public, the consensus is that the election time government should not be headed by either of the two leaders leading the two mainstream parties. In fact, it is not just the public that feels that the crucial issue upon which a settlement hinges is who would head the poll time government. The BNP has stated this time that the incumbent Prime Minister should not head it. The AL had said so in 1995-96. The people expect the two parties to stand by their public commitments.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Constitution and national problems

Published: Saturday, 26 October 2013
M Serajul Islam

A great deal is being said these days about the Constitution from the ruling party. It is using the constitutional argument to dismiss any suggestion of the opposition related to finding a way out of the political black hole in which the country finds itself at present. Of all the array of problems the country faces, the easiest to tackle are the constitutional ones. The objection of the Awami League (AL) to consider the opposition's demand regarding the caretaker government (CTG) on the plea of the Constitution is another way of saying that the government would not consider its demands.

The provisions in the Constitution itself make this incredibly easy. In fact, it is so incredibly easy that no one seems to realize how easy it is and gets overawed when the AL raises the constitutional hurdle to dismiss the demands of the opposition. Bangladesh has made the amendment to the constitution to resolve constitutional problems as palpably easily as oral saline is to treatment of cholera, where countries worldwide have floundered with complex ways to do so. In Bangladesh, any ruling party that has a two-thirds majority can change the provisions in the Constitution as easy as asking for it. Knowing the character of the main political parties where the wishes of the leader are law unto the party, the Constitution and its sanctity depends on the wishes of the leader of the party that is in power. 

Major amendments of the Bangladesh Constitution like the 4th Amendment or the BAKSAL amendment, 8th Amendment that made Islam the state religion, the 13th Amendment that established the CTG (caretaker government) and the 15th Amendment that annulled it, were all adopted effortlessly and within a few hours of parliamentary deliberation. How our politicians use the Constitution was recently exposed in a Talk Show that underscored the fact that our leaders, who hold political power, often act in unconstitutional ways while making a big issue of their conviction and commitment to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law. The Talk Show considered the constitutional oath that the Prime Minister and her Ministers take upon assuming their respective offices to expose the gap in what these political leaders swear to uphold and what they eventually end up upholding.

Before assuming their respective offices, the Prime Minister and her Ministers first swear that they would uphold the Constitution and in so doing "will do right to all manner of people according to law, without fear or favour, affection and ill will". Those who watched this show were left wondering whether the ruling party leaders, amidst their claim of unflinching faith in the Constitution and unwavering determination to uphold it, have forgotten their oath that they cannot legally violate. In fact, in almost all their political actions, these political leaders, wittingly or unwittingly, make a major alteration to the oath they take. Instead of acting according to the law "without fear or favour, affection and ill-will" as they swear to do, they act "with fear or favour, affection and ill will."

The proof of this violation of the constitutional oath is so palpably evident that even the blind would be able to see. The way the leaders of government speak and deal with the opposition is perhaps the most blatant violation of their constitutional oath because it explicitly shows they act only with "ill will" instead of "without" as the Constitution requires of them. The way Ministers flatter the Prime Minister is another equally blatant and flagrant violation of the constitutional oath. They should be respecting her; but they way they add adjectives before uttering her name shows that they act "with fear, favour and affection."

If that were the end of the constitutional violations by our constitutionally elected political leaders, then perhaps the people of the country would have gone into denial by ignoring the violations. They would have convinced themselves that it was none of their business what these leaders were doing. Unfortunately, these very leaders then turn around and loudly claim that they are upholding the Constitution and are doing whatever they are doing to uphold the cause of democracy! This is like spreading salt to wounds of the people, who nevertheless want to see the ruling party and the opposition act in good faith and without "ill will" because the country's future rests in such good faith.

Therefore, it is time to consider one fundamental fact about the Constitution in the way it is used and interpreted in our politics. Constitution is a man-made document and not divine in its origin. It is created by a few people but for the welfare of all. In fact, the cornerstone of a constitution is that in it, the people are sovereign. Therefore, whenever the constitution is brought into politics to argue in favour or against a national problem, it must be for the welfare of the people. Since in Bangladesh, the constitution's strength is the fact that it can easily be used and interpreted for the welfare of the people, those in position to interpret it, the ruling party as well as the Court, should do so keeping in mind that their actions should be for maximum good for maximum people. 

The country is facing a grave crisis. The conflict between the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) over holding the next parliamentary elections has the potential to destroy the country. The two parties have given their respective plans to resolve the crisis. The people are expectantly looking at the parties to ensure that the country does not fall apart over the issue. It is therefore their responsibility to ensure that they carry out what the people expect of them. The people have spoken unequivocally that they would like both the AL and the BNP to participate in the elections. They simply do not want any of the two not participating and are not prepared to accept any excuse, as they know what our constitution can do and cannot. They have spoken for an election-time government that would not be under any party.

In 1995-96, the Awami League had stated categorically that party government couldn't ensure free and fair election. This time the BNP has stated the same, that elections would not be fair under a party government. In 1996, the BNP, as the party in power, ensured the people's will that the opposition had articulated. The BNP amended the Constitution, providing for an election-time neutral non-party government and stepped down from power. This time, the BNP has articulated the will of the people for the AL, as the ruling party, to step down for a neutral non-party government. The ball is in the AL's court. The people know that the Constitution is there waiting to be used for what they want, which is national elections where all parties would be able to participate. Anything to the contrary would not just be against the will of the people but as the people are the sovereign, also against the Constitution and therefore unconstitutional.

The writer is a retired Ambassador.

To head or not to head the APG is the question

 25th October, 2013
 M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister’s speech has been received among the public with mixed feelings. The optimists saw it as a positive speech. The pessimists viewed it as nothing new except an old strategy to tease the opposition without giving anything from its rigid stand to hold elections its way or as it is said it would. Leading the optimists was Barrister Rafiqul Huq who gave the Prime Minister’s speech 95% marks. He asked the BNP to accept it and go for the elections. The pessimists saw the proposal as the same one the Prime Minister had toyed with and stated in vague terms in an interview with BBC Bangla in July, last year while on a visit to Britain.

The optimists based their hopes on two reasons. First, the Prime Minister had stepped out of her rigid stand to hold elections under Interim Government that she would head that would include only elected Awami Leaguers as Ministers thus making the election time government an undiluted Awami League government. Instead, she proposed an All Party Government (APG) to which she asked the opposition BNP to nominate Ministers. Second, the Prime Minister did not mention anything in her speech about who would head that APG, leading many to hope that the Prime Minister would step down and give that responsibility to someone who would be acceptable to the BNP.

Short lived optimism
That optimism was short lived. Prime Minister’s aides were quick to pour cold water on that optimism. Adviser HT Imam said categorically that the Prime Minister would head the All Party Government. Another Minister who often acts as the Party spokesman also reiterated the Adviser’s stand and dismissed any possibility that the Prime Minister would let anyone take her place as the Prime Minister of the APG. Prime Minister’s Information Adviser Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury gave his spin to the Prime Minister’s speech that kept some hope alive when he said on a TV Talk Show that the Prime Minister had opened the door for negotiations and what happened to her proposal would eventually depend on how the Opposition reacted to it.

That small hope lit by Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury was dealt a fatal blow when Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) came out with the order banning all types of meetings, demonstrations and democratic protests. The order not just banned public gatherings; it even banned such meetings in private in people’s homes. If the Prime Minister was suggesting a democratic way out of the political impasse through negotiations, then the DMP could not have made that case any worse.
The DMP order was the anti-thesis of democracy and even the Pakistani military rulers had not thought of imposing such draconian measures till they embarked on genocide after 25th March 1971. The DMP order put paid to the little optimism that was left among those who thought that the ball was in the BNP’s court and it should reciprocate to the “olive branch” offered by the AL. AL allies and the civil society that thought the PM’s speech was positive were left wondering how the AL could come out with such an action! Barrister Rafiqul Huq quickly went into reverse gear and condemned the measure.

The Ninian initiative
A slight digression into history would help readers conclude whether those who had been optimistic, like Barrister Rafiqul Huq for instance, were correct in advising the BNP to accept the Prime Minister’s offer. There is an unmistakable historical parallel in what is happening now and what had happened in 1995-96; only the roles between the AL and the BNP have been reversed. In 1995-96, the Constitution had specified unambiguously that the national elections would be held under the incumbent Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, like in all parliamentary democracies. The AL with its ally the Jaamat opposed the Constitution and demanded elections under neutral non-party government of unelected individuals. Sir Ninian Stevens was brought from Australia to mediate under a Commonwealth initiative. He proposed Interim Government for the elections to be headed by Khaleda Zia where there would be 5 Ministers from BNP and 5 from the AL. The AL had rejected that plan with contempt and went to the streets where it brought the government to a standstill with 173 days of hartal.

The AL while doing what it did in 1995-96 was not bothered with the Constitution. It demanded elections under unelected individuals and forced the BNP to do its bidding. It did not care to consider then that unelected individuals could not hold democratic elections as it is insisting now! It forced the BNP to give up holing elections under the Constitution, amend it and insert the “undemocratic” CTG into the Constitution through the 13th amendment. In 2006, the AL declined to contest in the elections under the constitutionally mandated CTG with Justice KM Hasan as its head on the ground that the Justice was some decades ago a member of the BNP that he had given up to become a Judge, rising eventually to be the Chief Justice. The AL felt that the connection that Justice Hasan once had with the BNP would prejudice him in favour of the BNP. The same AL now expected the BNP to participate in elections to be held under an AL government where Sheikh Hasina would remain the Prime Minister.

Trust deficit factor
Apart from these glaring examples of the Awami League’s double standard, there are a few other mitigating factors that show that the AL’s contention about upholding democracy, constitution, etc to deny the BNP elections under neutral non-party government do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Foremost among these mitigating factors is the absence of trust that the AL had used in 1995-96 to force the BNP to abandon the Constitution and insert the “undemocratic” CTG system into the Constitution has deteriorated many times for the worse. At present, the AL and its leaders cannot speak of the BNP and Begum Khaleda Zia without being insulting and abusive. Added to this unbelievable attitude about the opposition, the AL has meantime politicized the civil bureaucracy and police in a manner that no government in the past had done. In fact, in its 1991-96 tenure, the BNP was incompetent but it would be unfair to blame it on the issue of politicization. Importantly, the EC was then not an issue as it is now. The EC then had not become controversial as it is today.

Therefore, to expect that the BNP would go to elections under Sheikh Hasina would be expecting something that the BNP could not do in sane mind. The AL has left the BNP with no alternative but to reject the PM’s offer. Under the current circumstances, if the roles were reversed, it would be un-necessary to predict what the AL would do. Without wasting a moment, the AL would dismiss such an offer into the waste paper basket. Therefore, the BNP’s rejection of the offer did not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s speech was not entirely a wasted one. The Prime Minister has unwittingly moved away from her uncompromising stand taken earlier to deny the BNP’s demand for the CTG. She had earlier argued that she could not oblige the BNP because the Constitution would not allow her.

In her speech, the Prime Minister undermined that constitutional argument. She deviated from the Interim Government to All-Party Government as the election time government. She did not consider it necessary to amend the constitution for the change. Therefore if she wanted, she could accede to the opposition’s demand for the CTG without any constitutional obstacle. Of course, the constitutional obstacle was never a serious one because with the ¾ majority, the AL is in a position to change the Constitution to deal with any situation effortlessly. The Prime Minister has also made it evidently clear that she considered the BNP the only opposition in her quest to return to power. In fact, almost the whole speech except those that were personal has been devoted to the BNP that is a good sign because the Prime Minister, perhaps in the back of her mind, knows that an election without the BNP would not be legitimate, not to mention that without the BNP participating, the AL’s prospects of returning to power and staying there would be impossible. Calamity, with some suggesting a civil war, would engulf Bangladesh to pre-empt that from happening.

Constitution no obstacle
Since the Prime Minister herself has shown the way that given the will, the Constitution is really not an obstacle by her offer of the APG despite there being no such provision in the Constitution, she could step down and nominate someone elected as the Head of the All Party Government. She would then still have the satisfaction of not allowing unelected caretakers to elect the government, the reason she had stated for denying the BNP the caretaker government. All Party Government headed by, for instance the Speaker or the President, would fulfill her demand on elections by elected officials only. The BNP should then be prepared to give up its demand for elections under the CTG of the old vintage and negotiate the other issues for holding free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” general elections which, after the major hurdle of the head of the APG has been negotiated, would not be very difficult to resolve.

The alternative would lead the issue to be decided in the streets. The BNP has already stated so. The results could be disastrous with the possibility of the extra constitutional forces stepping, inevitable to avoid a civil war. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have publicly stated that if politics degenerated to what most people in the country are apprehending, the armed forces would not remain silent. That would be a near fatal blow to democracy. The Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed her determination to fight for democracy; so has the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, they owe it to the people that the country’s governance would not again go to extra-constitutional forces. Time is running out fast for the government and the opposition to act. At the time of filing this article, two hopeful developments are on the horizon. One is BNP’s counter proposal and second, the news of the phone call between the Secretary Generals of the two parties for starting talks. The optimists can once again hope.

Postscript: HM Ershad dealt the Prime Minister’s offer a major blow the way HT Imam and others wanted it implemented. The Prime Minister invited him and held a highly publicized meeting. As the nation held its breath, strangely the AL’s General Secretary went to the media to inform that the former President had welcomed the PM’s proposal and if the BNP participated in elections, the JP would participate with the AL as an ally. If the BNP stayed away, then the JP would participate alone to become as many suspected, the loyal opposition in the next parliament. HM Ershad came back and stated in the media the AL General Secretary’s statement was “false, unfortunate and baseless”. He stated categorically: “Elections without the participation of all political parties will not be acceptable. In that case, we will also not go to the elections.” That was a knock out blow for the PM’s plan that could succeed only if she stepped down to bring the BNP to the elections.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Saga of Aduri

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam 

The name should be a bombshell for the conscience of the country’s well to do. The parents named her Aduri or the affectionate one. In the hands of the heartless employer in one of Dhaka’s residential areas, she became a piece of dirt, used, abused and then disposed in the dustbin! The Police Commissioner went to see her in the hospital, offered her a bouquet and promised before the media that the offender would be brought to justice and the Police Department would recommend to the Government to bring the case under speedy trial so that justice is delivered quickly.

Aduri is not the first victim of such torture. Newspaper reports after the Aduri incident came to light have mentioned that employers have murdered too many such domestic workers in recent years. The reports did not mention whether any of the murderers have been brought to justice. The best that happened for the families of the victims was to see few of them queried by the law enforcing agencies. A country that speaks so forcefully about crimes against humanity has no time or intention to see similar or perhaps worse crimes being committed under their watch!

One of the major shames of our society is the way we treat those that are disadvantaged, unprivileged and under privileged. We speak heatedly, excitedly and passionately for democracy, equality, freedom and what not. In fact, our well to do take pride in thinking that there is not a country on earth that can match theirs in human qualities. Yet the truth is that there are few societies that treat its disadvantaged, unprivileged and under privileged the way we do in our society. Most of us, in fact all of us, who are well placed in business, politics, government service and academia, employ domestic help. Yet we take a few things about their employment for granted.

We employ them in the same manner our forefathers employed them that was no different from slave labour. They are paid but it would be a slur on salaries to call what they are paid as such. They have no working hours and most of them are considered to be employed 24 ours a day and seven days a week. It does not matter what their age be, the members of the family where they are employed invariably refer to them in a manner that is disrespectful. It is common to see a small child in the employer’s family call someone old enough to be his/her mother and employed as domestic help like she deserved no respect!

Girls like Aduri are the employees of choice in many of the families that employ domestic help because their young age allows employers to make them work, as they want them to work. In most apartment complexes, these small children who should be playing or attending schools can be seen running up and down the stairs with loads of clothes that they have washed and hanging these on roof tops for drying or bringing them down after they have been dried. Believe it or not, in some of these apartment complexes, these child servants as well as the adult ones are not allowed to use the lifts on order of authority that run the apartment complexes because they are not human enough!

In fact, a study of the issue of domestic aides will help us understand a lot of malaise in our society. If the study is objective and news of such a study were to find its way to the media, we would have no place to hide our faces in shame on just the issue that of wages. A lot of our workers who would be working as domestic help but have escaped that fate because of the successful RMG sector find themselves in a situation that is only a little better. They are no longer subjected to constant and instant maltreatment of their employers. If that is freedom, they have it. But still they are subjected to treatment at the workplace that does not suggest that there have been major changes to their unfortunate predicament. New York Times, a major newspaper on the world stage, has recently written an editorial where the absurd minimum pay was reflected as the major cause of the current disturbances in the RMG sector. The editorial strongly mentioned that an industry that has earned US$ 19 billion last year and booming can and should pay workers much more than the absurdly low US38 dollars a month.

There is an issue of mindset here in what children like Aduri and other young and adult domestic aides face at houses of our well to do and RMG workers face at the factories.  In both cases, the employers take advantage of the unfortunate fate of the unprivileged people of our society. These mindsets have been deeply entrenched and embedded in the privileged of our society that laws have not been able to change nor can change. In case of the laws too, since the privileged ones have enacted the laws, these have been formulated defectively and since the privileged ones have the power of implementing these laws, the under unprivileged and the underprivileged do not get even imperfect justice.

Even if the laws were perfected in favour of the unprivileged and the under privileged, nothing will change because the problem is not in perfecting laws, the problem is in mindset of those who hold leadership roles in politics, economy and society. People who employ domestic help must stop employing children at their homes. They must ensure that the domestic help they employ have civilized working conditions such as pay, working hours, weekly off days, etc.  They must do these things not for the sake of those they employ but for their own sake, to humanize themselves. Aduri’s employer had gone to the extreme but many of us who employ Aduris in our homes are but only a little different from Aduri’s employer.

It is not that our society has not changed. There are many who employ domestic help and look after them like they look at other member of their families. Likewise, in the factories, there are employers who are not all inhuman, who look after the welfare of their workers like they too are members of their own family. But still the task of humanizing our society is still far away. It is way past time to ensure a change in the mindset so that all of us take lesson from the Aduri case and humanize ourselves. Let us all spare a moment for some soul searching. Let us put ourselves on the dock and consider whether our public stance as a nation with a glorious history, tradition, literature and language, etc. match the way we treat our household aides and our workers in our factories.

The ball is in the court of those who are well to do in society. Punishing the lady who tortured Aduri will be but a scratch in the surface of the dirt and filth beneath that can be removed only when our well to do believe that the disadvantaged, unprivileged and underprivileged in our society are human beings too and they deserve to be treated as human beings. It is a promise they must make to whomever they fear –Allah, Bhagavan or God - and not to the government. At the time of filing this article, with a few weeks already gone, the case of Aduri seems to be fading already like many Aduri’s who have faced similar fate and worse!

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Monday, October 14, 2013

On the US government shutdown


Published : Monday, 14 October 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Republican Party, also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP), has shut down the Government of the United States of America since the 1st of October. The shutdown occurred when the GOP used its majority in the House of Representatives (232-200) to stop funding the federal government for the new US financial year that starts on the 1st of October. It stopped the funding to force the White House to either scrap the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also called Obamacare or defer it for another year. 

In reality, it is a small faction of extreme right-wing activists within the GOP, called the Tea Party, a group of about 70 legislators, who have shut down the US government. They have not allowed the Speaker John Boehner to put the budget to vote because there are enough GOP legislators who differ on the shutdown strategy and ready to vote to pass the budget bill. Emboldened by the ease with which these Tea Party legislators were able to shut down the government, they have now moved to a more dangerous ground for the USA. They have threatened to deny the President's routine request to raise the debt ceiling that would force the US Government to default on its international payments for the first time in history, if not granted by October 17.

At the time of filing this article, the 12th day of the shutdown (October 13), the political scenario in Washington is both depressing and embarrassing. The depression emerges from the fact that there are no signs of the shutdown ending soon. The economic impact of the shutdown has started to have domino effect on a whole range of sectors and businesses. Small and big businesses have started to feel the adverse effects of the shutdown. These sectors are the traditional voters of the GOP. The rich businesses are more threatened by the debt ceiling issue. They suspect that if the USA defaults on its overseas payments, the effects would be nothing short of an economic tsunami. 

The embarrassment is interesting. For those not abreast with US constitution and politics, it sounds unbelievable that the US at the moment has no functional federal government. Yet, this is not the first time such a thing has happened in the country. Since 1970s, the Congress has shut down the government 20 times, the last in 1995-96 for 21 days. This happens because of the way the US constitution has been framed. The US constitution is based on separation of powers where theoretically the executive and the legislature are equally powerful. The framers, of course, gave the two organs equal power so that each would check the power of the other to protect government from becoming dictatorial. Unfortunately, the framers did not anticipate the way politics and politicians would turn out centuries after they had framed the constitution. In the last shutdown in 1995-96, then Speaker New Gingrich shut down the federal government for 17 days costing billions of dollars because he was offended by President Clinton while on a trip to Tel Aviv for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

The reason for the current shutdown is even more unbelievable. The GOP did not like Obamacare but nevertheless it was enacted into law in 2011. In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney promised he would annul it, if elected. He lost the election comprehensively. The GOP pursued Obamacare in the Supreme Court that ruled it constitutional. That did not deter the GOP that started its efforts against Obamacare after it won the majority in the House last year. The White House refused to be pressured arguing ACA is a law and the President could not do anything to it. He, nevertheless, expressed willingness to discuss the Act with the GOP. 

The GOP arguments against the ACA have not been explained in a manner that average Americans would be able to understand clearly. A GOP Congressman tweeted after the shutdown that the party wanted respect but he was not really sure what he and his colleagues really wanted to achieve from the shutdown. There is, though, a method in the madness if one looked at what the extremists or the Tea Party really represent. They represent constituencies of hard-core conservatives distributed mainly in rural USA who consider the government as a demon. Hence, they oppose the government even where it has their interests in mind as with Obamacare that has been designed to make healthcare available to almost 50 million Americans who are so poor that they cannot afford it.

The Tea Partyers are apparently oblivious of the fact that they have made America the object of ridicule worldwide as well as brought the country to its worst economic disaster imaginable because they believe that their constituents would receive them as heroes for humiliating the federal government!

President Obama has called the strategy of the Tea Party leaders that the rest of the GOP is backing for fear of becoming unpopular to their conservative constituencies, as blackmail and has said steadfastly that he would not give in to ransom. Responding to President Obama's offer to negotiate only after the shutdown was lifted, Boehner said the President wanted the GOP to "surrender totally". Many thought that was an inadvertent slip that in reality reflected the fact that the GOP was holding the country to "ransom" and "blackmail" as the President had said they were because the Speaker's language was what hostage takers use.

The Speaker john Boehner is clearly hostage to the Tea Partyers who have threatened to make his speakership history if he put the issue to vote because it would pass, leaving few in doubt that the House has fallen prey to a group of extremists. That there is deep contempt for the Tea Partyers across the country that have also fallen upon the GOP and has been reflected in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls that show the GOP's national standing at an all-time low at 24 per cent and that of the Tea Party at 21 per cent. 53 per cent blame the GOP against 31 per cent, the President for the shutdown. The GOP, many fears, are certain to lose their majority in the House in next year's elections.

In the midst of the unbelievable political drama, there are many who are regretting that the framers of the US constitution did not opt for a parliamentary system. They are looking at Europe with envy. It seems like the future of US's constitutional politics is certain to be dominated by fight between the two organs of the government where the authority of the President would be in serious threat, a point that President Obama has already made. A nagging thought is lingering among a lot of people whether there was a deep meaning in what Congressman Mark Meadows had said during the 2012 presidential elections of taking the country back and sending "Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever that is." Perhaps conservative America is regretting that a black American - and that too with a Muslim middle name - has found his way to the White House, not once but two times.

The writer is a retired career diplomat.

Japanese Prime Minister speaks for Nilufa Yeasmin in his UN speech


October 14th., 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has quietly emerged as one of the successful world leaders in recent times without attracting too much attention. As a protégé of one of Japan’s most powerful political families, Shinzo Abe was considered to be the future leader of the country when he entered politics in 1993. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (1957-60). His father Shintaro Abe was Japan’s youngest post war Foreign Minister. A great-uncle was Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.

In his current term, his second, something that has not happened in Japan’s post Second World War history, Shinzo Abe has established himself as a strong right wing nationalist leader with conviction to take the tough economic reform measures known after his name as “Abenomics” that are showing positive results. His favourite stance, outside the economic issues, has been with defense and security matters. Thus it is no wonder that recent polls have shown that while 35% of Japanese male have high expectations from him, only 18% of Japanese female have similar expectations. While 58% male support the prime minister on strengthening defense, only 18% female do so. Therefore, the Japanese prime minister thought that time is opportune for him to improve his ratings with his country’s female population.

Shinzo Abe used his speech at the UN General Assembly to improve his standing with Japan’s female population and also with women worldwide. After addressing in the passing issues such as Syria, Japan’s hosting the 2020 Olympics; international maritime issues; etc., “womenomics” or “creating a society where women shines” was the main theme/focus of his speech. He provided details of a four-pronged strategy involving domestic and international structures through which his government intends to establish the role of women as central to the development strategy worldwide.

The Japanese Prime Minister used “examples of three individuals to clarify Japan’s development concept aimed at bringing about a society in which women shine and also shed light on some issues that must be tackled. “ One of the three women he named as exemplary to build the theme of his speech is Nilufa Yeasmin of Bangladesh. Shinzo Abe explained that Nilufa Yeasmin is using a Japanese substance “Poly-Glu” found in Japan in abundance to turn impure water into pure water. Left in turbid water “Poly-Glu acts as an adsorbent, adhering to excess substances in the water, and then falls to the bottom as a precipitate, leaving the water clear.”

The Japanese prime minister further explained that Nilufa Yeasmin uses Poly-Glu with other women called “Poly-Glu” ladies to become both sales persons and instructors in building BOP or “Base of Pyramid” business through which she and other “Poly-Glu” ladies have empowered themselves. By this BOP business that “is characterised by the expectations placed on the power of women”, Nilufa Yeasmin “has become able to send her children to higher education.” Shinzo Abe concluded his story of the Bangladeshi woman stating: “Poverty caused Ms. Nilufa to give up on the dream she had cherished as a little girl to become a doctor someday. But I understand that now she proudly states she has become a doctor of clean water. Can we not say that Ms. Nilufa has acquired self-esteem, the most precious asset of all?”

Japan has been one of Bangladesh’s major development partners from the beginning of its journey as an independent country. Soon after diplomatic ties were established in February 1972, Japan took Bangladesh under its wings and ensured that it received adequate Japanese aid that went to vital sectors of economic development, namely economic infra structure building; human resources development and quality projects at the grassroots. A fact hardly known in Bangladesh is that Japan is and has been the country’s number one development partner. Japanese assistance to Bangladesh is and has been divided equally into aid and grants. However, Japan in the past has made its aid into grants. When I was in Japan as Ambassador, during 2002-2006, Japan had made US$ 1.86 aid money that Bangladesh owed into grants!

Bangladesh’s foreign policy has consistently failed to realise Japan’s potentials. Japan’s major value to Bangladesh could have been in areas of trade and foreign direct investment. Bangladesh exporters have not explored the Japanese market with any seriousness because their main product the RMG was exposed to the US and European markets not by its own businessmen but by Indians and others who wanted to take the advantage of quotas in these markets and did so through the Bangladeshi businessmen who had little knowledge of these quotas in the beginning. Of late, Bangladeshi RMG exporters are looking at the Japanese market and the results are encouraging but these efforts have come decades late.

Bangladesh has missed out befriending Japan on the FDI issue in a major way. For many decades now, too much investment money has been lying idle in Japan for overseas investment. More importantly, many Japanese investors are wary of their investment in China and anxiously looking for what in their parlance is known as “China plus one “to slowly withdraw investment from China and divert it in a third country. Bangladesh, as the bridge between South and Southeast Asia sitting between the largest concentration of world’s population and with other natural advantages could have been just the dream location that Japanese investors are seeking. Unfortunately, Bangladesh governments have badly failed to attract Japanese investors.

Bangladesh could have benefitted from Japan like Malaysia that turned itself from a fledging developing economy to the ranks of the middle income and beyond because it had a visionary leader like Mahathir Mohammad. The prospects for Bangladesh to attract Japanese investment are still very much there. However, to achieve that potential, the new government that would take office in Bangladesh following the national elections must be pro-active like the Malaysian government that Mahathir Mohammad had led. Meanwhile, Japan could not care less. What the Japanese Prime Minister did to Bangladesh in talking of Nilufa Yeasmin in his UN speech was project the virtues and vision of his country’s ODA policy with women related issues.

Nevertheless Shinzo Abe picked up Nilufa Yeasmin because Japanese ODA, despite there being little public exposure of its results and virtues in Bangladesh, is bringing about fundamental changes in the country at the grassroots for women underscoring the success of “womenomics” in Japanese ODI. There are of course a couple of other reasons for Japan’s interests in Bangladesh that may explain why Nilufa Yeasmin was a major focus of the Japanese Prime Minister’s UN speech. Japanese have not forgotten Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, one in which the Japanese people had identified the suffering people of Bangladesh as soul mates. Japanese also remember Bangladesh for the assistance it gave during the 1977 JAL hijacking in Dhaka. It is time our foreign policy leaders wake up to take a look at where our foreign policy interests and friends in the international setting really are.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

On India’s sudden interest to assist Bangladesh



12th October, 2013

Post Editorial

Saturday, 12 October 2013 
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam 
A couple of India’s most recent interactions with Bangladesh have raised both interest and eyebrows. Amidst great fanfare as if nothing was amiss between the two neighbours, the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India, over videoconference, launched the transfer of 250MW of Indian electricity to the Bangladesh national grid. In the same videoconference, the two also laid the foundation of the Ramphal 2000 MW coal fired joint venture electricity project. The sale of electricity was welcomed because of its shortage in the country although some raised issue with its timing. The Ramphal project raised only eyebrows because it has become controversial in Bangladesh. Thus many have questioned India’s motives over its sudden interest in Bangladesh.

The questions have been raised because these developments have come after India wasted the best chance the two countries ever had to further bilateral interests to a new paradigm. Sheikh Hasina had set the direction for such a shift when she delivered to India two dreams it always expected from Bangladesh, namely, full cooperation on its security concerns and land transit that was offered on a trial basis. The Bangladesh Prime Minister took great political risks and showed vision to deliver to India these dreams. All India needed to do was to set its own house in order and deliver to Bangladesh the Teesta Water Sharing and LBA deals and keep its commitment for a zero tolerance on border killings that India could have done easily if it had shown even a part of the political will of the Bangladesh Prime Minister.

India’s failure to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals disappointed Bangladesh and pushed the AL led Government into a political tight spot. Even important Indians thought so. An IBN/CNN/The Hindu poll revealed that to Indians, Bangladesh is the country they could “trust” most. Analysts explained that respondents chose Bangladesh because they felt India had betrayed Bangladesh by failing to keep its promises after Dhaka went out of its way to please it.
New Delhi too realized that it had let Bangladesh down and had made serious efforts in recent times to deliver the deals. With Indian elections too close, the BJP and Trinamool refused to support the Congress led government in these efforts because they did not want to give the Congress political mileage.

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s failure to deliver the Teesta and the LBA deals has become a major election issue in Bangladesh. The reason is a simple one. In negotiating with India, the Bangladesh side trusted the Indians almost blindly. Bangladesh negotiators did not just bargain away Bangladesh’s two major playing cards with India; they did not even ask the Indians what they wanted in return. They just assumed that India would deliver it and it would be an “embarrassment” to ask! In fact, often the Bangladeshi negotiators were more eager to protect Indian interests than theirs. They openly expressed contempt at those who cautioned about bargaining away the land transit and security cards without any guarantee or India’s intentions.

New Delhi did more damage to bilateral relations than just fail to deliver the deals. First, it did not alert Dhaka about its domestic problems with BJP and Trinamool leaving Dhaka to believe that the two deals would be handed to Bangladesh during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh in September 2011. Second, when Trinamool and BJP put spanners on the deals, New Delhi assured Dhaka that the deal would be delivered “soon” leaving Bangladeshi Ministers to count in 2/3 months as the maximum delay for these to be handed to Bangladesh. In fact, the Bangladesh Ministers/ Advisers who should have expressed anger and frustration over New Delhi’s failures went to the media and stated that they understood New Delhi’s domestic compulsions over the two issues!

The last chance of the delivery of deals ended when Sheikh Hasina met the Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the United Nations in New York last month. There was media build up before that meeting on the two issues; the Indian Prime Minister would communicate some firm date of delivery. Instead, all Sheikh Hasina received from her Indian counterpart was a re-iteration that India stood committed to deliver the deals to Bangladesh. Thus, in dealing with Bangladesh, New Delhi did not just push the AL-led Government into a political tight spot; it pushed its own position in Bangladesh into an all-time low.

That was quite a contrast to the high expectations that Bangladesh negotiators had built about what it would get from India after Sheikh Hasina had made the bold and courageous moves with the security and land transit concessions. In fact, had New Delhi been trustworthy and kept its promises, the two countries would have achieved more than the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina had envisioned. With India’s concessions on trade and the promise of Bangladesh becoming a connectivity hub of the region tied to the successful end of negotiations, even the BNP that New Delhi was wary about because of its anti-India stance had come around to take positive note of the direction that Bangladesh-India relations were progressing. Begum Khaleda Zia visited India for talks with Indian leaders following an official invitation from New Delhi. Her talks were positive. She welcomed the negotiations of the AL led government with New Delhi but said that such negotiations must be based on reciprocity.

Thus many in Bangladesh believe that New Delhi took its recent initiatives out of a feeling of guilt for pushing the Awami League into a political corner with its failure to deliver the Teesta and the LBA deals. They feel that New Delhi has made these offers to show to the people of Bangladesh that the AL led government did the right thing in placing its trust on New Delhi. On the point of proving its trust to Bangladesh, the issue of sale of electricity has been positive. It has been welcomed because of the dire need of electricity in the country. Nevertheless, people have also questioned why New Delhi waited so long to do this good deed. The doubters were asking questions whether New Delhi did this good turn to Bangladesh or to the Awami League to help in the elections.

The issue of Ramphal qualitatively falls in a different category. India entered into this project with Bangladesh not just divided but also with all the environmental and civil society groups opposing it.  The BNP has not just said it would abandon the project if it came to power; it has accused the AL led government for offering Ramphal to India to woo it to support its plans to return to power through a one-party election. Thus, by going forward with the Ramphal project, the Indians have added a new item with which to disappoint the people of Bangladesh; a move that would make sense if only India was thinking of relations with the Awami League instead of Bangladesh.

If New Delhi took the two decisions to back the Awami League to encourage it to hold elections without the BNP, it could be a decision that it would regret. People of all shades of opinion in Bangladesh, except those in the ruling party, want the AL led Government to hold elections where the BNP would participate. All of Bangladesh’s friends abroad also want that to happen. Therefore by supporting the AL instead of reasoning with it for “inclusive” elections, India would be going against the wishes of the rest of the people of Bangladesh who are in the majority, going against international opinion and against democracy because if the BNP were kept out of the national elections, those elections would be anything but democratic. In fact, if the eerie feeling among the public that India’s latest moves in Bangladesh have been designed to help the AL is correct, then New Delhi would in fact be assisting the Awami League to push Bangladesh towards the apocalypse.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador