Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank An albatross around government's neck


Published: Wednesday, 02 October 2013
M. Serajul Islam

This government seems to have made a promise to itself that it will continue until the end of its tenure to keep the people guessing on what it would do next with Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank (GB). It seems also to have promised, incredible as it may seem, to keep on shooting itself in its own legs over the two issues. Hence, it did not surprise anyone that the Finance Minister has recently served another salvo at the Grameen Bank. He has said that the government has finalized all the formalities to bring the bank under the control of the Bangladesh Bank (BB). While announcing this decision, the Minister expressed his usual disgust with Dr. Mohammad Yunus for a writ his followers in the GB have filed for which the government has been unable so far to appoint a Managing Director.

It is a mystery why the Finance Minister would come out with such an announcement at such a critical time when the ruling party is facing a wide array of serious obstacles in its way of returning to power a second time with elections knocking at the door. The immediate public reaction was that after failing to control public sector banks that have run away with millions of public money, the last thing that the government should have done was to take responsibility of any new financial institution.

In a recent talk show on the issue, a former Awami League minister had something interesting to say while expressing critical view about the Finance Minister's latest statement on the Grameen Bank. He said that Kautilya had written in his famous book Arthasastra, that a government should not put its hand on any financial institution that was working well to change it in anyway. With such institutions, the government should take steps to strengthen it. It seems like no one flagged for our Finance Minister this immortal advice of Kautilya. If this government had known about this advice from Kautilya and acted on it, it could have saved itself from the mess it has created for itself over the GB.

One of the many questions that the people have with the Awami League government is that it, for strange and unknown reasons, has not applied common sense while dealing with the Nobel Laureate and the Grameen Bank. When the government picked up the fight with Dr. Yunus over the Grameen Bank, there were some who were not unhappy because they had reservations about the GB based on economic logic. However, it did not take them long to realize that the government was pursuing the Nobel Laureate and the Grameen Bank not on sound reasons of economics or business but more on matters of personal nature. Soon these people switched sides.

Today, apart from a few people surrounding the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, there are no two opinions that the government has humiliated Dr. Yunus and the GB in a vindictive way. The people see no sense in the way the government is pursuing the two relentlessly. They also fail to understand why the government would annoy powerful nations and world leaders who have literally pleaded with the government not to pursue the two. To humiliate Dr. Yunus, the government has gone to the extent of accusing him of plainly unlawful actions only to find that while its pursuit to harass him has proceeded in arithmetic progression, his fame and recognition, internationally, has increased in geometric fashion!

For a country that has huge image problem, Dr. Yunus appeared before this government - literally heaven sent - as the priceless playing card for pursing its foreign policy goals with countries that have the power to make or break Bangladesh. He could have opened the government's door in any world capital, taken Bangladesh's case to any world leader, and could have been worth billions of dollars in lobbying value. He could have been the best to happen to Bangladesh for branding. If the government, for reasons that it alone knew, decided not to benefit from what Dr. Yunus had to offer, so be it. It, however, defies logic that the government would go after him with an array of charges, not one of which it was able to prove, with full knowledge that such pursuit would upset and annoy powerful world leaders and Bangladesh's development partners.

This is a political government. The Awami League is the country's oldest political party with glorious traditions. It understands the value of political issues better than most parties in the country's politics. Thus, even if we accept the government's arguments that Dr. Yunus' achievement in winning the Nobel Peace Prize was a very ordinary feat and that his feat of winning almost all prestigious awards available to an international statesman was nothing exceptional, it does not explain how a party with such laudable democratic history could fail to acknowledge what a Director of Grameen Bank said recently in a press meeting.

The Director had said over the government's efforts to break the Grameen Bank down into 19 units that there are 8.4 million Grameen Bank subscribers like her who are all voters. She reminded the government that they and their families would be forced to vote against the ruling party in protest against the way it has humiliated Dr. Mohammad Yunus and tried to bring the bank under its control. That a party that believes in constitutional politics would ignore such a threat or go into denial over it, is simply unbelievable. That the Finance Minister would choose to go out of the way to tell the media that it would bring the Grameen Bank under the control of the Bangladesh Bank just before the elections when the ruling party's chances in the elections are poor, is tantamount to political suicide.

In any case, the government has already taken the GB by the neck and it now has a stranglehold over it. In fact, when Dr. Yunus was removed from the bank as its Managing Director, it was done on the ground that as the GB was under the control of the BB and as BB regulations require MDs of private banks to retire at 65, Dr. Yunus had to go. So why would the Finance Minister tell the media about the government's intentions to bring the GB under the control of the BB now when the latter had already achieved the objective?

The statement of the Finance Minister would only strengthen the resolve of the 8.4 Grameen Bank shareholders to go against the ruling party in the national elections. It would also frustrate many independent voters who have not yet made up their minds.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. serajul7@gmail.com

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