Monday, November 4, 2013

Hopes the telephone call dashed

November 5th 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The nation thought that the telephone call the Prime Minister made to the Leader of the Opposition in the parliament would be an answer to their prayers. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had invited Khaldea Zia to a dinner at Ganabhaban. What could be better news for the people where they hoped, all the constitutional/legal/political obstacles notwithstanding, the dangerous predicament before Bangladesh could be solved by these two leading ladies of our politics very easily if they wanted. It is now over a week. Not only has Khaleda Zia not been able to enjoy that dinner, there are many who are now thinking that it would have been better if the telephone call had not taken place at all.

The positive vibes of the telephone call have already turned sour. In fact, instead of bringing the two leaders to a meeting and thereby paving the way for resolving their differences on how to hold the national elections that is pushing the country towards destruction, the call became controversial. It did so when the subjects the two leaders talked in their 37-minute conversation started appearing in the newspapers. The first spin given in the reports suggested that the opposition leader disappointed people by refusing to withdraw the hartal.

Thereafter, the Information Minister added more wind to this spin. As partial excerpts of the tete-a-tete started appearing in the media, he went public and said people should read the entire conversation. Thereafter, the whole conversation became public leaving people with no doubt who was responsible. People thought that since the Information Ministry released the 37 minutes’ conversation, it was the Prime Minister who must have scored the points. Otherwise why, as some commentators in T.V. talk shows observed, would an Information Minister who knows the laws of the country do not allow such release be in favour of releasing the conversation?

TV footages before the transcript went to the media and became viral on the Internet showed the Prime Minister talking with Begum Zia with her aides and the media in her office. The Leader of the Opposition, in contrast, was seen on TV footages with a couple of aides and no media near her. Therefore, a section of people concluded by putting two together that the leak was the work of the Information Ministry. People felt that the government had acted illegally and unethically in the context of the laws of the country. They were also reminded about the fate of the Editor of Amar Desh who was jailed, humiliated and tortured for printing in his paper extracts of a conversation of the ICT judge and a lawyer in Belgium, a conversation that had already been published by the British weekly Economist.

Most people drew their initial conclusions without reading the actual transcript of the conversation. Before they did, they thought the Leader of the Opposition lost the scoring match in the media on the conversation. As people across the political divide oppose hartal, Khaleda Zia's refusal to withdraw it did not go in her favour. The BNP also was responsible in helping people perceive that way by going on the defensive on the release of the conversation taking the line that the government had acted illegally and immorally by deciding to release the tape. The BNP demanded the resignation of the Information Minister.

After people read the entire conversation dispassionately that a number of electronic media and also some newspapers covered in its entirety, opinion changed. People were at first disappointed, many shocked, at the acrimonious nature of the talks. Nevertheless, after they got over the disappointment, they felt that there were a great deal of provocations on the side of the Prime Minister that caused Khaleda Zia to react harshly, aggressively and as the Prime Minister has said, in a manner that was 'discourteous.' The conversation brought out the worst that the people would not have liked to read if they had a choice. Nevertheless after everything became clear, they had no doubt that the unfortunate event was a deliberate act of the government. As people thought more on what earlier saw on TV footages and they read in newspapers, they felt that the Prime Minister had set the agenda of the conversation and also set its directions. The Leader of the Opposition mostly reacted.

The two leaders spoke little about what the people expected; to find a way out through talks. The issue before the Prime Minister was a simple one. She needed to call Begum Zia and convey the invitation. She was well within her rights to request the opposition leader to withdraw the BNP's call for hartal. Begum Zia's refusal to do so because of the late hours the request was made could have disappointed her. She would have been right if she had expressed her disappointment and left it at that. She did not. Instead, she directly accused the BNP leader of deliberately leading the country towards a situation where people would be killed. That set the direction for the unpleasant trend of accusations and counter accusations. Nevertheless a section of people wondered whether the deaths that eventually occurred as the Prime Minister had predicted, would have taken place had the police been ordered to value human lives. It is true that the hartal activists went on rampage in many places. But it is equally true that the law enforcing agencies together with the activists of the ruling party confronted the hartal activists ready to kill.

The Prime Minister's claims, as reported by the media, that she silently listened to insults from Khaleda Zia are unfortunately not borne out by the transcript that people read. The crucial point is on timing of the call. Begum Zia said she could have stopped the hartal had she received the phone call at the time the two sides had agreed. That call scheduled around mid-day was made almost five hours late in the early hours of the evening when the hartal arrangements among the 18-party alliance had been made. In the conversation people read, the Prime Minister said she was trying to make the call on Red Phone for many hours. Khaleda Zia told her that she was near her Red Phone and no call came. It is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister would have to wait that long to make the call on Red Phone and no one knew that it was not working! Why, as a number of commentators observed, did the PMO not consider making the call on the cell phone that was eventually used and instead of keeping Begum Zia waiting? Any one kept waiting that long would be in her rights to feel upset and angry. The PMO did not appear serious in making the call. The drama over the Red Phone appears to be, what some people considered, part of a rehearsed act.

At a public meeting later, the Prime Minister said her office tried to contact the Leader of the Opposition at 1pm on that fateful day and Shimul Biswas had told them that Khaleda Zia would no be able to receive that call for 9 more hours. She asked her audience in the public meeting whether someone who needed nine hours to receive a telephone call could be trusted to be the Prime Minister. The transcript of the conversation establishes the contrary that Begum Zia was kept waiting instead. A good part of the media interpreted the drama over the phone calls on political lines intended to benefit the ruling party.

The drama with the telephone call thus ended disappointingly. The 'provocations' from the Prime Minister ensured that it would end that way. It once again underlined that the element of trust that is the basic ingredient for democracy, does not exist between the two parties and their top leaders even at the minimum level. At the time of filing this article, a new move is underway at the level of the Secretary-General of the two parties at the initiative of the business community. Perhaps this is the better level because of lesser personal animosities between the two. Perhaps they would be able to move politics positively forward where their leaders failed. The nation must kneel in prayers again that they find the way their leaders failed because if the country does not have 'inclusive' elections, it would inevitably slide into a political catastrophe.

The writer is a retired Ambassador.

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