Sunday, November 24, 2013

The US Assistant Secretary’s visit

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Nisha Desai Biswal is more than an extremely accomplished individual. For someone who migrated at age 7 to the United States to reach the high office of the Assistant Secretary of the US State Department for South and Central Asia is a great achievement. The post of the Assistant Secretary in the US State Department is a political one, extremely important, and the equivalent of the Foreign Secretary/Additional Foreign Secretary in any country in South Asia . Prior to being nominated for the post of Assistant Secretary, Nisha Desai was the Assistant Administrator in USAid where the Administrator is Dr. Rajiv Shah, another American of Indian origin.

Nisha Desai Biswal was the super star where she was courting the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister with the whole nation watching in rapt attention during her recent trip to Dhaka . She had apparently come to Dhaka on what was a familiarization trip that in the way the US State Department conducts its affair, is a very routine matter. A State Department official in the various rungs of the Department’s hierarchy do visit the countries he/she would be dealing in his/her official capacity as part of a routine familiarization trip. Nisha Desai Biswal’s Dhaka trip was part of that well-established system.

The US Embassy   that arranged the trip treated it as anything but routine.  It worked out a programme for the Assistant Secretary that gave the impression that she was coming on a mission to show Bangladesh the way out of its present dangerous political predicament. The Embassy did not restrict itself to arranging for her to meet the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister only. It arranged for her to meet anybody and everybody who mattered in Bangladesh politically, economically and socially. There has not been any foreign dignitary who has visited Dhaka in recent times and has been given the importance that the Assistant Secretary has been given. In fact, if a list of whom she met was compiled and published, it could be an embarrassment for those who were not invited to meet her.

The Assistant Secretary came out as a dignified individual, soft spoken and amiable during the visit. Her official position entitles her; perhaps, courtesy calls on the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and given US’ importance to Bangladesh also perhaps to talk to the two leaders discreetly to resolve their differences. However, the way the trip was organized gave the impression explicitly that she was here to hold court not just with the two leaders but also with all the stakeholders as if she had the authority to tell them how to resolve their political problems. The way the stakeholders sang to the tune of the organizers also did not speak well of them or the country. The media acted as the cheerleader and helped turn the visit of the US Assistant Secretary into a media event of unusual political importance to Bangladesh .

No other country in South Asia– India , Pakistan , Nepal or Bhutan– would have given the Assistant Secretary’s visit the importance that Bangladesh has if she were to visit those countries on familiarization trips. Left to her to decide, the Assistant Secretary perhaps would not have asked for all the meetings that were arranged for her or the type of attention that she was shown because it was neither reasonable nor logical. There was one good reason for her to meet the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition though because her boss the US Secretary of State has already written to the two leaders on Bangladesh ’s current political stalemate and she needed to follow up on the letters. That follow up action should have been pursued discreetly and not under the glare of the media.

That did not happen and what happened with her visit was something that could happen only in Bangladesh . The organizers arranged these meetings with individuals and groups, including the military to allow the Assistant Secretary to hear from the stakeholders their views on the current political stalemate.  These meetings were also carried out in the glare of the media.  The organizers failed to consider the propriety of such meetings that were intended primarily to put pressure upon the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Not that in diplomacy a friendly power’s representative cannot or does not carry out such tasks but to be within diplomatic norms and propriety these should be carried out discreetly. The way the Assistant Secretary met civil society/business/­media/military groups were humiliating to the two top elected leaders of the country. Those who responded to the US Embassy also failed to consider that they allowed the US Embassy to take the country lightly.

The questionable way the trip was organized and implemented notwithstanding, it was the Prime Minister who expressed what she thought of the visit and also ensured its disappointing outcome. When Nisha Desai raised the issue of “inclusive” elections, the Prime Minister asked her to persuade the BNP to come to elections instead.  On credible elections, she dismissed her concerns by stating with over 5000 successful local government elections under the Election Commission such concerns were baseless. The Prime Minister went to the President immediately after the meeting and requested him to install an election time government that dismissed the Assistant Secretary’s request for “inclusive” election underlining the fact that she listened to Nisha Desai as a matter of courtesy and little else. In doing that, the Prime Minister also sent a message to the US Secretary of State that she was unable to pay heed to his request for holding elections after due consultation with the opposition.

A New York Times editorial  after Nisha Desai’s visit wrote: “If violations of rights continue, Bangladesh could face pressure, including perhaps sanctions, from the international community”. But then, this is not the first time Sheikh Hasina has chosen to upset the United States . The Leader of the Opposition received Nisha Desai within the bounds of decency and diplomatic norms. She discussed the current political situation with her assuming that she would carry her views to her boss on the current political impasse in response to his letter to her. Between the two political leaders, they clearly underscored that the objectives Nisha Desai Biswal tried to achieve with her routine familiarization trip was both wrong and demeaning to the country because of the manner in which it was pursued. The civil society and the groups/individuals who lose no chance to belittle the politicians were clearly on the wrong side by allowing themselves to be used by the organizers in a manner that was demeaning to the country.

Nisha Desai Biswal is new to her post but her Deputy Assistant Secretary for Bangladesh is Atul Keshyap, a career diplomat and a rising star in US State Department, must have briefed her before she came on this trip. Nevertheless, she showed inexperience about Bangladesh ’s complex politics. In her meeting with the Prime Minister, she was curtly rebuffed on the issue of “inclusive” elections that was the key element in the letter by her boss to Sheikh Hasina. Yet in her final programme in Dhaka with the media, she stated, when asked whether an elections without the BNP would be credible, that it was for the people to decide. A partisan media quickly interpreted the statement in conflicting ways.

Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal’s routine familiarization trip raised great hopes primarily because of the efforts of the organizers and as media hype and ended in humiliating the country because it was organized in disregard to diplomatic norms. The problem that the Assistant Secretary came to resolve is now in the hands of the President although people are not confident whether he will get anywhere with it.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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