Sunday, May 25, 2014

Indian elections and Bangladesh’s reactions


 Indian elections and Bangladesh’s reactions


M. Serajul Islam

 The Indian elections have seen some weird reactions in Bangladesh. The people, who do not seem to matter any more in the country’s politics, are concerned and worried that a Hindu fundamentalist party has come to power in India. To add to their fear, that party had stated that if elected, it would “push back” 20 million alleged Bangladeshis. To add further to why the people are concerned and worried, the BJP is fundamentally opposed to the LBA deal and with the Trinamool sweep in Paschim Bangla; the Teesta deal would also become a distant hope for Bangladesh.

The Awami League led government expressed no concerns at the change. Instead, it made efforts to convince the people that it would be business as usual with the new government and Bangladesh-India relations would even reach newer heights. In a congratulatory message to Narendra Modi, Sheikh Hasina compared the BJP’s mandate as similar to what the AL received on January 5 for such optimism. The AL leaders have nevertheless abused and insulted the BNP because it thought the party was happy and excited at the BJP victory. They called the BNP a party of “ahammaks”’ idiots and goats for its happiness and excitement at the BJP victory.

The BNP leaders also did not articulate the public concerns. BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia congratulated Narendra Modi in a message. BNP leaders in private were joyed by the defeat of the Congress. Its joy was primarily because it expected that the BJP government in New Delhi would no longer support the Awami League the way the Congress government had; support that kept the BNP from coming to power. The BNP was also happy knowing that the powers of the Indian President would be clipped and he would no more have the leverage to make the interests of the AL and Sheik Hasina, his own and those of India. The BNP was happy knowing further that SS Menon, the National Security Adviser who had put the Congress’ policy of backing the AL to any extent to keep it in power, would also be gone.

However, neither party has grasped what the change in New Delhi would mean to Bangladesh as both are looking at the change through their respective prisms. There is a sense of nervousness in the Awami League and for good reasons. Its BNP bashing underlines that nervousness. The clipping of the President’s powers and the departure of SS Menon would bring about a qualitative change in New Delhi’s Bangladesh policy. The new government would also review the Congress government’s policy of placing the interests of the AL ahead of Bangladesh that has affected India’s acceptance in the country and also in that context, review the positive changes in the BNP towards India. Finally, the BJP has no historic ties with the Awami League to set aside the legitimacy issue of the AL led government and its growing unpopularity in the country to pursue a long term policy with it like the Congress did.

The BJP would nevertheless do nothing to make the BNP smile. It would continue business as usual with Bangladesh but if the AL were to expect that the new government would consider its interests the way the Congress led government had, then the business between New Delhi and Dhaka would not be as usual. There would be a new concern for the AL led government from Washington. New Delhi and Washington had fallen apart on the issue of elections in Bangladesh where the Congress government had argued the need of bringing the AL back in power at any cost for tackling fundamentalist forces. Narendra Modi would need the United States for his own credibility and also the government’s particularly with its fundamentalist background. Therefore, the United States that still insists in restoring the issue of legitimacy of the Bangladesh government could strike a deal on Bangladesh with the Modi government.

The reactions of the AL and BNP have not allowed a proper assessment of the Indian elections in Bangladesh. The Indian voters have achieved a quiet revolution through the elections. They have rejected the elitism in Indian politics by dumping the scion of the Nehru/Gandhi lineage for a tea seller’s son. The voters have also underlined the Hindu character of India rejecting secularism that the Congress had tried to place as the face of India. The elections have underlined that the phase of control of the centre by the regional parties is coming to an end. That would have worked well for Bangladesh had it not been that on the issues where a strong centre would have been helpful for Bangladesh to over-rule the province, namely the LBA and Teesta deals, the BJP and provincial interests are the same.

The BJP had lost the 2004 elections over many issues where its election slogan “shining India” had caused the maximum damage. The BJP had chosen that slogan encouraged with the excellent health of the economy. That proved to be its downfall because rural India saw very little shining in their fate. They thought the slogan taunted them and voted the BJP out of power. This time, the BJP chose Hindu fundamentalism in place of “shining India” and deliberately went against the Muslims to consolidate the Hindu vote. The BJP also promised that under Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the whole of India would see the same success that he had achieved for Gujarat during his 13-year tenure to benefit both the rich and the poor. The blend of religion and economics was successfully executed with the financial support of India’s corporate world that would now stand to benefit with the most from the most business savvy politician in India who would now be the new Prime Minister of the country. The failure of the Congress over a whole range of issues of governance where unbridled corruption was a major one together with the aloofness and high-handedness of Sonia Gandhi and lack of appeal of Rahul Gandhi were the other main reasons for Congress’s dumping in the elections.

The BJP would now be seriously involved fulfilling the election promises made to the Indians to have too much time to bother about Bangladesh. The huge mandate would now also be an additional pressure. Nevertheless, the huge mandate would also give it the authority to balance on the election promises by taking more realistic view on those promises. In that endeavour, the primary concern of the Modi government would be with the economy where the new Prime Minister who otherwise has had no experience in Central Government would bring to New Delhi experience that he has earned by successfully leading Gujarat not just to the attention of India but of the world.

Though Hindu fundamentalism was a big issue in the BJP’s victory, the new government would not pursue the agenda with any degree of seriousness knowing it would now divide the country where it would need unity for India’s economic development. In fact, the new government is now likely to extend a friendly face to the Muslims in search of national unity. On neighbours too, and that includes Bangladesh, the Narendra Modi government would like to seek cooperation and in that context, it may not pursue the “push back” of alleged Bangladeshis beyond rhetoric.

The BJP government is not likely to make major changes in terms of policies except change focus and priorities but would certainly endeavour to bring the government closer to the people and free it from the utter depths of corruption to which it had sunk. In that endeavour, the fact that he is a tea seller’s son is something that Narendra Modi would neither himself like to forget nor let his administration to do so. For Bangladesh, the Modi government would undoubtedly pursue a policy to suit India’s interests above all else without making the mistake the Congress did by choosing a party over the country to conduct those relations. Of course, the most important message for Bangladesh out of the Indian elections is to take lessons from the way the election was held where the people were able to vote as they wished freely, fairly and in a transparent manner.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Congress’ humiliating poll defeat is bad news for Awami League

 23 May, 2014

Congress’ humiliating poll defeat is bad news for Awami League
 M. Serajul Islam

There is a surreal drama being enacted in Bangladesh with the change of government in New Delhi. The ruling party is in a state of denial over what the change means to it, the government and the country. Instead it is abusing and insulting the BNP in language that has crossed the limits of decency as if it is the BNP’s fault that the Congress has lost the Indian elections. The BNP is being called a party of “ahammaks”; idiots and goats because the Awami League thinks the BNP is excited and happy at the resounding victory of the BJP.

The BNP is of course happy for very good reasons. The BNP was not fighting just the AL since January 2009 but also the Congress that had involved itself in Bangladesh’s politics as a stakeholder and senior partner of the Awami League. Its role in the January 5 elections was a major reason why the AL returned to power. If the Congress had supported “inclusive elections” like the western nations that was also the demand of the people of Bangladesh, the AL would have lost to the BNP just the way the Congress has lost to the BJP, winning 43 seats out of 542; its worst performance in history. It now looks like that the Congress that had led the movement for Indian independence may be headed the same way the Muslim League that had led the movement for Pakistan, went in Pakistan.

AL lost its sole backers
The BNP’s happiness is of course not because the Congress could be headed that way. It is happy primarily because the Awami League’s best friend that had kept it in power by interfering in an unbelievable way in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, is now gone.  The Congress had left no one in doubt that it wanted the AL to remain in power, which was a questionable way of conducting relations with a smaller neighbour for a country like India with aspirations of becoming a world power. Nevertheless it was understandable in the context of the historical relationship between the two political parties. The way the AL government made India’s interests its own at great political risks also made it understandable that the Congress led government would go out of its way to support the Awami League in Bangladesh’s politics and elections.

However, the Congress led government did not restrict itself to supporting the Awami League covertly and overtly. It went much beyond that. It gave assistance to the Awami League to remain in power at any cost where it saw India’s relations with Bangladesh as those with the Awami League and not the country. There are examples galore about the unbelievable ways in which the Congress supported the Awami League but one stood apart. The Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh had made an official visit to Dhaka just before the Bangladesh elections. 

Bangladesh was then slipping into a political nightmare over the elections and many had expected that she would be carrying a massage for Sheikh Hasina to ensure “inclusive” elections. Instead, she met HM Ershad and encouraged the Jatiya Party to participate in the elections to give it credibility after the BNP/Jamaat had decided to boycott! President HM Ershad revealed the details to the media almost as soon as Sujata had left his residence after the talk. When the dust would finally settle on the present phase of politics in Bangladesh, that initiative of the Indian Foreign Secretary would no doubt go down as an example of the utter depths to which politics and diplomacy was allowed to slip under the Congress led government.

Congress’ blatant meddling 
The Congress government also ensured that the initiatives of the developed countries led by the United States in favour of “inclusive” elections in Bangladesh would be still born by encouraging the AL to go ahead and hold the “exclusive” elections. In fact, many would even suggest that the serious problem between Washington and New Delhi over Devyani Khobragade was also influenced by the differences between the two countries over elections in Bangladesh.  Sujata Singh had gone to Washington right after her Dhaka visit for furthering India-US bilateral relations. However, there too, she pursued the AL’s interests and had advised the United States to support the policy of  “exclusive” elections in Bangladesh in order to keep the BNP led fundamentalist forces from coming to power!

The Congress thus backed the one-party elections beyond limits of diplomatic norms and conduct. The Congress government was not bothered that the elections were a farce with less than 10% people voting and 154 of 300 members of parliament elected unopposed. It welcomed the return of the AL to power and took up the AL’s led government’s case with the international community that looked upon the elections as deeply flawed. Thus the Congress by backing the AL the way it did, considered the BNP the enemy like the Awami League and conspired with it to rob the BNP from the certain prospect of coming to power.

The BNP has other very good reasons to be happy with the Congress’ humiliating defeat. A major reason why the Congress government interfered in Bangladesh in unbelievable ways was the personal interest of the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in Bangladesh and in particular in Sheikh Hasina. He used his undoubted command in the party to make Bangladesh his own turf where the need to keep Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League in power at any cost were the key elements. SS Menon the National Security Adviser executed those two key elements uncompromisingly and unambiguously where the AL led government or Sheikh Hasina did not have to request New Delhi what needed to be done to keep them in power; these were delivered by the two in New Delhi obligingly. 

Why is BNP happy
SS Menon would be gone and the Indian President for whom Narendra Modi and the BJP has no great love would have his powers clipped making him once again a figure head; all reasons to make the BNP smile. The BNP has another great reason to be happy that the Congress is gone. A new international equation would soon emerge with the exit of the Congress. The Modi Government, in particular Narendra Modi himself would need the United States for his own credibility and that of his government. In that new equation, Bangladesh would emerge in a different way. 

The Congress’ argument to convince the US to keep the AL in power was the fundamentalist argument. For the BJP, itself a fundamentalist party, that argument would no longer be tenable. Further, the Congress’ unqualified support for the AL has divided Bangladesh more dangerously than the so-called fundamentalist threat where the current peace is misleading. The prospects of civil disturbances leading to civil war in Bangladesh are real; prospects that would put into jeopardy the great US investments in the region, particularly in opening up Myanmar. Therefore, the US would encourage the new Indian Government towards a democratic resolution to the dangerous prospects before Bangladesh.

The BNP’s happiness could also be easily explained by the fact that its enemy’s best and extremely powerful friend has left the scene. Nevertheless, in fairness to the BNP, it has not shown excitement in the manner that would justify the AL’s BNP bashing. The AL’s BNP bashing is indeed a reflection of the deep sense of insecurity and nervousness that has gripped it because the Congress that was the fundamental source of its power is now gone. Therefore, with BNP bashing, the AL is also trying to convince itself to believe that Indian foreign policy does not change with change of government and therefore, between the BJP Government in New Delhi and with it, it would be business as usual. The Foreign Minister has stated in the media that Bangladesh-India relations would reach newer heights in the coming days and had nothing to say about the issue of the illegal Bangladeshis and the fate of the two deals over which he too went into total denial.

What will BJP do?
Nevertheless, the new BJP Government would no doubt, these issues notwithstanding, want to establish good relations with Bangladesh. In that effort, there is no reason to expect that it would encourage the AL led government to hold new elections in Bangladesh as the BNP may be expecting. However, in developing relations, the BJP Government would no doubt review the way the Congress conducted these relations because there were just too many faults with it some contradicting India’s democratic beliefs.

In reviewing these relations, the BJP would have no reason to put AL and Sheikh Hasina’s interests as those of its government’s and India’s. It would also examine how India’s acceptance has nose dived in Bangladesh by the Congress policy of putting the interests of the AL and Sheikh Hasina over those of Bangladesh. It would no doubt review how RAW had taken over the day to day operations of Bangladesh-India relations and how India’s image in Bangladesh has suffered as a consequence. In particular, in such a review, there would be no reason for the new government to see the BNP as the villain. The BJP and the BNP have had reasonable working relations while the two were in power together in the BNP’s last term. With its own fundamentalist basis, the BJP would not let BNP’s alliance with the fundamentalist as the excuse for supporting the AL led government.

In reviewing its Bangladesh policy, the BJP would no doubt also see that the BNP has changed since it was in power last, particularly its publicly stated commitment for India’s security. The BJP would also not fail to see how the BNP has changed on the issue of land transit that the party has linked to reciprocity. The BJP would see the changes in the BNP as extremely positive for long-term relations with Bangladesh in the backdrop of the importance of Bangladesh to India’s critical national interests. Therefore, instead of pursuing India’s interests with a government in Bangladesh that has lost its credibility and legitimacy for which many in Bangladesh blame the Congress; the BJP would most likely wait to see how Bangladesh resolves these question before it shows inclination to do business as usual with Dhaka.

The changed stance

The BJP has already toned down in stand on the illegal Bangladeshis and would no doubt, having come to power with a huge mandate, be willing also to deal with Bangladesh on reciprocity but would not like to deal with the government for building long term relations with a government that is way too short on credibility and legitimacy.

Therefore, it’s unlikely to be business as usual with New Delhi to relieve the AL’s sense of nervousness. It would also not mean new elections in Bangladesh to make the BNP happy. On balance though, Congress’ loss is a paradigm shift in the AL’s fortunes because unqualified and unquestioned support of New Delhi was one of the two major foundations of its strategy for holding on to power since the January 5 elections. The other foundation, namely that of using RAB/Police against the opposition, has also now run into trouble, a policy that the BJP would have no reason to support. All these notwithstanding, the people of Bangladesh are worried and concerned about what the BJP has said about Bangladesh during the elections and therefore shocked at the AL’s BNP bashing and BNP’s failure to articulate the new dangers from New Delhi.

The BJP’s victory would no doubt lead to a change of New Delhi’s Bangladesh policy without doubt where the wishes of neither the AL nor the BNP would be the deciding factor. Sheikh Hasina has inadvertently revealed the direction in which Bangladesh-India relations would move in her message of congratulations to Narendra Modi where she compared the BJP’s massive mandate similar to its own. By that, she has pointed to where the change would come in Bangladesh-India relations under the BJP.

The BJP would have no reason to consider the AL government as one stalled in power with any mandate at all and therefore would know that relations with the AL led government would not have long term validity; neither in what it would give to Bangladesh nor receive from it. Therefore, the BJP Government would in all likelihood wait and see how Bangladesh resolves its political problem and the issue of legitimacy that is hanging over the AL led government like the sword of Damocles. It would however not be encouraged to remove that sword but would like to wait for it to be gone before conducting long-term relations with Bangladesh.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email is


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Saturday, 24 May 2014
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
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The Awami League leaders are more concerned whether the BNP would gain any advantage from the change of guards in New Delhi to bother with the realities of the change. They are abusing and insulting the BNP by calling the party as one of “ahammaks”; idiots; goats; etc, etc because they think that the BNP leaders are gloating at the victory of the BJP. The Prime Minister ridiculed the BNP as Indian agents for expressing excitement and happiness at the BJP’s victory. In doing so, the AL leaders have gone into denial over what the Indian elections mean for Bangladesh and of course for its own future.

Narendra Modi had said during his campaign trail that his government would start “pushing back” the alleged 20 million Bangladeshis his party believes are in India immediately upon assuming power. The prospect of the LBA deal being delivered by the BJP Government would be remote. The Trinamool’s strong performance in Paschim Bangla would mean a similar fate for the Teesta deal. In addition, the BJP has come to power riding the Hindu fundamentalist wave. Therefore, New Delhi would no more have the compulsion of fighting the fundamentalist agenda in Bangladesh. The Prime Minister and AL leaders should therefore have been worried and concerned with the changed reality instead of going into a tangent with BNP bashing.

The AL’s BNP bashing of course makes sense from the perspective of the party’s interests and those of the government. The Congress’ defeat is very bad news for the Awami League and the BNP bashing underlines that fact. Since January 2009, New Delhi had looked after the interests of the Awami League ahead of those of Bangladesh. It interfered blatantly in the January 5 elections to ensure that the Awami League would return to power at any cost. Its support to the AL led government after January 5 elections gave it the breathing space in the face of widespread national and internal outcry that the elections did not reflect the will of the people with less than 10% people voting and 154 of the 300 members of the parliament being elected uncontested.

The question over the legitimacy of the January 5 elections still persists in Bangladesh and abroad. In fact, if anything, the question has gathered momentum. The AL’s problems at home over governance, particularly on law and order and human rights issues have re-enforced that question. At such a time, the AL led government’s need for continued and unqualified support of New Delhi is huge. That unqualified support would now come under the spanner in New Delhi because the support has not just brought the AL to power in questionable ways; such support also has caused Indian acceptance in Bangladesh to fall into an all time low. There is no reason why the new government would not consider these realties while conducting relations with Bangladesh.

Also, the BJP has no historical reasons to support the Awami League at any cost. Having come to power with a landslide, the BJP would have no reason to ditto the Congress’ Bangladesh Policy that many would say also reflected what went wrong with the Congress to have suffered its worst ever defeat in history. There are a few other reasons for the Awami League to be worried and concerned. A lot of the unqualified support that New Delhi gave to the Awami League came from two sources.The Indian President had taken the interests of the Awami League and more importantly, those of Sheikh Hasina in a personal way. Shiv Sankar Menon, the National Security Adviser was equally committed to the Awami League and was responsible for the hard to believe “Bangladesh Policy” of the Congress. The Indian President’s powers to do whatever he wanted in Bangladesh would now be clipped and SS Menon would no longer be around.

The Congress government did not just support the AL in Bangladesh at any cost. When the USA expressed support for “inclusive” national election in Bangladesh, New Delhi put its own relations with Washington on line. The case of Devyani Khobragade, some would say, went to nasty level among other reasons also because of New Delhi-Washington differences over Bangladesh. Good relations with Washington would top the agenda in the foreign affairs priorities of the BJP government.  Narendra Modi would need Washington’s support desperately for both personal as well as India’s interests. Therefore, the differences between Washington-New Delhi over Bangladesh seen under the Congress could very well turn into cooperation and the Awami League would be seriously cornered if that were to happen.

These realities after  the Indian election would thus explain the AL’s anger and abuse of the BNP. The BNP is of course happy that the Congress has been dumped because it literally took away its chances of coming to power from its grasp. In fact, impartial observers also believe that without the Congress’ unfair interference for the AL, the latter would have suffered the same fate on January 5 as the Congress has suffered now. The BNP, on its part however, has not expressed any joy and happiness in public to bring upon it the sort of abuse and insult that have been heaped on it. It has resulted from AL’s insecurity that the Congress would no longer be around to back it at any cost.

The AL would do itself favour if it stopped its BNP bashing for a better grasp of reality. Even if the BJP were not to support the AL like the Congress, there is no reason to think that it would ensure for the BNP a new election in Bangladesh. The BJP would like the Congress do what would be in the interest of India. As for election in Bangladesh, that would depend on the efforts and abilities of the BNP, the opposition parties and the civil society. The BNP, to be fair to it, has not stated publicly that they would want or that they expect the BJP to do any such thing. For the BNP, the fact that the Congress has been dumped should be enough reason for rejoicing.

The Foreign Minister has stated that the Bangladesh Government is waiting eagerly to start bilateral relations with the BJP government to take these to greater heights. That statement too has been made out of the same feeling of insecurity and nervousness as those of insults and abuse of the AL leaders. It is indeed a reflection on Bangladesh as a country that when it would needs to come together to deal with new dangers that could come from New Delhi, its mainstream parties are considering their respective party’s interests and showing little or no concern about how to deal with these dangers. In fact, the ruling party in any other country would have consulted with the opposition to respond to the dangers that have appeared in Bangladesh-India relations as a result of the recent Indian elections.

The reactions in Bangladesh particularly those from the ruling party are therefore strange ones. In particular, the comparison in Sheikh Hasina’s congratulatory message that the BJP’s historic mandate is similar to one AL received by the AL on January 5 has been made in utter denial to reality. The BJP will conduct relations with Bangladesh based on India’s national interests and in that, little will change. Nevertheless, the BJP will, unlike the Congress, also look at the long-term prospects of pursuing India’s interests in Bangladesh; in particular its acceptance or the lack of it in pursuing these interests. 

It will also consider where the AL led government is going with governance and how Congress’ support for it at any cost has made it unpopular as well as India. Therefore, while the new BJP government will most certainly not do anything to benefit the BNP immediately; it will also not give the AL blank cheque to use Indian support to rule in Bangladesh the way it is doing at present.  The AL led government’s problem with RAB will also discourage the BJP government in giving the AL led government unqualified support. That could make sense why the BNP is gloating, as they no doubt are in private.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id is : . The above are the views of the writer’s very own not necessarily shared by this paper

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The BJP's victory and Bangladesh


Posted: 19 May, 2014
The BJP's victory and Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League (AL) general secretary has called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) "ahammaks" for "gloating" at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory. A senior AL leader has asked the BNP not to jump like goats.  Prime Minister's international affairs adviser has said Bangladesh-India relations would move forward in the direction set by the Congress. The foreign minister has said that the Bangladesh-India relations are time tested and therefore the relations would not change. The communications minister has also asked the BNP not to get excited.

Why is the AL reacting this way?  From what has come out in the media, the major reaction of the BNP to the Indian elections has been the BNP chairperson's congratulatory message to Narendra Modi. The party general secretary has said something to the effect that the BNP hopes of good relations between Bangladesh and India under the BJP government. Therefore, the reactions of the AL leaders on the BJP victory have been, to say the least, curious ones. It has on the one hand taken this victory to abuse the BNP and on the other, to state unilaterally and forcefully that nothing would change in Bangladesh-India relations. Both expressions, mutually contradictory, make little sense unless one was to examine how the results have shaken the AL's confidence.

Neither the AL nor the BNP has touched substance about what has been a major revolution in India. A tea seller's son has become the prime minister defeating the scion of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty in what was in effect a presidential election in terms of how Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi fought for the hearts and minds of the Indian voters. That tea seller's son also blatantly and unashamedly used Hindu fundamentalism to defeat India's claim as a country based firmly on the secular principles. To boot all these, Narendra Modi has been called by Mamata Banarjee as "the Butcher of Gujarat" even during the elections for his 2002 role in the Gujarat riots when under his watch 2000 were killed, mostly Muslims in Hindu-Muslim riots.

Narendra Modi has not been complimentary about Bangladesh in his election campaign. He has strongly stated that he would "push back" 20 million alleged Bangladeshis in India, a view that was intensely anti-Bangladesh and highly provocative. The BJP was responsible for defeating the Congress-led government's efforts to deliver to Bangladesh the Teesta and the LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) deals. During the campaign, Narendra Modi did not express any intention that a BJP government would deliver these deals to Bangladesh. Therefore, going by his anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladesh rhetoric, both the AL and the BNP together with the people of Bangladesh should be scared, worried and apprehensive at the massive victory of an anti-Bangladeshi Narendra Modi as the new Prime Minister of a Hindu fundamentalist BJP.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not a normal country and the reaction in Bangladesh to the BJP victory underlines that fact as clear as daylight. Nevertheless, as the cliché goes, there is always a method in madness. The reasons for such strange reaction in Bangladesh to the BJP's victory are not hard to uncover. The Congress-led government has had historic relations with the Awami League. Since January 2009, the Congress-led government had looked upon the interests of the AL-led government like its own. In fact, when the AL looked doomed to lose a free and fair election, the Congress-led government went against majority opinion in Bangladesh and international opinion as well and ensured that the AL returned to power. It also put its own relations with Washington on line to get the AL back in power.

Added to that, the Indian president had looked upon the Awami League and, more importantly, Sheikh Hasina with great affection. In the Indian system, the president is a figurehead like the Bangladesh President. However, Pranab Mukherjee was anything but a figurehead in the Congress government. Pranab Mukherjee was the de facto Prime Minister as well under the Congress government because Manmohon Singh was one of the weakest-ever prime ministers of India. It was an open secret that under the Congress-led government the Indian president called the shots on major issues related to India's relations with Bangladesh.

That equation would now be gone and this would take away a massive leverage for the Awami League with New Delhi. The Awami League would also lose another major leverage with the change. One of the major architects of Congress’ Bangladesh policy, whose major focus was to ensure that the Awami League remained in power at any cost, was Shiv Sankar Menon, the National Security Adviser. He would no longer be around to sponsor and patronize the Awami League. These developments in New Delhi, which would happen no matter what, would not be the only worries for the Awami League. The AL government would now face pressure from New Delhi on a new and volatile issue of the alleged Bangladeshis in India without getting any hope on the Teesta and the LBA deals. That should dampen the prospects of "business as usual" between Dhaka and New Delhi under the BJP.

Therefore, the departure of the Congress has left the AL-led government with too many worries - like someone over-dependent on parents, becoming suddenly orphaned. The Congress was a life insurance policy for the AL that has suddenly and dramatically turned valueless. That explains why its leaders are abusing the BNP. They think that the BNP is happy with the AL's current predicament, which is adding salt to its injury. The AL leaders' other reaction that nothing will change in Bangladesh-India relations under the BJP government is no doubt one to reassure themselves to deal with a serious insecurity that has gripped them at having lost their major insurance policy in the Indian elections.

If the BNP were expecting that the Modi government would help it out by ensuring a new election in Bangladesh that would be premature. However, it is the AL that is saying that the BNP is expecting that way; no BNP leader has made such a statement publicly - not yet. Therefore, that the AL is making such a statement is also evidence of its own weakness and sense of insecurity that the new government in New Delhi could go ahead and take such a course in conducting its relations with Bangladesh. The Awami League knows it better than anyone else that the January 05 elections have not given its government legitimacy and that it was the Congress' policy of supporting it right or wrong that had returned it to power. The BJP would have no reason to support the AL to the extent the Congress had done.

Nevertheless, the stand of the AL and that of the BNP as perceived by the AL notwithstanding, Narendra Modi would have too many major issues at hand to spend too much time on Bangladesh. However, the new team for conducting Bangladesh-India relations in New Delhi would see far too many faults in the way the Congress team conducted these relations.
The policy of Congress to put the Awami League ahead of Bangladesh has pushed India's acceptance in the country to its nadir. The new team would also not fail to see that the Congress brought the AL to power through an election that has not been accepted by the people of Bangladesh and the mess that the AL has made of governance as a consequence. It would also not fail to see that the Congress' decision to back the AL has also put on line its relations with Washington.

All this would in no way lead to what the BNP must be hoping although it has not stated so publicly - that the BJP would ensure new elections in Bangladesh. The BNP would have to ensure that itself. In such an effort, the BNP would not find New Delhi as actively, openly and blatantly backing the AL as the Congress government had done.

The Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, however, is trying to spin the change in New Delhi the way the AL leaders are - that under the BJP Government; it would be business as usual. To convince the people of Bangladesh, the High Commission has released to the media the details of the US$ 1.0 billion soft loan without talking about the pending deals and the issue of the alleged Bangladeshis in India. It appears that the Indian mission is feeling the same kind of insecurity as the AL with the change in New Delhi as it actively promoted the Congress' policy in Bangladesh to keep it under New Delhi's leash. This will certainly be reviewed by the BJP government.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email id is

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Democracy, rule of law and responsibility

 Democracy, rule of law and responsibility
Democracy, rule of law and responsibility
 M. Serajul Islam

In June 2012, US Secretary of Commerce John Bryson was involved in a hit and run car accident on a trip to California. He had hit a car but did not stop and then hit a second car and was then found by the police in an unconscious state. Meanwhile, the law took its own course and the police recorded the accident. While in hospital, it was revealed that the Secretary had a history of seizure that he had not revealed while taking his driving test because it would have disqualified him from getting his driving license. After police investigation revealed his medical problem, the Secretary accepted responsibility and resigned. He did not wait for the President to ask him to do so.

More recently, a second resignation occurred in the Obama resignation. Secretary of Health and Human Services, one of President Obama’s most trusted colleagues, Kathleen Sebellius resigned from her post. She had been with the President since day one of his first administration. The Secretary came into public criticism when the website designed to implement Obamacare for which her Department was in charge, ran into serious trouble. A company from Canada to which the job was outsourced, did a very bad job and millions eager to register for Obamacare, could not do it because of failure to access. It was also a great embarrassment for the President because there was serious opposition from the Republicans to destroy Obamacare and the glitch with the website was used by them to put the President and the Democrats and of course Obamacare on the mat.

The Secretary worked overtime and so did her collegaues. The glitches were resolved and by 31st March, 7 million Americans had registered for Obamacare, a number that even the Republicans accepted as a mark of success for the President’s health care policy, one with which he believes he would eventually be judged as one of America’s most successful Presidents. Kathleen Sebellius tendered her resignation after resolving the website problems successfully without any pressure or without being asked because she felt she was individually responsible for causing the President and his party deep embarrassment when the nation was eagerly waiting to know about Obamacare to register when the Republicans were out to destroy it.

Last month, the Prime Minister of South Korea Chung Hong-won left another glaring example of the importance of individual responsibility in a democracy. He resigned 11 days after a ferry disaster had killed 281, mostly school children because of botched rescue operations following the disaster that left the nation very angry and extremely upset. In tendering his resignation, he said: “During the search process, the government took inadequate measures and disappointed the public. I should take responsibility for everything as the prime minister, but the government can assume no more. So I will resign as prime minister.”

The two US Secretaries were not legally required to resign. The Prime Minister of South Korea was also under no legal pressure that would have removed him from office if he had not resigned. They all resigned on their own as required in a democracy where the law can only set the basic parameters of governance but where individual responsibility of those holding public offices is required to establish governance based on the principles of democracy. In any democratic government, ministers or their equivalents do not wait for the law to be told to take responsibility for failure in their ministries/departments that causes national outcry even where the failures do not necessarily occur due to their faults individually.

In fact, individual responsibility of ministers and public officials of similar status is a litmus test proof of a country’s democratic credentials. A twin litmus test of the depth of a country’s democratic credentials is the presence of the rule of law. The proofs of the litmus tests are visible in the public domain of any country that is democratic and governed by the rule of law. The nature and extent of such proofs establish the strength of the country’s democratic and rule by law foundations. The litmus test for the rule of law is a much simpler one because it occurs continuously and more frequently than cases of individual responsibility in a democratic country. Take for instance the case of the US Commerce Secretary. By the time he had regained his consciousness in the hospital, the law had taken its course and the fact that he was a minister was totally inconsequential to the police that wrote the report and reflected in it his medical condition. Therefore by the time he was out of the hospital in a few days time, he had decided to resign on his own on individual responsibility.

In fact, in the USA and everywhere else where there is rule of law, being important public officials like President/Prime Minister/Ministers or offspring’s of such individuals or related to such individuals are reasons for the law to be applied on them much more stringently than in case of the ordinary folks. In USA for example, the law treats a son or a daughter of even the President in the same manner as anyone else in the country. Therefore, if hypothetically, President Obama’s elder daughter who will be 16 on July 4th were to run into problem with the law, the White House would not intervene with the authorities to save her from the law. When President Bush’s twin daughters ran into conflict with the law on drinking charges and possession of fake ID, the White House issued the following statement: “It is an issue involving the president and the first lady and their daughters and their private lives,” and the law took its own course. The White House’s statement was intended to protect the daughters from the media and not the law.

Sadly, we cannot say that we are anywhere near fulfilling the conditions of individual responsibility or rule of law to establish our democratic credentials. In fact, if what is happening in Narayanganj is any guide, we would fail the twin litmus tests miserably. Seven murders were committed in which three officers, one a Lieutenant Colonel, of the country’s most elite law enforcing agency, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have been charged. The Lieutenant Colonel also happens to be the son-in-law of a senior Minister of the Government. The murders have caused national and international outcry. The Asian Chapter of the Human Rights Watch has addressed an open letter to the Prime Minister and has demanded impartial inquiry into the 7 murders and also on the extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances for which too fingers have been pointed at RAB.

The Government has removed the three RAB officers from service. The High Court has ordered their arrests. The Prime Minister has stated her resolve to bring the offenders to justice. Yet, the arrests have not been carried out. If those in public offices responsible for RAB had even the scantiest appreciation for rule of law and the importance of individual responsibility in a democracy, the head of the RAB and/or the Minister in charge of Home would have resigned by now. The Minister whose son and son-in-law are allegedly involved would have likewise also resigned. Regrettably, the way these officials are talking to the media on the issue that humiliated the government and the country at home and abroad, it is evident that they do not believe that individual responsibility or rule of law has any value in democratic governance. Such indifference to rule of law and individual responsibility by the guardians of the law not only obstructs democratic governance but also the credibility of the government. In fact, the Prime Minister’s current woes with the Narayanganj would have been substantially lessened if at least one of her Ministers had resigned which by the way is not an acknowledgement of guilt.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id is HYPERLINK "" - See more at:,-rule-of-law-and-responsibility_858_2_5_1_0.html#sthash.eNO2gKDs.dpuf

It's time to return to the Constitution


Posted : 17 May, 2014
It's time to return to the Constitution
M. Serajul Islam

The seven murders in Narayanganj have underlined that the country is caught in a political quicksand because of the way the Awami League-led government is conducting politics. Bangladesh's politics is breaking at the seams like a cricket ball. When a cricket ball starts to break, that ball becomes useless and must be replaced. The urgent need is, therefore, to bring about a paradigm shift in the nature of the country's politics. It is time to return to the drawing board for a new cricket ball. It is time to return to the Constitution. The politicians won't do it for they are the problem why the ball is breaking at the seams; "we, the people of Bangladesh" must now put their acts together.

The Preamble to the Bangladesh Constitution unequivocally underlines the important role of the people in the country. There is no ambiguity in it. The opening sentence of the Constitution reads: "We, the people of Bangladesh, having proclaimed our Independence on the 26th day of March, 1971 and through a historic struggle for national liberation, established the independent, sovereign People's Republic of Bangladesh" The Preamble gives the proprietorship of the country to the people and therefore the source of all powers of the state. The Preamble does not recognise any individual or a party for its establishment. Therefore, the Preamble does not recognise any stakeholder for proprietorship of the country except "we, the people".

The Preamble to the Bangladesh Constitution, that is, its heart, correctly gives all credit for the establishment of the country to the people because they contributed to the establishment of their country unlike any other in living memory. In 1971, the people of Bangladesh were face-to-face with death when a military regime armed to the teeth wanted to keep control of Pakistan over what is now Bangladesh where they were prepared to kill to the last the 65 million that were in their grasp. Yet, those 65 million refused to surrender and supported the war of liberation that eventually led to victory and liberation of the country. They overcame their fear of death to support the war of liberation aware that they could be killed for their support and in fact, millions were killed for doing so.

Unfortunately, regimes after regimes have taken away people's sovereignty over the country for personal and group interests through one amendment to the Constitution after another. The 15th Amendment, as the cliché goes, is the last straw that broke the camel's back. The Fifteenth Amendment has violated the Preamble like an arrow in the heart of the Constitution. It did this in a number of ways.

First, it has taken away the provision of referendum that had given the people the ultimate right over that of parliament on issues of fundamental importance to the nation. Second, it clipped people's sovereignty further by making certain provisions in the Constitution sacrosanct that 'we, the people" could question only at the risk of being charged with treason that is punishable by death.

Third, the Awami League (AL) used its three-fourths majority in Parliament to put these provisions in the Constitution without a mandate from the people. Finally, the provisions have been placed in the Constitution not only by ignoring the people but also by being overtly those that favour the ruling party! The 15th Amendment, to use another cliché, took "we, the people" for a ride.

The 15th Amendment in effect has changed the status of the people from being proprietors of the state to being tenants. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was too deeply involved in its demand over the reinstatement of the Caretaker Government that the 15th Amendment had annulled. It failed to reveal the grand design behind the Amendment that was to make the Constitution and the Government subordinate to the will of the ruling party. It is a design modelled after present-day Russia where as Time Magazine has stated in its current edition, President Putin has emerged as the Czar where the Constitution, government and party are all serving his interests and of his chosen few.

It is a pity that the BNP failed to reveal the grand design behind the 15th Amendment. The country's constitutional pundits also failed likewise. The media, too, failed to expose how the status of the people was changed in favour of the ruling party and much more. The net result of these failures to reveal the grand design was the ease with which the people were made powerless as was evident on January 05 when the AL returned to power without the overwhelming majority of the people even being asked to vote. That brought about a paradigm shift in the nature of the government that became one from being elected by the people to one chosen by the ruling party itself.

The results of the grand design are now all around. The sense of accountability is no longer a matter of concern for the government because the people are no longer sovereign.  The 15th Amendment has transferred that sovereignty to the ruling party. Thus we are witnessing the impunity with which the cadres of the ruling party, including its student and youth wings, are exercising power over the people.

One MP, by his own assertion very close to the Prime Minister, has openly stated in a public meeting that he would take law into his hands and serve justice in the Narayanganj murders! Law-enforcement agencies are now perceived by the people as being partners of crime with the cadres of the ruling party with no power to control them. Hussain Mohammed Ershad, a Special Envoy of the Government, has described the AL-led government like those that were run by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Millions gave their lives so that Bangladesh would be a democratic country, where the people would be the source of all powers of the state. The 1972 Constitution had guaranteed that in the Preamble unequivocally. The 15th Amendment has taken away that power of the people by its provisions and thus has turned the country un-democratic and dishonoured the spirit of 1971. It has also pushed Bangladesh to the edge.

The only way of bringing Bangladesh back on track is for the people to rise as they did in 1971 and seek the rights that have been taken away from them. The politicians will not do it as they did not in 1971 when "we, the people" fought the Pakistani killers and were successful. If they succeeded in 1971, they will again.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A public hartal on formalin treated fish/fruits

A public hartal on formalin treated fish/fruits
M. Serajul Islam

When I was growing up, I used to accompany my father sometimes to the fish market in New Market in Dhaka.  That was in the 1950s and 1960s. I hated going there because of the smell and the flies. The unhygienic conditions of the market and the fact that a lot of the fish sold there those days were decaying brought the flies to the Fish Market like pins to the magnet. Those flies started to desert the fish market not just in New Market in Dhaka but also in all the fish markets in the country at first slowly and before the people realized why, totally. The fish markets became spic and span like someone had waved a magic wand.  

There was however no magic in what happened in the fish markets. There was no drive by the authorities to make the markets clean so that the flies would go away. In fact, the traders were as merrily selling decaying fish as they were in the days when my father used to go to the fish market in New Market; only the Market has now become more crowded and bigger with many times more fish sold than when my father’s days. Therefore something strange was happening in the fish market. But neither the authorities nor the buyers were concerned why the flies had suddenly left the fish markets of the country because the traders had found the way to keep them out, keep their fish looking fresh and not decaying and fooling the buyers.

The magic later started to visit the people in their homes. The fruits that they were buying were not decaying for long period of time. Bananas that had to be eaten as quickly as they were brought home could lie on the table for days with little signs of softening or decaying. Other fruits, many imported from abroad like the apples and the grapes were likewise remaining fresh for unusual period of time, like Nature had forgotten to act upon them. They were not decaying even when they were left uneaten in the open for a long time. The fish and the fruits in Bangladesh seemed like they had found the way to fight Nature!

Then the magic was revealed. It was not black magic or that Nature had suddenly lost its power. It was formalin doing the trick. Pure and simple formalin that is used to keep the dead bodies from decaying so that their burial could be delayed so that their  close relatives could come from a distance and  see them for one last time before they were buried or cremated. Used in fish and fruits, the traders could sell their perishable products without any wasted by Nature.

Formalin is of course poison. It sends people to their death as surely as they keep dead bodies fresh for a while. Consuming fish/fruits treated with formalin is a slow process of death by poisoning. The dishonest traders who are involved in using formalin are therefore as guilty as those who commit murders in cold blood. In fact, these dishonest traders are worse than those who come before the law accused of killing at the heat of the moment. There is no ambiguity in what is happening here. Traders are selling products and are using formalin in full knowledge that they are poisoning their customers. What is absurd and totally unbelievable is the response of the other stakeholders in this deadly game, namely the authorities and the customers.

The authorities have now known the truth about formalin for quite sometime. Yet the only actions that they have taken so far is burn and destroy some of the formalin treated products. Not one of the traders who are poisoning their customers systematically and in cold blood has been brought before the law. Any country where such acts of cold-blooded slow poisoning of consumers would have come to public attention, capital punishment would have been served on the traders and the issue would have become history almost instantly. Not so in Bangladesh. The more the media exposed the extent of such public poisoning by formalin, the less the authorities seemed interested to bring such a dangerous matter to an end. In fact, using formalin on perishable products has come to stay. It appears like the traders using formalin have won their fight with the authorities by befriending them!

That points to where Bangladesh is going these days. Everything is about making money. Laws and legality are there to help dishonest people make money provided of course they share their money with the political leadership in power and the authorities. The use of formalin and the trade that goes with it involves humungous amount of money conducted under the table where the guardians of the law are those who sustain the breakers of the law that explains why not one of these “formalin killers” have been punished. The recent murders in Narayanganj therefore should not surprise anyone; it is a public proof of the nexus of the lawbreakers and those in power, including the law enforcing agencies.

That leaves the consumers in Bangladesh as the sacrificial lambs in the deadly game of formalin. They are accepting death by formalin without protest. Their silence is either sheer stupidity or perhaps it underlines the new reality about Bangladesh; that the people have lost their ability to react to the array of lies/untruth in their public domain even when it threatens our own lives. However, it is not just their lives that formalin threatens; it threatens the lives of their future generation and therefore, the consumers must wake up from their slumber and act. Clearly, the authorities would not end the slow poisoning with formalin. The nexus of corruption is too deep and the money involved is too much to encourage them to act in the interests of the people. Therefore they cannot go into denial over formalin anymore. Denial over what is going on in politics has led to the loss of the most fundamental of all their rights, namely their right to vote, that has been taken away from them. If they go into denial over formalin any longer, they would now lose their lives and those of the future generations.

There is a simple and easy way for the people of Bangladesh to end the formalin threat. It is in their hands if only they deice to act. They should simply refuse to buy fruits and fish that are not essential for their survival.  They should do a reverse hartal by refusing to be victims. If they show such a resolve, they would undoubtedly have the media by their side to spread the message of the boycott. If the people could keep the boycott going for a reasonable length of time, they would be able to put these dishonest traders out of business. Of course there would be a flip side to such a mass effort. The producers, all honest people who are from the masses, would be hurt. But then the producers are hurt anyway because they get only a small part of their efforts for their products. The nexus of the traders, the middlemen and the authorities take away most of their profit leaving just a pittance for them.

Therefore although in the short term the producers of  fish/fruits would suffer from a people inspired hartal against the murderous formalin traders and their partners in crime in politics and administration, in the end they too would be the winner. The people have suffered a great deal from hartal by the politicians. It is time they do a hartal in reverse and use it to their advantage and instead of becoming the victims of hartals; use it for a good cause and become the victors.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id  is