Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bangladesh’s toxic politics : Hello, Delhi

It is up to India to try to stop Sheikh Hasina ruining Bangladesh.

THE Punch-and-Judy show of Bangladeshi politics, in which the ruling party—run by the daughter of a former president—bashes the opposition—run by the widow of a former president—before swapping places with it, has been running for decades. The outside world rarely pays attention because nothing seems to change.

Recently, though, the squabbling has turned into a crisis which threatens to make life still worse for the 170m poor Muslims who suffer under one of the world’s worst governments. Since Bangladesh’s political leaders show no interest in their fate, outsiders need to do so.

When Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League and current prime minister, and Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), alternated in power in the 1990s, things were pretty bad, but in the past decade they have got worse. The administration Mrs Zia headed from 2001 to 2006 was a brutal kleptocracy. It was followed by army-backed unelected technocrats. Then in 2008 the Awami League swept to power in a landslide victory. The League has 229 of 300 parliamentary seats compared with 31 for Mrs Zia’s BNP. Sheikh Hasina has used this mandate to consolidate power and hound her enemies, real and imagined.

There has been a spate of mysterious disappearances. This month 33 senior members of the opposition were arrested on charges of vandalism and arson. A war-crimes tribunal to investigate the atrocities in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971—some of the bloodiest in modern history—now looks like an attempt to discredit the BNP and its Islamist allies. And the hounding of Mohammad Yunus, a pioneer of microfinance, creator of the Grameen Bank and a Nobel laureate, is seen as payback for his temerity in 2007 in trying to launch a “third force” in politics. Meanwhile, journalists and activists face intimidation and worse, and the vibrant NGOs that keep the spirit of democracy alive worry that proposed legislation would leave them at the mercy of government whims.

Last year the League did away with the provision that caretaker administrations should oversee elections. The arrangement was not ideal. In January 2007 protests led by the League, convinced that the BNP would rig an election, led to a coup. But without some assurance of fair play the BNP will boycott the next election, due in 2014. So there is the prospect of yet more protests, which in Bangladesh often take the form of crippling strikes. There is also the real prospect of utter political paralysis, risking even worse turmoil on the streets.

The only voice in Dhaka

The outside world is trying to do its bit. The World Bank has scrapped a deal to pay for a big bridge because of its suspicions of corruption. EU ambassadors have denounced the treatment of Mr Yunus and the harassment of activists. Hillary Clinton flew to Dhaka this month to stand by Mr Yunus.

But the government seems unmoved. In a snub to Mrs Clinton, it announced a review into ownership of Grameen, a move to take over (and probably destroy) the bank. The only country to have much influence in Dhaka is India. Until recently the regional superpower tolerated Sheikh Hasina’s excesses, in part because Bangladesh has cracked down on Islamists. India now seems to be hedging its bets between the two parties. 

But if it still wants to have a functioning democracy next door, it needs to speak out far louder in favour of it.


Politics in Bangladesh : Banged about

The prime minister sets the country on a dangerous path.

INCHING through the crowded streets of Bangladesh’s capital brings both exhilaration and frustration. Dhaka’s garishly painted tricycle rickshaws, battered buses, occasional goats and luxury cars somehow all manage to creep onward. Drivers skilled at furious honking are also masters of compromise and smiles.

If only the bitter politicians could prove so deft. Some 18 months before a general election, Bangladesh suffers street protests. Opposition leaders are sent to jail, and disappearances and murders are widely blamed on an old rivalry for power. A confrontation over the next poll—who should oversee it, and whether it will be fair—is already so strident that some observers doubt a contested one will be held at all. Meanwhile, Bangladeshis fret over prices of food and fuel, chronic power cuts and broken promises of new roads.

As the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, tells it, all ills lie at the government’s door. She ticks off a list of wicked acts she blames on her antagonist in an ancient rivalry, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. A young BNP politician abducted a month ago and very probably murdered. Two others killed earlier. Some 33 opposition figures, including senior MPs, dumped in jail this month over a trumped-up case of arson. In all, she says, 3,000 BNP members have been arrested. “It is to intimidate, to create a sense of fear.”

There is plenty more darkness about. In recent months Bangladesh has endured a spate of other mysterious killings—a Saudi diplomat shot dead; a trade-union activist tortured and murdered; a pair of journalists butchered after investigating corruption. This correspondent was trailed in Dhaka by a pair of secret-service men on a motorbike. A rumour of a bizarre coup attempt, in January, was used by the government to get closer political control over the army.

One of the country’s best known figures, Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank, has been harassed for some time. An increasingly paranoid Mrs Hasina sees him as a political threat. This month in Dhaka Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, met the Nobel laureate and assured him of her support. It brought no relief. Ministers snipe at him, and the government has just ordered yet another official review of his bank.

“We are very worried that the commission has been formed and terms of reference include ownership,” says Mr Yunus. In effect, the government is seeking ways to grab Grameen, which is 97%-owned by its poor members, many of them women. Officials are also bent on settling scores with Mr Yunus, who oversees an ungainly charitable empire that includes a telecoms company as well as the bank. Over a lavish dinner, a group of government spies brags of having a thick file of allegations ready against the “money-monger”.

Engine trouble

The list of gripes against the government is long. Corruption is pervasive enough for donors to be alarmed. The World Bank has scrapped funding for a bridge over the Padma river. Japan, the largest single giver of aid, has just sent its deputy prime minister to Dhaka to demand a clean-up. In a case of recent graft, a railway minister, who quit after police found sacks of cash in his aide’s car, was suddenly cleared by an internal inquiry of any corruption and reinstated to the cabinet. Meanwhile, strong doubts persist about the fairness of democracy. The United States’s ambassador in Dhaka this week repeated Mrs Clinton’s warning that the next election must be “participatory”, ie, run fairly so the opposition will take part.

Most telling would be a shift in India’s attitude. Long a close ally of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League—cheering her crackdown on Islamic extremists and insurgents from India’s north-east, and being open to more trade—India’s ruling Congress party may now, sensibly, be hedging its bets. Pranab Mukherjee, India’s finance minister, called on Mrs Zia recently, inviting her back to Delhi. Mrs Zia chuckles that she will go after Delhi’s summer heat is past. She also calls the neighbour a “friend”, a possible hint of change in a party that often seeks popularity by bashing India.

As Sheikh Hasina looks ever more strident, people may start tiptoeing away from her. Not every ill in Bangladesh can be laid at the prime minister’s door. Although she did mess with the constitution, scrapping arrangements she had previously insisted on in opposition for a neutral caretaker to run the government for three months before election day, she now appears to want to keep her options open, possibly in order to be better able to skew the outcome of the next election. Meanwhile, Mrs Zia’s party orders street protests and hunger strikes, and threatens angry mass rallies in June. The sad result is that politics grows more polarised and confrontational.

Still, Mrs Hasina is not quite the all-powerful bogeywoman her bitterest opponents suggest. Certainly she seems set on cracking down on civil groups, for example with a new bill to put non-government organisations more firmly under political control. But it is hard to see how the murders and attacks on activists and journalists help her government, other than to spread a general sense of intimidation.

The opposition, too, has a reputation for thuggery, corruption and intimidation, and does not bother much to hide it. A veteran leader of the BNP says that, should his party boycott the next election, 20 days of street protests by BNP supporters would then be followed by violent attacks by his party workers on their rivals.

The shame of it all is how little heed the squabbling politicians pay to what should matter more: keeping the economy growing and reducing poverty further. In the face of electricity shortages, blocked roads and land disputes, the Bangladesh economy has been doing remarkably well. Its clothing industry has the potential to generate over $40 billion a year from exports, according to McKinsey, a consultancy.

Indicators of well-being have been improving. If annual economic growth of over 6% is sustained, a country that not long ago was a byword for poverty can contemplate reaching middle-income levels in barely a decade. But that needs single-minded focus by the government on dealing with the country’s economic bottlenecks and social needs. Instead, like Dhaka’s wretched roads, politics looks jammed. Uncertainty leading up to the next election, and growing anxiety among diplomats and foreign observers of Bangladesh, suggest a hard, tense time ahead. More than anyone, blame the driver.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pranab Mukherjee’s visit: the same empty rhetoric

THE two-day visit of the Indian finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to Bangladesh went as predictably as it could. His articulation of the Indian government’s willingness to enter into an agreement on Teesta water sharing or his assurance that India’s river-interlinking project ‘would not be harmful for Bangladesh’ had no new twist or turn by and large; his colleagues in New Delhi, including the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, have said similar things over and over in the past three years or so. In fact, it may have been unrealistic to expect anything revealing or reassuring from him in the first place; after all, he was in Dhaka primarily to attend the concluding ceremony of the 150th anniversary of the birth of poet Rabindranath Tagore.

The only novelty, albeit essentially on a cosmetic level insofar as bilateral relations are concerned, may have been his fallacious and feeble attempt at apportioning the blame for New Delhi’s failure to conclude the Teesta water-sharing agreement on the Congress Party’s allies in the United Progressive Alliance government and the opposition parties in India. According to, Mukherjee told a select group of editors during a meeting on Sunday that the deal had run aground because of such ‘ground realities’ as the Congress’s lack of majority in parliament. He sounded as if his party had always had the best intentions for Bangladesh at heart, a proposition that would be difficult to prove empirically. Moreover, it is inconceivable that all the members of the ruling alliance and the opposition in India are hostile to Bangladesh’s concerns and interests. Overall, his conclusion appeared geared more towards his domestic audience than anything else.

However, the Indian finance minister or, for that matter, his government needs to realise that New Delhi’s assurances and reassurances have increasingly fewer takers in Bangladesh. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Sunday, both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in Bangladesh, during their meetings with Mukherjee, categorically said that India should sign an agreement on the sharing of Teesta water and hold a credible study soon on its plan to construct the Tipaimukh Dam on the trans-boundary river Barak. In fact, the prime minister appeared uncharacteristically blunt when she said that most people in Bangladesh did not understand the centre-state relations in Indian politics and that ‘it is easy for them to misunderstand the intent of the government of India over the delay in the conclusion of the Teesta agreement.’

The prime minister rightly pointed out that the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam and the river-interlinking project had become issues of grave concern for the public in Bangladesh.

Suffice it to say, the concern is rooted in findings and conclusions of experts, not only in Bangladesh but also in India, about the threat that the mega projects pose to the life and livelihood, the economy and ecology of the people on either side of the border. Worrying still, the Indian government has thus far displayed not only apathy but also antipathy to the concerns and interests of Bangladesh. Continued torture and killing of Bangladeshis by the Border Security Force; India’s persistent refusal to remove tariff and para-tariff barrier to exports from Bangladesh; and address trade imbalance, etc bear testimony to this end.

Overall, the Indian government needs to realise that the people at large in Bangladesh have very few reasons to keep faith in what it says and that it is time that it started delivering on its assurances and reassurances. 

Meanwhile, conscious sections of society in Bangladesh need to reach across the border and forge alliance with like-minded groups in India that are also concerned about the economic and ecological fallout of their government’s river-linking and Tipaimukh plans so as to sustain pressure on New Delhi to shelve the projects.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Series of snubs: Padma Bridge, Teesta water and cricket

India has enjoyed free ride or transit without any fee for months as a major gain whereas any tangible favourable outcome for Bangladesh is yet to be visible. Several perplexing, bizarre and outlandish utterances by certain advisers to the prime minister led even some ruling alliance members to question whether these advisers work for the prime minister here or of India and serve the interests of this country or that. 

HOW the other half lives was a publication of photojournalism (1890) by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums. Many of the well-off were either unaware of or indifferent to the grubby and inhuman living conditions of the deprived and the disadvantaged.

Riis blamed the apathy of the dominant class for the miserable condition of the distressed and destitute. That was late 19th century New York City. This is early 21st Century Bangladesh. The prevailing condition here seems strikingly similar to NYC back then.

In order to alleviate widespread poverty and provide respite to the poor and underprivileged, international organisations and donor agencies, the World Bank crucial among them, were created. The role of the World Bank and other polygonal organisations, however, are both controversial and questionable.

Critics claim that the overbearing, pompous, pretentious and pushy organisations are significantly responsible for the persistent dismal state of affairs in the poorer countries. Their actions are blamed for creating a privileged affluent class, inured to western way and standard of opulent living. The charge is that the World Bank’s policies aid and abet a small population fraction rather than the inveterate needy half.

To paraphrase Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I am not here to bury the World Bank but to update on the latest government attempt to convince the organisation to release the $1.2 billion loan for the construction of the much-awaited and much-wanted Padma Bridge, suspended on charges of alleged corruption by official bigwigs.

According to an April 29 New Age back page report, a two-member delegation, led by Gowher Rizvi, adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, visited Washington, DC to attend a joint World Bank-International Monetary Fund meeting and convince the World Bank to overturn the suspension of the Padma Bridge loan. The plea, however, proved futile.

World Bank officials declined to act on the plea and the Rizvi mission returned pretty near empty-handed. The bank reiterated the serious corruption allegations and insisted on punishing the offenders. The original corruption claim was stated in a September 21, 2011 letter from the World Bank linking the then communication minister Syed Abul Hossain and his firm SACHO with the alleged scam.

The current communication minister has pledged the start of bridge construction within the next 11 months. The government has signed a memorandum of understanding with a Malaysia-based consortium for alternative fund arrangement. The failure of the Rizvi mission might have prompted the finance minister to announce that the government would replace the World Bank as the Padma Bridge project coordinator.

Come what may, the outright rejection yet again by the World Bank is a slap in the face and may mean a death knell to the mega project in the foreseeable future. The interest rate charged by the Malaysian consortium may be sky high and its ability to gather such a huge fund in a short period may be dubious and uncertain.

Moreover, the conditions laid down may be prohibitive. Such conditions may be so tough, harsh, stern and stringent that there may be a bridge over the river Padma in Bangladesh but the ownership and payback may belong to outsiders for ages.

The abject failure of the mission led by Pollyannaish and soft speaking, with lilting tone and accented Bangla, Gowher Rizvi who habitually seems to see boundless Bangladesh benefit on each foreign accord, is a major snub. We have to live with it and ensure that the government, out of sheer haste or obduracy and false pretence, does not sign on to a deal that is contrary to national interest.

Before, during and after the ill-fated Indian premier Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in late 2011, Gowher Rizvi made a round of TV talk-show circuit, usually conducted by na├»ve, favourable and government-friendly hosts. He claimed that the agreement would profit Bangladesh more than India.

India has enjoyed free ride or transit without any fee for months as a major gain whereas any tangible favourable outcome for Bangladesh is yet to be visible. Several perplexing, bizarre and outlandish utterances by certain advisers to the prime minister led even some ruling alliance members to question whether these advisers work for the prime minister here or of India and serve the interests of this country or that.

The main benefit slated for Bangladesh during the Manmohan visit was the signing of the Teesta water-sharing treaty. The two sides, despite the last minute rosy and mission about to be accomplished outlook of our foreign minister, failed to sign the all important deal due to eleventh-hour intense objection by the West Bengal chief minister, the adamant and assertive Mamata Banerjee.

The official indication here was that it was just a temporary setback. The matter would be settled in no time at all. The finance minister expressed his expectation last September that Teesta water-sharing agreement would be signed within three months.

As for the delay in the Padma Bridge project, the finance minister said in the April 29 New Age report ‘it can happen for any large project like this.’ He had nonchalantly said in early September 2011 about the Teesta water sharing deal, ‘There is nothing to be disappointed as the deal has only been delayed.’

The three months has now turned into a world record in time keeping, time limit, time commitment and time management, similar to the home minister’s 48-hour deadline for apprehending the killers of Sagar and Runi. The 48 hours officially never elapsed and the three months formally never ended. Both seem like eternity.

There is ample possibility that neither the Padma Bridge nor the Teesta treaty may see the light of day during the reign of the current regime, sort of like Dhaka city corporation elections. If either does by some fluke, it would be hastily concluded but total victory will be claimed.

It will be merrily publicised, accompanied by pomp and grandeur, music and festivities, rallies and receptions, similar to the recent frivolous celebration of the Bay of Bengal demarcation verdict.

As for the simmering and exasperating Teesta imbroglio, West Bengali Mamata is steadfast and yet to budge from her adamant stance to refuse Bangladesh the fair share of water. According to a press report, she declined to grant an appointment to our foreign minister during the latter’s recent Kolkata visit.

The April 30 issue of the Bangla daily Manabzamin reported that Mamta refused to meet and discuss the thorny Teesta issue with Dipu Moni. The foreign minister sent the request for a meeting through the deputy high commissioner of Bangladesh but to no avail.

Mamata supposedly responded that she is in no mood to delve into international affairs and was not interested in any such discussion with the Bangladesh foreign minister. Whatever she has to say, she would do so directly to the Bangladesh prime minister, Mamata stated.

Dipu Moni had met Mamata last year and informed her of the big neighbour’s international obligations regarding water sharing. Mamata evidently was not pleased and perhaps mighty peeved with the lecture on global water-sharing covenant and hence the cold shoulder. She may well be hell-bent on making this country suffer by denying meaningful share of Teesta water.

This may be shocking but neither surprising nor something new. Many Indian actions, from trade and tariff to travel, are discriminatory at best and outright cruel, crude and perilous at worst, such as Indian Border Security Force’s treatment of Bangladeshis in the border area. Killing, maiming, beating and torture, what a prominent minister here once callously called natural and expected, are regular and routine occurrences.

The refusal of the West Bengal chief minister to meet and discuss matters of mutual interests with the Bangladesh foreign minister is another monumental rebuff. This is a clear indication of how the chief minister of a neighbouring Indian state, and perhaps other prominent Indian leaders, holds this country in utter disdain and neglect.

A major factor may be that the current regime here treats Indian wish as its command and grants India all without significant return or reciprocation. That might have diminished the importance and implication of this country in the eyes of Indian leaders.

After such depressing and frustrating discussion of colossal twin rebuffs, sports may lighten things up. There is a popular US saying, ‘When things get tough, the tough go shopping.’ One may paraphrase that by the adage, ‘When things get depressing, the depressed watch cricket,’ only if there is no load- shedding. So on to cricket.

The Bangladesh Cricket Board president made an imprudent, unilateral and abortive attempt to organise a controversial tour of our team to Pakistan. No foreign cricket team has toured Pakistan since the visiting Sri Lanka cricket team was subject to a fiendish terrorist attack during the 2009 tour.

The High Court knew better. Considering the security threat, it gave a stay order on the slipshod and arbitrary decision of the BCB president, who, in the opinion of some critics, often acts like Somerset Maugham’s Mr Know-it-all. He had shown a callous disregard for the safety of the players in his risky decision.

What is sorely and urgently needed is a worthy opponent to show the newfound confidence, skills and fighting temperament of our team. Unfortunately, according to the schedule, the team is idle for the next six months.
Having failed in the rash and foolhardy Pakistan jaunt, the cricket board tried to arrange matches against another Test-playing opponent. That is vital because after the inspiring performance in the recently held Asia Cup where Bangladesh narrowly lost to Pakistan in the final, a long hiatus would sap the collective energy and deplete the enthusiasm and momentum of the team.

The cricket board was reportedly keen to play three one-day internationals and five Twenty-20 matches against South Africa. The proposal was made less than a week after Bangladesh’s scheduled tour to Pakistan was postponed by the High Court.

The South African board decided against the Bangladesh series. The board spokesman said: ‘With the volume of cricket to be played this year, sometimes rest is more important.’ So rest and recreation takes precedence over a series against rejuvenated and ready to go Bangladesh cricket team. The team is ready to go but unfortunately can find no place to go. It is just a waiting game for now.

The mild snub from the South African cricket board thus gives no respite from the duel major rebuffs. It is a waiting game for the nation as well. It is waiting for Padma Bridge funding. It is an interminable wait for Mamata to be kind and gracious so that the Teesta water-sharing treaty can be signed.
Don’t hold your breath.

BY :  Omar Khasru.