Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday expanded her council of ministers by inducting seven new members -- most of them little known public figures except for Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir and Hasanul Haque Inu -- with many wondering about the reasons behind the move.
The new cabinet members -- five of them full ministers and two ministers of state -- were sworn in by President Zillur Rahman at Bangabhaban in the afternoon.
The five ministers are Inu, MK Alamgir, Mujibul Haque, Mostafa Faruque Mohammad and AH Mahmood Ali; and the two state ministers are Omor Faruk Chowdhury and Abdul Hyee.
But all eyes were on veteran Awami League leader Tofail Ahmed and Workers Party President Rashed Khan Menon, both of whom were offered posts in the cabinet which they declined. Their refusal is unprecedented in the country's political history.
Their rejection compelled Hasina to replace them with two little known diplomats-turned-lawmakers Mostafa Faruque and Mahmood Ali.
Having refused to join the cabinet, Tofail and Menon have upset Hasina, also the AL president, and other senior party leaders, 14-pary insiders said.
They added that had the prime minister discussed with them their inclusion in the cabinet, the situation would have been different.
Clarifying his decision, Tofail said he did not want to be a minister, adding: "At the moment, I am not mentally, politically or socially prepared to take office as a minister."
Talking to reporters at his Banani residence, he said: "It doesn't matter whether I join the cabinet or not. I don't have any frustration and anger towards my party or any misunderstanding with the prime minister."
Earlier, Tofail told The Daily Star that he wanted to "work for the party". According to him, the party was more important than ministership.
He also explained his decision to Hasina, meeting her in parliament in the evening, sources said.
Explaining the expansion to the media, the prime minister said, “In the parliamentary system of government, expanding the cabinet is a normal process."
She added that by including seven new members in the cabinet she had in fact "honoured the voters" of the respective constituencies.
Asked if Tofail's rejection would be regarded as breaking party discipline, Hasina said, “I did not phone him. Had I called him and offered the post and he refused, only then the question of breaching discipline could have arisen.”
Several AL leaders, however, have told this correspondent that after the 2008 election, Tofail had been sidelined because of his "cosy relationship" with the 2007-08 caretaker government and his proposals about reforming the party.
It was only "natural" that Tofail would reject such a proposal at the fag end of the government tenure, they added, preferring not to be named.
Moreover, Tofail and Menon feel that the government has failed to deliver in many sectors and paid no heed to many of their suggestions on issues like the share market scam and Sonali Bank scam, party leaders say.
"They obviously did not want to be part of that failure," one senior leader said.
Some others inside the party see Tofail's refusal as a challenge and a "heavy blow" to the party and the government.
"From this, the public has got a negative message about the government," one senior leader said on condition of anonymity.
Hasina decided to expand the cabinet before meeting the president on Monday. On Wednesday, the premier talked to a number of ministers about her plan and asked two ministers -- Obaidul Quader and Suranjit Sengupta -- to talk to Tofail and Menon sensing they duo might not join.
Quader and Suranjit both tried till yesterday afternoon to convince the two but failed, sources close to the ministers said.
The Workers Party at its politburo meeting yesterday observed that the government had failed in many areas and thus had become isolated from the people. So it would be "imprudent" for Menon to join the cabinet, party sources told this paper.
Menon said his party did not support the idea of his being a minister at this stage.
Questions also swirl as to why Hasina wanted to expand the cabinet with barely a year of her government remaining. Also, the expansion comes at a time when criticism has been mounting about several ministers performing badly over the last few months.
The simplest and yet most implausible answer is offered by Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury.
“The prime minister has expanded the cabinet to bring more dynamism in the government and serve more people better,” said Matia, who is regarded as being close to Sheikh Hasina.
But this statement does not cut much ice as none of the new faces, except MK Alamgir, has any track record of getting any berth in the cabinet in the past.
One of the explanations now on offer from different quarters is that with the elections nearing, the AL wants to have ministers from some districts from where no one has been in the cabinet. Jhenidah, Jessore, Rajshahi and Comilla are four such districts and the new recruits have been picked from these districts.
Tofail, Menon and Inu were quite vocal about the government's failure. So the prime minister wanted to include them in the cabinet and have them shut up, insiders say.
None of the new cabinet members, however, has been given portfolios. "It will be done on Monday," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told reporters.
Sources said Mujibul might be given charge of the railways ministry. The government is planning to split the post and telecommunications ministry into two and give charge of any of them to Inu.
According to the sources, a small-scale reshuffle in the cabinet is also possible.
After the AL's landslide victory in 2008 election, Hasina formed her cabinet with 31 members -- 23 ministers and eight state ministers.
On January 24, 2009, she included six more fresh faces -- a minister and five state ministers -- in the council of ministers and reshuffled 10 portfolios.
The premier last expanded her cabinet on November 28, 2011 by inducting Suranjit Sengupta, now minister without portfolio, and Obaidul Quader, minister for communications and railways.
Following yesterday's expansion, the number of cabinet members, including the prime minister, is 51.
Syed Abul Hossain resigned recently over his alleged involvement in the Padma bridge project corruption while Tanjim Ahmad Sohel Taj voluntary resigned as minister of state for home within six months of the government taking office.