On September 13, five ministers and two state ministers were sworn in by the president. Two veteran leaders --Tofail Ahmed of Awami League (AL) and Rashed Khan Menon of the Workers Party, a partner of the grand alliance of the AL-led government -- who were invited to join as ministers did not accept the offer.
While analysing the political impact of the refusal of the two leaders in accepting the positions, many political observers say they believe the decision of expansion of the cabinet was taken on various grounds, including the following:
* There is a perception among the public that ministers, except a few, have not performed well and there is a constant murmur in civil society that experienced and suitable persons were not inducted when the prime minister formed the government in early January 2009. The expansion appears to be an attempt to rectify the situation;
* The government's image needs to be improved because its administration is perceived to be inept in dealing with various contentious public issues and the people in general seem to be very unhappy and disheartened. Media reports have shown the shrinkage of the support base of AL during its rule and the expansion is meant to restore public confidence in the AL;
* Partners of the grand alliance have alleged that the Awami League had not consulted with them on many of its policy decisions, and differences of opinion were expressed openly in the parliament by some members of the alliance. Obviously, there has been a lack of cohesion within the grand alliance partners, and it needs to be removed by offering ministerial position to AL's political partners;
* The induction of new ministers from Rajshahi and Khulna divisions will strengthen the representation from the northern and western districts and will have some positive impact on the people of the concerned districts during the forthcoming parliamentary elections;
* Since the parliamentary elections are to be held within 14 months, the AL needs to change gear to fulfill the promises made in its manifesto before the last election, and the expanded ministry will make all-out efforts to fulfill some crucial electoral pledges.
Ministerial expansion or reshuffle is a "routine matter" in parliamentary democracy. It is undertaken by the prime minister to inject new momentum into the activities of the government. It happens in all democratic countries, and Bangladesh is no exception.
In this case, it is an expansion as no one has been dropped from their ministerial positions. Only portfolios have been re-distributed among the earlier and new ministers and state ministers. (The number of ministers including the prime minister now stands at 51).
Let us examine why the two seasoned leaders -- one from the Awami League and the other from the Workers Party -- did not accept the invitation to become ministers.
The names of the two leaders were made public in the media, but it would have been better to know discreetly before the names were disclosed whether they would accept the position. It seems that it was taken for granted they would accept the offer, but this assumption was proved wrong.
Both leaders gave their reasons for non-acceptance. Tofail Ahmed reportedly said: "At the moment, I am not mentally, politically or socially prepared to take office as a minister." The words have been carefully chosen to convey his non-acceptance.
Tofail did not a get a berth in the ministerial cabinet when the prime minister formed the government in January 2009. Political observers were surprised at the time, and believe that he was hurt and that he did not wish to take responsibility for the actions/inactions of the government by accepting ministerial position at nearly the end of the tenure of the government
Furthermore, he has been sidelined in the AL political structure since mid-2009. He has not been appointed as a member of the highest policy-making body, the Presidium, or in the Working Committee of AL. He was made a member of Advisory Council of the party, which he reportedly did not think much of. Instead, he wants to be known only as "AL-worker Tofail."
President of the Workers Party, Rashed Khan Menon, on the other hand, was not allowed to join by the politburo of his party. The politburo reportedly observed that the government had become isolated from the people because of its failure in many areas and therefore it would be "imprudent" for Menon to accept the offer. On September 14, Menon reportedly told journalists at Dhaka Reporters Unity: "This (the offer) was never part of a political process. That has been clear from the prime minister's remark."
Political analysts say the non-acceptance revealed the crack within the AL and the grand alliance of the government, and that what the prime minister wanted to achieve through the expansion has been negated in public perception by non-acceptance of the two leaders.
Both Tofail and Rashed Khan Menon expressed their views in the parliament and outside that the government had failed to deliver on its pledges in many sectors and they felt that the government did not pay heed to many of their suggestions on issues like the share market scam and Sonali Bank loan scandal.
By not accepting the positions, observers believe that the two leaders have sent a signal to the public that there are leaders who have guts and convictions to decline the offer of ministerial positions. This is for the first time I recall that those who were invited to join as ministers courteously turned down the offer.
There is another valuable perspective to be gained from the non-acceptance of the offer. It illustrates that there could be differences of opinion on issues within the AL and grand alliance partners, which is a sign of healthy democratic tradition. It is a welcome development and needs to be nourished.
The writer is a former Bangladesh ambassador to the UN, Geneva.