There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 10, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 10, 2008

Strategically Speaking

There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak

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"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: ... A time to rend, and a time to sow; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak."

WHAT draws me to the scriptural advice is about choosing when to speak and when not. And a very famous saying of Hazrat Ali cautions us against the dangers of speaking out of turn. Words in your mouth till not spoken, you have control on; words once uttered control you -- meaning that one has to resort to all sorts of implausible explanations to justify things that are uttered without much deliberation.
Unfortunately, this important dictum is not always kept in mind by people holding positions of responsibility in the government, who often face the media to articulate government policy and plans. Sample some of the recent comments (paraphrased) -- the government might set up a constitutional committee to review likely changes -- Art 70 of the Constitution needs change -- the National Coordination Committee has no locus standi -- price of rice in the West is Tk.70 per kg -- the increase in fuel prices will not affect substantially commodity prices. And to top it all -- do not compare the present prices with the times of Shaista Khan.
These comments have created misgivings not only about matters relating to politics and the political roadmap, they have also raised questions about the government's economic management capability. The latest remark of the finance advisor, related to the price situation, has been the unkindest cut of all.
Many eyebrows were raised at the comments of one of the advisors that a committee to review the constitution might be formed to look into the areas in the constitution that might need changes.
That, coming not very long after one of election commissioner's comments that Art 70 should be revised, was bound to create apprehensions in people's mind. That neither the election commissioner nor the advisor who told the media about setting up a constitutional committee, was talking for the government, nor did their comments have its blessings was amply demonstrated by the recent tersely worded comments of the CA regarding the issue -- discounting any plans of the current government to tinker with the constitution.
One is entitled to one's opinion, but articulating that view, particularly while holding responsible state posts, not only compounds the situation, given the political milieu of the time -- it is also bound to be appraised in different manner by different groups and political parties -- and all kinds of intentions are likely to be ascribed to the caretaker government as a "part of its road map" where the object of the CTG and the political parties are not always seen to be coterminous.
As for the finance advisor's comment, the country could have been spared the reference, in the manner it was made, to Shaista Khan. In fact, this is not the first harsh remark that he has made.
Only recently did he want mooncalves like us to believe that the more than 30 percent fuel hike would not make much difference to prices of daily necessities. And, of course, he was wrong. Just compare the prices of essentials before and after the increase in fuel prices.
To say the least, the latest comment has been most inappropriate and untimely -- not befitting an advisor whose words can do and undo many things. It has only rubbed salt into the wounds of the vast majority of the people who are barely managing to keep the wolves from their doors. Unsympathetic postures and treating the issue of price hike as a fait accompli, and the suggestion that the government can do very little about it is unacceptable.
His attempt to explain off the matter -- as being the result of the media misreporting -- holds no water either. Were it not for the electronic media he might have gotten away with a mere rejoinder. We heard what was said and what was meant. He said he had cracked a joke to explain the economic realities.
But contrary to what someone said about rich man's joke being funny, it was anything but. Can a person in his position really "crack a joke" when it has to do with the very survival and sustenance of the majority of the people -- barring of course the lucky few who still manage to maintain their sartorial splendour when a large segment of the people are barely managing to survive?
What one expected was more compassion in addressing the plight of the poor. By displaying none of it he has distanced himself from the woes of the common man because, as one wise man had remarked: "By compassion we make others' misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also."
We acknowledge the fact that the country is caught in the vortex of international price spiral. But one is not certain whether the monetary and fiscal measures taken by the government have helped, or will help, in ameliorating the condition of the people. We also understand that price rise in Bangladesh has a ratchet effect, but the situation has been aggravated by the advisor's comment that there is very little chance of prices of essentials coming down.
And when another advisor says that per kg price of rice is equivalent to Tk.70 in the western countries he forgets that the purchasing capacity of the two is not comparable. And when one justifies the recent quantum jump in fuel prices -- it may not be known to many that we are paying about Tk.10 more per litre of octane than an American whose per capita income is around $38,000 compared to $500 in Bangladesh. Comparisons are not only irrelevant they are sometimes odious.
But Shaista Khan is often referred to for good reasons, and not in the sense it was done by the advisor. The famous Subedar of Bengal was known not only for his administrative reforms, but also for dealing with corrupt government officials with a heavy hand, and providing relief to the people by abolishing illegal taxes.
He recouped the administration that had fallen into chaos during the interregnum before he was appointed the Subedar by his nephew, Emperor Aurangzeb. He established discipline in the administration, and sorted out recalcitrant zamindars. Alas! Such administrative efficiency and good governance we always yearn for, but will never again get.
If, as Schopenhauer had said, "compassion is the basis of all morality," lack of it makes a travesty of everything that the rulers want to bestow on the ruled, if not immoral. While the capacity to ameliorate our sufferings may be limited on the part of this government, it is exacerbated by inconsiderate comments of those unable or unwilling to relate to people's distress.

The author is Editor, Defence and Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.

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