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|Volume 10 |Issue 40 | October 21, 2011 ||
Of the Padma Bridge, of things Ethical
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Political scandals have been part of history, even in our country. Even so, the manner in which the sordid tale of the corruption that may have come into the Padma Bridge project has come to light leaves one wondering why the government has let the crisis balloon into a calamity. When the World Bank makes it clear that certain individuals who happen to be in the government have been caught in the bad act of giving the country a bad name through their nefarious activities, the shame is as much as the government's as it is the country's. And yet this shame does not have to acquire the shape and force of ugliness which cannot be rolled back.
There is such a thing as damage control. For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the choices were clear. She could either go for drastic action against those named in the World Bank letter handed over to her, with a copy to Finance Minister AMA Muhith, or she could stay put and leave her government exposed to the bigger risk of losing bigger chunks of credibility. That she chose the latter course is now clear before the country. Of course, as this write-up gets underway, the government readies itself for a response to the World Bank, clearly as a way of reassuring the international lending agency that things are or will be in order.
That does not mean, though, that the arguments of the government as they are offered to the World Bank will be convincing enough for the latter to change its mind about withholding the $1.2 billion it had earlier promised for the Padma Bridge. The reasons are all out there in the open. The Bank has named the minister for communications in its missive to the government. And there are all the rumours flying around of other individuals, those particularly close to the prime minister, being equally linked to the corruption, or perceived corruption, over the Padma Bridge project, which is why the prime minister ought to have gone for swift action. The difficulty with governments unwilling to act against their own, to pretend that the winds will blow over, is that the longer such an attitude persists the bigger becomes the loss to the administration in terms of credibility. And what should have been the nature of the action that the country expected on the part of the government? There is a simple answer to this: Sheikh Hasina should have asked the minister for communications to resign. In the event that he refused to resign or failed to accede to the request, she could have gone for his outright dismissal. Note a caveat here, though. The World Bank's charges of corruption are yet to be investigated before one can reach any definitive conclusion that the minister, that indeed a few others along with him, are guilty of impropriety.
Let us give all these people the benefit of doubt pending the beginning and end of an inquiry. But let us note too that in politics, as in everything else in life, it is the ethical which remains the yardstick of behaviour. By that standard, the minister should have stood aside, should have left the cabinet on his own. That he did not, that the prime minister has seen little reason to ask him to go has only worsened things for the government. Perhaps more telling is the suspicion among a good number of minds that there are other skeletons in the cupboard the government is not ready to see fall out and drop to the floor. The fear is understandable. The worry for the prime minister is that by going for decisive action she could have put the future of her government at risk. The bigger truth is that by not exercising leadership over the Padma Bridge affair, she has alienated a big slice of supporters more than halfway through the government's term in office. And all of that comes against a background of mounting problems, a good number of them self-created or the result of bad policy, confronting the government.
These are not the times to ask for a reinvention of government on the part of the ruling Awami League. Authority which gets to be crippled at nearly every step of the way, despite the ruling circles commanding a huge majority in parliament, cannot be reinvented. But this authority can go for a bit of humility through going to the country and making a clean breast of how things have gone wrong, why they have gone wrong and what the government plans to do about it.
A denial mode can only add to the government's agony and the nation's discomfiture. The more terrible risk to the government, now that it stands indicted by the World Bank, is its loss of moral credibility where pursuing the corruption of its predecessor elected government is concerned. And horror will shape up if those who made a mess of things in the five years between 2001 and 2006 begin that slow march back to power.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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