<i>The reform man</i>
An assiduous person that he was, Bangladesh's longest serving finance minister M Saifur Rahman was loved by the audience for his serious remarks laced with humour, often in his own Sylheti dialect. Wherever he was, he always carried an air of freshness in ideas, vigorous conviction and straightforwardness. And through decades of his political career and wisdom, Saifur almost became a true statesman, often criticising his own party stances on issues such as hartal and anti-privatisation sabre-rattling. Inside his party, he was one of the few saner heads respected across the file and rank.
Saifur Rahman's political mindset was moulded while he was a student and he actively engaged himself in different progressive organisations and movements. He participated in the Language Movement in 1952 when he was the vice-president of Dhaka Muslim Hall for which he also had to land in jail.
He joined Ziaur Rahman's Jatiyatabadi Gonotantrik Dal, which was later transformed into BNP. From then on Saifur decisively worked for the party, planning its political and economic visions. His quick mind for figures made him the natural candidate for the post of finance minister spanning over a few decades.
Known as a great reformist, Saifur had the unique record of placing 12 annual national budgets since independence of Bangladesh in 1971. He had initiated a great many economic policy reforms that still pay off dividends. The best-known steps he had taken were the introduction of value added tax (VAT) and floating the exchange rate--both actions needed a lot of courage and attracted criticism. But then his wisdom paid off.
Saifur would be remembered for a few other things also. He was always unfazed in his mission for trade liberalisation, downsizing the state-owned enterprises and balancing the budget. Looking back, one would still wonder how delicately he handled the case of shutting down the white elephant Adamjee Jute Mills. One would think he was a donor-man after all.
But that was the whole of Saifur Rahman. He had actually taken tremendous pressures of the IMF and the World Bank on many counts and did not go for wanton liberalisation and he had been openly critical of the donor prescriptions. For his bold decisions, the economy did not slip into deep crisis by following IMF diktats blindly.
In retrospect, it could be said that Saifur was pragmatic in his approach and did not dither to accept mistakes. It was he who had first appeared in a conference soon after his party's debacle in the 1996 elections that the Awami League won and very candidly accepted the fact that the BNP lost the race because of its own mistakes. Then he offered his party's hand in development efforts. Such a gesture in our political standards was rare indeed.
But then the sunset time for Saifur also approached when young Turks of the BNP led by Tarique Rahman had held a sway over the party and the government since 2001. He was further weakened by the activities of some of his family members.
Finally, he was mired in controversy when he was made acting chairperson of the BNP at a controversial meeting of the BNP standing committee in the name of reforming the party during the last caretaker government's tenure while BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was behind bars.
But Saifur was always a pragmatic person. He retired from politics after he could not make it to the parliament in the election. He was spending his last days before yesterday's fatal accident at home with a weak health.