The (not so) dignified exit of a dignified man
Proving the veracity of speculations floating around for the last couple of days, Professor Atiur Rahman has 'resigned' from his position as the governor of Bangladesh Bank (BB). Without detracting from the undeniable fact that as the governor of the BB, the buck stopped with him, it may be fairly said that the 'graceful' exit of Professor Rahman has probably raised more questions than it has resolved. True that he could not rest on his laurels and like all other persons in important public positions was answerable to the government, the representative of the people. First and foremost, the chain of events over the last couple of weeks would make it extremely difficult to accept this as a graceful 'resignation'. Even approximately 48 hours prior to his resignation, there was little indication that Professor Rahman was about to resign. In fact, his interviews with the media would rather point in the opposite direction. It was only after his meeting with the honourable Prime Minister that it was revealed that he had taken this 'bold decision' and 'set a rare example'. Only insiders can know it for sure if this was a choice or a Hobson's choice.
Indeed, if Professor Rahman had to go due to troubles (though grave in terms of its magnitude) with BB, one can be excused for drawing a parallel with the scams and mismanagement in public banks, leading to the loss of huge sums of public money. One can then fairly say that the honourable Minster for Finance should have resigned years before. After all, with greater power comes greater responsibility. And some of the actors responsible for the mismanagement in public banks are not even career bankers, but rather political appointees which makes his responsibility even more pointed and inseparable.
If, for the sake of argument, we accept that the resignation is absolutely voluntary and he was not by any means shoved away from his office, the scathing criticisms of the outgoing governor by the finance minister was remarkably candid at best and uncalled for at worst. In particular, the two main accusations hurled at him were that he was audacious and irresponsible in not revealing the incident of the cyber scams to the government, and that he visited India during a crisis. On close examination, both of these allegations do not seem to be well-founded. Until now, there has been no evidence to suggest that he tried to sweep the matter under the carpet or was not taking diligent steps. Nor is there any suggestion that he was in any manner in breach of his official responsibilities. And one may agree or disagree with his explanation that secrecy was warranted as a cautionary measure. Or even after accepting the need for secrecy, there may be a squabble as to the degree and scope of the secrecy, but one cannot dismiss it altogether. It also sounds quite reasonable that with greater disclosure, there was a real danger of causing public panic which could have had a destabilising effect on the banking sector. The outgoing governor's visit to India was by no means a personal one; rather it was an official visit. And there is still no suggestion that during his visit, he indulged in actions that was not in keeping with the official nature of his visit. Even if one accepts that the actions of the outgoing governor were unjustified, one can validly question the tone of his words and the forum chosen by him to vent his frustrations. It is also remarkable that politicians from both the government and the opposition parties were baying for his head - a rare point of convergence in our national politics. So, one cannot brush aside the significant pressure that was being exerted on him.
A self-made man in a country where elitism is entrenched, Professor Rahman has been an inspiring and refreshing exception. His significant achievements in the sphere of financial inclusion cannot be underestimated even by his critics - one of the achievements of his tenure. Indeed, his rise to public fame should be an inspiration for innumerable Bangladeshis who would dare to dream big, being oblivious to the uphill challenges of their modest upbringing. Public office may have added a gloss to Professor Rahamn's resumé, but it has not been the decisive factor in his public stature. So it can be hoped that he would have a dignified life and would continue to contribute to the country without being saddled by the responsibilities of a very demanding public office. Indeed, one can hope that his practical insight would be reflected in his writings in the coming days and would be a tool for future policymakers. However, it is open to question as to whether his 'voluntary resignation' has at all set a right example, and what sort of an impact it would have on the morale of his successor-in-office. After all, in many matters, the governor of Bangladesh Bank has to rise above politics and needs to have the authority to take decisions which may not be palatable to short term political expediency.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Law, BRAC University.