Strange bedfellows in Bangladesh.
SOMETHING so utterly bizarre tempts the observer to suppose that one of the fundamental rules of politics in Bangladesh may no longer apply. That rule—namely, never underestimate the Awami League’s ability to shoot itself in the foot—has long stood inviolate.
Till now? The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is reported to have recommended Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel-prize-winning pioneer of microfinance and founder of Grameen Bank, to lead to the World Bank.
That’s a rather generous offer of support from the very politician who pushed Mr Yunus out of his job as the head of Grameen Bank and has very recently accused him of using his influence to make the World Bank pull the plug on funding for a $3 billion bridge in Bangladesh. The so-called Padma Bridge is set to be the country’s largest-ever infrastructure project. At some point, it should connect Bangladesh’s underdeveloped western region with the capital, Dhaka.
Bangladeshis were as surprised as anyone by Sheikh Hasina’s change of heart. “Honourable Prime Minister: You cannot be serious!!” commented a reader of the Daily Star, the country’s biggest English-language newspaper. Another reader quips that Bangladesh would soon become Switzerland, if all its politicians were as wise as the prime minister.
Few in Bangladesh doubt that Mr Yunus must be a serious contender for the job, which would bring him to Washington, DC. But many wonder why the prime minister, after working so hard to discredit Mr Yunus and having him fired, is now pitching for him to get a new one.
Sheikh Hasina is a lady not known for U-turning. Her vindictiveness, like that of her political rival Khaleda Zia, is legendary. It takes a big thing—like the Arab Spring say, which is said to have led her to scrap plans for a new airport near the capital—and that only after mass protests against the pet project that it was. (It would’ve been named after her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.)
The treatment of Mr Yunus has long annoyed Western governments, particularly America, where the microfinance pioneer has lots of fans, including the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. American officials had repeatedly warned that not being nice to Mr Yunus might affect bilateral ties. They are sure to have pondered what to do with a government which, as one official put it, “insists on spitting in the face of those who are trying to help it”.
Much to the annoyance of donors—the World Bank, ADB and the Japanese—it took the Bangladeshi government three months to get rid of a crooked-looking former communications minister, Syed Abul Hossain. The World Bank had identified him as being unable to keep his hands off the $3 billion nest egg that had was set aside on behalf of the Padma Bridge. Bangladesh’s pliable anti-corruption commission has since absolved Mr Hossain of all graft allegations. But a $1 billion loan by the IMF has not been disbursed, ostensibly because progress on reform has been slow.
The economy is wobbling, the taka has been among Asia’s worst-performing currencies and reserves are just sufficient to finance three months of imports. Money is needed to patch the fiscal hole burned by an unsustainable energy policy: power plants that run on imported fuel oil. The Bangladeshi government claims that China and investors from South-East Asia are keen to stump up the money for the bridge. That would be infrastructure development the Myanmar way (or, better make that the Cambodia way instead).
Most likely, Sheikh Hasina had to sort out relations with other donor countries. Being nice to Mr Yunus—in many ways the symbol of an increasingly hostile relationship with more liberal states—may not do the trick alone. But it is a start.