Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sheikh Hasina’s ‘Hard Talk’ with BBC World

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her Hard Talk interview with BBC World in London, broadcast four times on July 31, was patently hitting hard at her interviewer, hurling back questions in response to questions.

She simply stuck to her guns, unwavering about her expressed position, right or wrong, over her own versions of factual and statistical representation (or misrepresentation) of issues raised. Nevertheless, the interviewer Stephen Sackur, by dint of well-researched, polite and incisive questions, left the general impression that our poor country Bangladesh was in trouble, at the dire mercy of an illiberal ruler and a self-righteous blusterer.

As a sample, I quote hereunder a section of the interview wherein she evades a straight answer to why she was refusing to publish the World Bank’s letters about alleged corruption in the Padma Bridge project:

BBC: The World Bank sent a letter outlining their concerns, there were at least four different itemised concerns about corruption, now you have the opportunity to publish that letter to tell the Bangladeshi people exactly what the concerns were. You constantly refused to do that, why will you not publish that letter?

PM: You cannot do that because there is an embargo.

BBC: No, the World Bank is happy to do that.

PM: No it is not true. They cannot do it.

BBC: Of course they can, they say …

PM: Then ask them to publish.

BBC: But they say they cannot publish.

PM: Why not? Why not?

BBC: Because that’s how World Bank’s relationship with individual states work. You have the right, they do not.

PM: Listen, the letter doesn’t mean anything. They could not supply any substantial proof with that letter. Just a letter cannot prove there is corruption. Time and again we asked them [for proof].

BBC: The opposition says that the letter points at you and other senior figures of your government, is that true?

PM: Listen, you can point at anybody and the opposition can do it. It is the opposition’s job. My point is, our Anti-Corruption Commission is already investigating it and they asked the World Bank to send all the documents and they refused to send. Now my question is if they have substantial proof why they refused to send all the papers and documents they have? They are not giving [those], I personally want it. At first, they sent two letters to me that was not my government, not my ministers. I pointed out this was the previous government. So you give me the proof. Twice they did it but they could not prove. So, unnecessarily you cannot just accuse anyone without substantial proof ... that is important.

BBC: Prime Minister, let me put it this way. It seems a shame for the Bangladeshi people, many of them living in dire poverty that your relationship with the World Bank has soured so badly. It also seems a shame for the Bangladeshi people that your relationship with one of the most respected business leaders in your country, the Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus has also soured so badly.

Indeed, the suggestion that Sheikh Hasina’s own name came up on account of close family members who might have been implicated in a World Bank letter on Padma Bridge project appears to have been derived from wild speculations amongst white-collared Bangladeshis settled or in sojourn abroad. Rumour is rife in North America that a couple of her close relations came under investigation of Canadian Mounted Police who have already prosecuted two functionaries of a big consultancy company on charges of a bribery deal. The couple is said to have fled Canada. Their passports may have been impounded or cancelled in absentia. In Bangladesh also, BNP leader Barrister Moudud is said to have hinted in a television talk-show that he heard about close relations of the Prime Minister who have fled North America under the shadow of corruption investigations, and they now live in Bangladesh unable to go back.

In North America, it is further rumoured that Bangladesh Prime Minister’s renewed moves to pin down Grameen Bank founder Professor Mohammad Yunus for financial irregularities are prompted by her desperation to find a quid pro quo bargaining chip for out-of-court “political” settlement of charges under investigation against her close relations. Her advisers are rumoured to have cited the example of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, who made “political bargains” with the USA to persuade the-then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to promulgate a law to condone and by state intervention halt the proceedings in a Swiss court against Zardari and Benazir Bhutto. Unfortunately, the rumours suggest, there is no political meat in the bargain purported to be sought by Sheikh Hasina, whereas clearance for Benazir-Zardari for return to power game in Pakistan in the context of America’s war in Afghanistan and a failing Musharraf in Pakistan was a weighty geopolitical choice, however unsavoury.

Bangladesh Prime Minister’s latest moves against Professor Yunus also appear to have stumbled on a false start. By cabinet decision, Bangladesh Bank and the National Board of Revenue (NBR) were ordered to find out whether the earnings abroad of Prof. Yunus and foreign contributions obtained by him for Grameen Bank and other companies were regular and properly taxed. It transpired that Grameen Bank has been allowed tax-free status on all forms of income by the NBR up to December 2015. Capital inputs are not taxable any way. Under a gazette notification by the Internal Resources Division dated 13 July, 2004, all foreign earnings brought into Bangladesh was declared tax-free, irrespective of the beneficiary being resident or non-resident in Bangladesh. The Grameen Companies are registered with the Income Tax Department as regular tax-payers. The basis for investigation for possible tax-evasion therefore hardly holds.

The other investigation instituted by cabinet order is whether the salaries drawn by Professor Yunus as Managing Director, after he became age-barred under Bangladesh Bank regulation of age limit for Commercial Bank Managing Directors (Grameen Bank is not a commercial bank and was formed under a separate act), were illegally drawn. Professor Yunus obtained only due-remunerations for his services. If there was any irregularity in his continuing as Managing Director, the onus lied with the Board of Directors including government representatives who appointed him and insisted on his continuing in service, and with Bangladesh Bank which failed to raise any objection until 2010. The appointee cannot be held responsible for being duly remunerated for duties performed. The witch-hunt is therefore more for propaganda than for substance.

It is for propaganda without substance again that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made, in her BBC-World interview, a faux pas claiming that her government has reduced poverty by 10% in 3 years compared to meagre performance by Grameen Bank. Here is what she said:

BBC: Why did you call him (Prof. Mohammad Yunus) a bloodsucker of the poor?

PM: You go to Bangladesh, you see with your eyes, then you will see. But how could he say I said it? Did I mention his name? I didn’t. I said someone. But why it occurred in your mind …

BBC: Sorry, so let’s be clear about this. So are you now denying that you have said Mohammad Yunus is a bloodsucker of the poor?

PM: No, I am not denying anything. I am putting a question to you, why it occurred in your mind that it is him? Why?

BBC: I have been reading the Bangladeshi press, everybody it seems in the Bangladeshi media believes that you referred to him directly when you used this phrase “a bloodsucker of the poor.” If you want to retract or if you want to tell me you didn’t mean him, then that’s fine.

PM: Listen, listen, I am telling one thing. Taking interest 40%, 30% or 45% from these poor people—is it fair? It is not. How can these poor people stand by themselves? If you lend money and take 35 to 45% interest, it’s a shame.

BBC: So the entire model built by Grameen Bank and Mohammad Yunus which has been celebrated around the world as a way of lifting poor people out of poverty—you are saying you do not accept it, you do not want it.

PM: I want that there should be an enquiry [to know] how many people have come out from poverty because of that. If there’s one village, how many people? Poverty reduction has been done by my government. Within three years we reduced poverty by 10%. So it is our government. And about this Grameen Bank, it is a government statutory body ... it was established by government.

The Prime Minister conveniently forgot that over three decades, poor members of Grameen Bank had saved bit by bit to build 97% of the capital of Grameen, which is also their bank by existing statue, whereas the government failed to place reciprocal capital contribution after the initial share money, and was thereby reduced to 3% shareholding only. Her suggestion that Grameen is a Government bank comes from command economy mentality. If the Grameen Bank Act makes it a government body, then any Chamber of Commerce and Industry or any sectoral Association functioning under relevant statutes also becomes a government body. A private members’ club wherein government servants have special privileges and are registered under Societies’ Act also becomes a government body. They are not. They are simply government-recognised bodies.

Speaking about poverty reduction, citizenry in Bangladesh see it and know very well, even if the outside world may not, that in three years of Sheikh Hasina’s current rule, the poor have become poorer by sustained price spiral and crises in all sectors of production and employment. Small savers have been pauperised by chronic sickness of the share markets after repeated scams. Even the vulnerable group development or other welfare and relief programmes of the government have only nominally reached the poor after meeting heavy rent-seeking demands of government functionaries and ruling party spongers at various levels. On paper there is no real statistical evidence of poverty reduction either in the last three years. There is evidence of growth that fed fat racketeers and land grabbers, and bloated the black economy under government protection and beyond the reach of the poor.

The BBC interviewer Stephen Sackur saved his trump card in his HARD talk with Sheikh Hasina till near the end. He candidly suggested that perhaps it was time for Sheikh Hasina (and Khaleda Zia) to step down to allow “new” leadership to step in and run Bangladesh affairs. Here is the vainglorious rebuttal he obtained:

PM: We have the vision—Vision 2021. Already we have adopted our programmes, the sixth five-year plan for dynamic development. We have already started implementing it. And up to 2021, we have mission to develop the country and the long term programme. So I believe that I can bring change because my politics is for people. I do politics not only to bring changes to our politics but also I want to make sure that our people get their basic needs, fundamental rights, and through that way I am working. So I believe that only I can do it.

BBC: As you said this, another question popped up in my mind. “Only I can do this,” you said. In Bangladesh, there is a long struggle between you and Khaleda Zia. So the best thing for Bangladesh is introducing a different political view. So leave the stage for new.
PM: If people want.

BBC: You want to run the country again.

PM: Of course, I will do, if my party permits me. If my people permit me. I do politics for my people, for my party. I mean it is not “I”, it is my party. Actually, I should have used the word “our.”

BY :   Sadeq Khan.