By Ashis Biswas
After a tense truce, the war of words between American liberal lobbyists and the Bangladeshi ruling establishment over the Nobel laureate economist Mohammad Yunus has returned in full fury. 50 Dhaka-based thinkers have strongly countered a recent statement issued in a leading American daily in favour of Dr. Yunus, calling it a blatant interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.
In a joint statement a few days ago,40 prominent US-based liberal citizens and thinkers had strongly urged upon the ruling Awami League government to stop harassing Dr. Yunus from carrying out his activities relating to poverty alleviation/economic empowerment of the poor. They expressed their concern over what they perceived as persistent hostility and opposition of the ruling party in Bangladesh towards Dr. Yunus and his public welfare-related work.
The famous Grameen Bank (GB) set up by Dr. Yunus, whom many regard as the founder of the pro-poor microfinance (MF) system of economic assistance, had helped millions of people conquer poverty in Bangladesh. Many of the GB’s Bangladeshi projects have been replicated by major MF institutions in India, and several countries in South and South East Asia.
Such a high-profile wrangle involving a practicing Nobel laureate economist and a popular ruling political party in a developing country, originates from what has gradually turned into a clash of personalities. Dr Yunus has for his bête noire none other than Ms.Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the powerful incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
Dhaka-based officials would find it hard to dismiss the broad charge levelled by 40 US-based liberal thinkers against the Bangladesh government through an advertisement in a major daily: Dr. Yunus has indeed been officially pulled up at different times by the government over issues relating to the functioning of the GB. His administrative powers and overall control over the bank have been curtailed over the years over what critics of the Government see as mere ‘technicalities’.
For the ruling Awami League, a far more serious charge against Dr. Yunus is his alleged involvement in the campaign against corruption on part of the administration, prior to the construction of the game-changing Padma bridge project. Serious allegations of bribe-taking and influencing procedures of tender allotment for the massive project had been made in public, which had led to the World Bank withholding its promised assistance.
Angered by developments, PM Hasina Wazed had ordered an official inquiry, but the alleged corruption could not be proved. Meanwhile, the project was delayed and building costs rose sharply. PM Hasina Wazed had a point to prove vis-à-vis the West, and the World Bank in particular.
She refused all Western financial assistance and had the road/rail bridge, one of the biggest in Asia, built with the country’s own resources. Several Chinese companies helped with the construction instead, driving home a political point: Bangladesh could take major decisions to decide its own economic destiny, without depending on the West.
A subtext to these developments was the critical role played by Dr. Yunus and his powerful backers in the Western financial establishment, including in organisations like the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc. His domestic standing vis-à-vis the ruling Awami League and the Prime Minister, never robust to start with, declined by several notches, not surprisingly.
Kolkata-based observers enjoying close links with the Awami League leadership point to the abiding hostility of top Democrat politicians in the US, including Mrs. Hilary Clinton in particular, towards the present Bangladeshi establishment. According to Dhaka-based media reports, Mrs. Clinton and PM Hasina Wazed have never had a comfortable working relationship. And included among major issues they differed on was the role of Dr. Yunus in matters relating to Bangladesh’s economic development.
There have been suggestions that the Awami League leadership was wary of the depth of Dr. Yunus’s backing among Western financial authorities. What might have queered the pitch for the economist was his suspected involvement in the country’s political process.
Some years ago, certain human rights groups and leading Bangladeshi citizens, fed up with the never-ending rivalries and violence between the Awami League and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had floated the idea of a new independent third front to contest general elections in the country. Dr. Yunus, as the leading economist of the country, would be the face of the new outfit, it was argued.
Unfortunately, for Dr. Yunus, the proposal did not win much support. Leaders of both the Awami League and the BNP were wary of the call for a so-called independent third front. They feared that Dr. Yunus, given his positive international image and significant contributions to the Bangladeshi economy, would in time emerge as a serious contender for power at the highest level. This would help neither the League nor the BNP.
Again, there was no doubt among common people in Bangladesh that the Western bloc of countries would strongly support any political outfit in which the economist would be an important leader. This would seriously increase the possibility of direct or indirect interference in the political developments within Bangladesh, which could prove disastrous in the long run.
Given such a long, bitterly contentious backdrop to the patently uneasy relationship between Dr. Yunus and the Awami League, the latest round of statements made by Western and Bangladeshi intellectuals and public thinkers about his exact status, adds one more volatile chapter within a bitterly-contested ongoing political narrative war, whose end has not yet come. (IPA Service)