Vol. 4 Num 294 Fri. March 26, 2004  
Front Page

Surprise Cabinet Shake-up
Khosru, Reaz quit
Altaf to head commerce ministry

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia reshuffled her cabinet yesterday dropping Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury and Reaz Rahman and reassigning Altaf Hossain Chowdhury as the new commerce minister.

Highly placed sources said, asked by the prime minister, Khosru tendered his resignation as the commerce minister and Reaz as the state minister for foreign affairs. President Iajuddin Ahmed readily accepted resignation of both.

Yesterday's surprise cabinet shuffle, the third one of the alliance government, made Reaz an advisor to the foreign ministry, with his previous status intact.

The changes have left State Minister Lutfozzaman Babar alone at the helm of the home ministry.

Expressing his reaction, Altaf said, "I have not been removed, but promoted."

Without explaining why he had abandoned his office, Khosru said, "I have quitted the cabinet but not the parliament."

Khosru's resignation yesterday afternoon came amid widespread criticism, even from his fellow ruling-party lawmakers, of the commerce ministry for its failure to rein in the price-spiral of essentials and other commodities.

But, highly placed sources said conflict with a very senior minister and refusal to meet some demands of an influential quarter mainly led to Khosru's expulsion from the cabinet.

Responding to a question on whether the prime minister asked him to resign, Khosru said, "I don't want to comment on that."

However, sources said Khaleda Zia took the decision to remove Khosru after ruling BNP lawmakers in a recent parliamentary party meeting expressed serious dissatisfaction at the performance of several ministers, particularly of the commerce minister for his failure to contain the price spirals of essentials.

The price hike in soyabean oil, onion and other essentials during the last Ramadan made this former business magnate turned minister apparently unpopular, with many alleging that he was not trying enough to bring the prices down. Most recently, unusual price hike of rods was followed by milk powder.

Another sensitive issue that went against Khosru was his role in allowing a trade office of Taiwan to operate in Dhaka, which enraged China and prompted it earlier this month to warn Bangladesh of 'unimaginable consequences.'

It is learnt Khosru was called to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) at 11 yesterday morning from Rajmoni Ishakha Complex where he was participating in the inaugural session of an international fair.

During the meeting, Khaleda asked Khosru to resign for failing to keep the market prices under control. "You aren't needed to be a minister anymore," she was quoted as saying by a PMO source. Khosru then submitted his resignation citing personal reasons to the premier and went straight back to his Gulshan residence.

Immediately after Khsoru, the PM summoned Reaz Rahman, the state minister for foreign affairs from technocrat quota, and asked him to resign, which he did right away.

It is also learnt that the PM, after getting the two resignation letters from Khsoru and Reaz on her table, called in three senior cabinet colleagues -- Finance Minister M Saifur Rahman, LGRD and Cooperatives Minister Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Health Minister Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain -- and updated them on the situation.

Later, the PM also discussed the matter with her Parliamentary Affairs Advisor Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury.

Sources close to Khsoru said the main reason behind the resignation was his conflict with Saifur Rahman. There has been serious antagonism between these two and they even exchanged hot words several times at some recent cabinet meetings.

Competent sources said the fate of Khosru became uncertain since he declined to lease out a huge area of land to the son of an influential minister, which generated the heat between the two ministers. Though the land was leased out later but the two never became close again.

Besides, in recent days, some influential quarters have also been pressing the resigned commerce minister to issue licence for import of salt.

His excessive media coverage also made many senior ministers annoyed or in other words jealous.

The news of Khosru's resignation triggered extensive speculation across the country yesterday. Phone calls started to stream in newspaper houses from afternoon enquiring 'what really happened in the cabinet'.

Many people even tagged the cabinet-change with the April-30 deadline prophesied by Awami League for the fall of the alliance government. Some again asked whether the resigned ministers were leaving the BNP for the alternative political stream of Badruddoza Chowdhury.

Khosru, however, brushed aside such speculations. "I was in the politics of BNP and I will be there," he told The Daily Star, adding, "I don't believe in the politics of party-hopping."

The newly made Commerce Minister Altaf too was widely criticised for his failure to maintain law and order and for blurting out words on crimes and victims from time to time that sound insensible. A number of groups have also been demanding his resignation, most recently after the attack on writer Humayun Azad.

A good few BNP parliamentarians have been asking for downsizing the cabinet to a maximum of 30 members and removal of the corrupt ministers, in order to save the government's image from becoming unpopular. At a meeting last week, they also criticised the government's failure to improve law and order and arrest the price hike.

The public resentment generated in recent times by Altaf's failure in improving the law and order ran so deep that businesspeople in old Dhaka launched an intense movement while top business leaders of the country were issuing repeated statements demanding serious steps to improve the situation.

Altaf's effigies have been burnt many times by agitating people demanding his resignation, as the average number of daily killings has gone up to 12 from 10 two years ago.

When asked about the resignation of the two ministers and the cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister's Political Secretary M Harris Chowdhury said, "It's a continuous process. The prime minister can bring changes in portfolios and drop or reshuffle the cabinet to meet the demand of the time. It is one of the prerogatives of the prime minister."

On May 22 last year, in her second cabinet reshuffle, Khaleda dropped seven ministers and changed portfolios of another 11, cutting down the rather large size of the cabinet to 53 members from 60.

The first shuffle was made on March 11, 2002 through changing portfolios of four ministers.

Related stories:
arrow Khosru rules out leaving BNP
Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, who resigned as commerce minister yesterday citing 'personal reasons', has ruled out leaving the BNP and joining former president Badruddoza Chowdhury's alternative political
arrow Altaf terms it a promotion
New Commerce Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury yesterday termed his portfolio change a promotion, hours after the former home minister replaced Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury in a third shake-up of the cabinet.
arrow Reshuffle draws mixed reactions
The sudden cabinet reshuffle has drawn mixed response from the ruling BNP.