Vol. 5 Num 838 Wed. October 04, 2006  

Ground Realities
Talukdar and the politics of decency

It takes a brave heart in an individual entrusted with public responsibility to concede that he is in no position to defeat the enemies arrayed around him. And that was precisely what Anwarul Kabir Talukdar did a few days ago when he informed us that he was calling it a day.

He was quitting because he could not fulfill public expectations about electricity. That was a gentlemanly thing to do, even though there are not many in the country who would like to hold Talukdar responsible for the mess that the power sector has been in.

Even so, the minister of state chose to resign; and by doing so he revived our faith in principled men and morally driven politics. It really does not matter that the government, which in its twilight hours has been doing all sorts of queer things, has been trying to malign Talukdar through dishing out disinformation about his having been sacked.

If anything, the vindictive behaviour of the powers that be towards one of its own, or one who had been its own, speaks of the sordid levels to which government by the four-party rightwing alliance has sunk in Bangladesh.

The absence of shame we notice in the government is once more a sign of how endangered a species good men and women have become in this country, for when these men and women take it upon themselves to reveal the implied, or state the obvious, they run into deep trouble with those they choose to expose.

In a sense, the former minister of state for power did not subject anyone to humiliation or exposure. And yet he said a thousand and one things, in a manner of speaking, about his government when he decided, in his wisdom, to leave office. The focal point of Talukdar's decision to leave was the sheer courage he demonstrated in opting for life without the perks of office.

That is not something you can say about many, or anyone else, in this government. There are all the ironies involved here, in case you have failed to spot them. How about the fact that nothing that has been going wrong in the power sector could, in any way, be attributed to Talukdar's inability to do his job well? Consider the reality that he was there for a mere four months, trying to put right a system that has carefully and meticulously been subjected to all manner of corruption.

Talukdar started out well, and would indeed have done well, had the coterie, which has kept the country in its sinister grip, not come in his way. To understand how the coterie has worked in the power sector all these five years, you only have to recall the fate of Iqbal Hasan Mahmood. Of course, there were all the flaws and shortcomings that Mahmood can be accused of, and legitimately too. But when you remember the hurdles he ran into at the Prime Minister's Office, where powerful bureaucrats pulled the rug from under him and decided that he could be a minister of state without having to exercise his constitutional authority, Talukdar's predecessor was doomed.

Talukdar's arrival on the scene, therefore, was, for many, a good omen. Here was a gentleman, a sophisticate, whose background in the army, and outside it, would get things done. He made a good and necessary start by going after the bad elements in his department, and beyond it. He demonstrated his unwillingness to be a cipher when he put his foot down over the unbridled, and less than responsible, behaviour of those who manned the PMO. Naturally he was disliked, and then abhorred. Soon he was being hated. In Bangladesh, good people are, as a matter of routine, hated. Some of them are assaulted. Some others are killed.

Anwarul Kabir Talukdar, to our relief, is still around to convince us that there can be people in bad political dispensations who are willing and ready to be good and well meaning. You cannot but be surprised at the alacrity with which he took upon himself the responsibility for the chaos in the power sector. It was conscience that was bothering him.

And that, you will surely agree, was morality at work. How many Bengali ministers have, as far as you can recall, resigned of their own volition? In a country where politics and morality have increasingly become strangers to each other Talukdar was telling us, in his quiet, unsentimental way, that all was not lost yet.

When you reflect on his courage of conviction, you cannot but experience the mind in you dwelling on all the forces of darkness that continue to exercise their devilish sway in the society you are part of. In an institutionalised democracy Talukdar would have prevailed in his campaign against a corrupt bureaucratic-political-business establishment. He lost.

There are those of us who are, today, willing to convince ourselves that the retired major general may have lost a battle. As Charles de Gaulle would so enthusiastically agree, Talukdar has not lost the war, for we are all engaged in that war against the medieval forces which seek to push, and then twist, the knife into our modern sensibilities.

In essence, we feel better as a people because of Talukdar's conscious decision to resign. The courage he has demonstrated is what puts all those others who have hung on to their jobs in the government to deep shame. Because it is those people, with incompetence and corruption writ large across their careers, who should have walked away from power. They have not, which again says a whole lot about the principles, or the lack of them, they have based their performance, or the lack of it, on in these terrible five years.

It is a political society of scapegoats we have created for ourselves. The ones responsible for the irresponsibility they have brought into their work have always sought to point the finger at those who have considered power a sacred public trust. And then there have been the helpless ministers who have known how badly they have failed, and yet have miserably stayed on. The record of bad administration that has been created in the years since the last general elections should have been enough, in an ideal democracy, for this government to submit its resignation wholesale to the president of the republic.

In the present instance, in the case of Anwarul Kabir Talukdar, it ought to have been for the minister for power (who is none other than the prime minister) to take responsibility, publicly for all the darkness that has befallen the country. She should have relinquished charge of the ministry. She did not do that, which is why Talukdar's boldness comes as a breath of fresh air.

In a country famished for want of purposeful national leadership, Talukdar has pointed out to us that it is still possible for the people of Bangladesh to expect a slim silver lining through the monsoon clouds. It may be that he will be forgotten in course of time. It may well be that we will soon not remember the selflessness in Talukdar.

But for now we are thrilled, not because he has left office but because he has upheld the cardinal rule of governmental politics: he has acknowledged his limitations in the exercise of power, and he has, therefore, walked away from the feebleness that constitutional office can sometimes transmute itself into.

In politics nothing can be more demeaning for an individual's self-esteem than the hollowness which sometimes comes with holding office. Men and women with dignity know when to leave, or how long to stay. It is the shameless and the sycophantic who hang on till the last ray of the setting sun has become entwined with the first grey thread of dusk.

More than three decades ago, the respected Tajuddin Ahmed walked away from power, and breathed not a word of complaint about having to do so. AM Zahiruddin Khan, in his time, knew that holding on to office beyond the remit of morality was dangerous, and unbecoming for men such as he. He found his way out of government.

In these times, when hordes of ministers and ministers of state go on doing all the wrong things; or keep going through the pressure brought to bear on them; or lack the will to cast aside the power that gives them so much protocol, and so many perks, and nothing more, Anwarul Kabir Talukdar's departure from political office causes a cathartic change in us all.

We do not lionise him. We do not shower greatness on him. But we do know that in him, and in people like him, there are the sparks that often make heroes of individuals. Talukdar's bravery deserves a salute and a thank you. We give these to him in good measure.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier.