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Current Affairs

Whose Advisers are They Anyway?

Shakhawat Liton

On a serene spring evening of February 3, the country's many eminent artistes, actors, authors, musicians, editors and senior citizens gathered at Ganabhaban, the official residence of the prime minister. They had gathered on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's invitation. The programme did not have any defined agenda, with the PM telling the intellectuals about her intention of arranging such a gathering in the future. She said that she had wanted to invite them much earlier but couldn't make it because of her busy schedule.

“It is difficult to manage time while in government to arrange such programmes but it is easier being in the opposition,” Hasina, also chief of the ruling Awami League told the gathering, first of its kind hosted by Hasina after she assumed office in January 2009.

Hasina, according to different newspapers' reports, was in a jovial mood and she chit chatted with eminent personalities. She sought blessings from noted personalities in fulfilling people's expectations, as she shared pleasantries with them. She hastened to add, “I want advice and cooperation from all. I want blessing of senior citizens.”

Moshiur Rahman
Gowhar Rizvi
H T Imam

Did the PM really seek advice? Or had the newspapers misquoted her? We want to sincerely believe in what the PM said and the newspapers on the following day so faithfully reported. But the reality is bleak. It discourages us to keep faith in such speeches.

Did any of our eminent citizens present at the gathering give any advice or make any suggestion to the PM? Newspapers are silent about this. Perhaps, they have refrained from making any comment considering the mood of the gathering, or maybe none of our eminent citizens liked to raise any crucial political issues to spoil the party.

They might not have given any suggestion on that particular day, but many of them have been continuously giving suggestions, advices and making requests to the government and to the opposition parties through their writings and speeches on the current political, economic and social issues. Is the PM listening to them? Is the Leader of the Opposition Khaleda Zia considering any of their suggestions? Or at the gathering, did the PM seek their advice just for the sake of courtesy? Is the PM taking advice from her party senior leaders, who have vast political experiences in the course of time?

The constitution of the AL has provisions for the formation of a 41 member's advisory council. The council will have three cells--political, economic and social. And it will work as a “think tank” of the party. Keeping the national and international situation in consideration, the council will give the party suggestions and directives. It will also carry out research, and evaluate political, economic and social issues, says the party constitution.

The AL president is empowered by the constitution to increase or decrease the number of members of the council who will also be nominated by the party chief. On advice of the party chief, any member of the advisory council may convene its meeting. The party chief will preside over the meeting.

The party's website (www.albd.org) shows a list of 24 members of the advisory council, of whom three have died. It was formed by the party chief after its July 2009 national council. The information available at the party's website shows that the formation of the council is yet to be completed.

The previous council had 46 members. Although large in size, its function was limited to almost nothing. There is no difference this time too. The present advisory council sat only twice or thrice in the last two and half a years. And the meetings have failed to yield any important result to contribute to bringing dynamism to the party activities or any change in the country's political culture in line with the party's electoral pledges made before the December 29, 2008 parliamentary polls.

The induction of some big guns of the party--Abdur Razzaq, AmirHossain Amu, Tofail Ahmed, and Suranjit Sengupta--into the advisory council has given a significant message to others. Under pressure from the army backed caretaker regime in between 2007 to 2008, the four powerful leaders, also known as RATS in the AL, called for reforms in the party, providing Sheikh Hasina with “political weapons” to make them ineffective in the party. The then AL general secretary Abdul Jalil did not do anything as such, but he earned Hasina's wrath for criticising the former's "autocratic way" of running the party.

The AL chief did not take any steps against RATS and Jalil before the parliamentary election. After assuming power, she started to pull one surprise after another, first by keeping RATS, Jalil and some other rising leaders, who were elected as MPs, out of her cabinet. She inducted some new and fresh faces in her cabinet and gave them important portfolios.

And after party council, Hasina dropped RATS from the party's presidium, the decision making body. Before the party's council, Jalil resigned as the general secretary of the AL, clearing the way for Syed Ashraful Islam to act as general secretary as per the party during the party council.

Finally, RATS and Jalil were made members of the advisory council, an ineffective body. Political analysts say that by making them ineffective Hasina has consolidated her position both in the party and in the cabinet, and her leadership in the party and cabinet is now beyond question. People holding posts in the party and in the cabinet are very loyal to her. Some mid ranking leaders including State Minister Advocate Qamrul Islam, Mahbub-ul- Alam Hanif have become important leaders of the
ruling AL.

But the way they are verbally attacking and countering the opposition parties will never contribute to the creation of a congenial political atmosphere. If the situation deteriorates, it will benefit the opposition parties politically as the ruling party will lose popularity. Party's veteran leaders could have worked to overcome the growing political crisis in light of their political wisdom, but the advisory council consisted of some senior leaders who are either dead or dysfunctional. It has already emerged as a crucial issue as to how the ruling AL will face the BN-led opposition parties' March 12 rally in the capital.

It is the other way round in the BNP, which during the past emergency regime, the BNP was split into two. But Khaleda Zia has tactfully brought all leaders excepting one or two back to her leadership. BNP is now more organised than the AL, considering at least the party's leadership at top levels.

It does not matter whether or not the AL advisory council plays an important role in running the party, PM Hasina has however evaluated some people, most of whom are former bureaucrats, and has made them advisers to the premier.

In so doing, the government in January 2009 amended its rules of business, empowering the PM to appoint as her advisers and special assistants as many persons as she deemed necessary.

The amendments authorised the premier to determine the terms and conditions of the appointments as she deems expedient for public interest and also allowed her to let any of the advisers or special assistants attend cabinet or any other government committee meetings.

Hasina has appointed seven advisers with the ranks and status of full-fledged ministers and allocated portfolios to them. Their presence at the cabinet meetings drew huge criticism on constitutional grounds as they did not take any oath. The then AL general secretary Jalil on June 25 of 2009 termed the presence of advisers at the cabinet meetings "unconstitutional".

However, criticism could not prevent the PM's advisers from attending the cabinet meetings as the premier wants them to do so. Their last three years' performance triggered enormous controversy. Some advisers speak in such a way that has created a doubt as to whether they are Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's advisers or the advisers of the PM of any other country. Chiefs of Jatiya Party and Workers Party, a major partner of the AL-led grand alliance, have recently slammed advisers for speaking “in favour of India” on some crucial issues like transit, water sharing, etc.

“Are these advisers citizens of Bangladesh or of India? They do not speak for Bangladesh, they speak for India. Where do they come from? We do not need these advisers,” Jatiya Party chief HM Ershad said at a street rally at Gazaria Bus Stand in Munshiganj in the morning of February 5. He was leading a road march towards Feni, protesting the water sharing of the Feni river with India.

But the questions that remain to be answered are: Will the situation improve? Will the PM take steps to correct her advisers? Or will she extend her support to the advisers, endorsing their controversial activities?

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