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          Volume 11 |Issue 16 | April 20, 2012 |


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Current Affairs

The Railgate

Shakhawat Liton

In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal had rocked the US. It was the result of the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington DC and the Nixon administration's desperate attempt to cover up its involvement in it. But the situation went beyond the government's control. Facing almost certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and a strong possibility of a conviction in the Senate, President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The political scandal also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 people, including dozens of top Nixon administration officials.

Gerald Ford, Nixon's successor, later exonerated Nixon, who proclaimed his innocence until his death in 1994. In his official response to the pardon, Nixon said that he "was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.”

Politicians in our part of the world never learned from the Watergate. The apparent fact is that Prime Minister Hasina demonstrated political wisdom by not making attempts to cover up Suranjit Sengupta's alleged involvement in the scandal. She did not defend Suranjit the way she did in the past when erstwhile Communications Minister Syed Abdul Hossain's alleged involvement in corruption damaged her cabinet's image, leading to the suspension of World Bank's funding of the Padma bridge project.

Rather Hasina seems to have tried to keep her cabinet's image clean this time by asking Suranjit to step down. Abul Hossain is fortunate as he did not have to resign--he was just removed from the communications ministry and put at the helm of another one. Compared to Abul, Suranjit, therefore, who took oath as a minister at the end of November last year for the first time in his long political career, is ill-fated. Critics may say Hasina did not defend Suranjit as the latter was not in her good books due to his role during the emergency regime. Mysteriously though, he has been made a minister without portfolio.

Some may argue that the magnitude of the scandal seems to have rocked Bangladesh much more than the one involving the Padma bridge project.

Suranjit Sengupta, Photo: Star File

Suranjit came under fire following the seizure of Tk 70 lakh from the microbus of his APS Omar Faruq Talukder by Border Guard Bangladesh members in the capital on April 9. The microbus driver, Ali Azam Khan, drove the vehicle into the BGB headquarters, having been refused Tk 5 lakh as a share of the amount reportedly extorted from job seekers. Faruq, Railway General Manager (East) Yusuf Ali Mridha and Railway's Dhaka Divisional Security Commandant Enamul Huq were in the vehicle which was headed towards Suranjit's home. In the wake of surging criticism, APS Faruq was sacked and Mridha and Enamul were suspended on April 15 for their alleged involvement in the scandal.

But as they could not contain the rising flame of criticism, Suranjit made hasty efforts to save himself by terming the incident as a conspiracy to ruin his political image. But people did not believe him. In an online opinion survey, The Daily Star asked the question– “Do you agree with Railway Minister Suranjit Sengupta that the 70-lakh scam is a well orchestrated ploy to ruin his political image?” “No”—answered 83.9 percent people out of a total 1211.

Media reports suggest Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself did not buy the explanation Suranjit gave at a meeting on April 15.

He however reiterated that he did not have any “direct or indirect” link with the money. Although, Suranjit has taken all responsibilities, saying his party – Awami League – or the government has nothing to do with the scandal, reality looks quite different. Suranjit has acted rather generously by making such comments; the cabinet cannot avoid the responsibility since it is a collective body, which functions collectively. Controversial activities of any cabinet member can taint the image of the cabinet. Similarly, unruly behaviour of an MP may damage image of the ruling party.

Government policymakers and ruling party leaders may think that Suranjit's resignation would contribute to regaining the image of the government. The Railgate scandal is a tip of the iceberg of unbridled corruption in the government administration. There are besides other major failures including the stock market crash that have made the Hasina administration unpopular. Moreover, unruly behaviour of some ruling Awami League MPs has tainted the government's image. Take Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan, who has openly sided with drivers who were held responsible for killing people in frequent road accidents. He has also demanded that the government legalise extortion in the transport sectors.

Since assuming office in January 2009, Hasina has been warning ministers and MPs of stern actions against unruly behaviour and corrupt practices. But before Suranjit's resignation, there was no noticeable measure to substantiate the effectiveness of the PM's warning. Similarly, the parliament also could not demonstrate its strong role against corruption the way the US parliament had done in the Watergate scandal. As our parliamentarians fail to rise beyond narrow partisan interests, the cabinet led by the PM remains unaccountable. And lack of action against corruption, of course, encourages the corrupt to take the life blood out of country's economy.

The Railgate scandal has also exposed before us another significant and frustrating side of politics. Opposition politicians and many civil society leaders unequivocally demanded the formation of a judicial committee to probe the scandal. Their demand is a testimony to the ineffectiveness of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The anti-graft body has moved to probe into the incident, but people do not have confidence in the ACC. The ruling AL, in its electoral manifesto, has promised to take multi-pronged steps to fight grafts. But the pledges have remained unfulfilled in the last three years of the current government's tenure as corruption remains unabated. It now depends on Hasina if her administration will take steps to regain its lost image or will do nothing and watch its popularity dwindle further.


The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.



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