It pays to admit guilt and go for a course correction. It should be good for Bangladesh that its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, realized this before it was to be too late for the Padma Bridge project. It is a massive development project that has the potential to transform the country’s economic, social and even cultural contours. But the fate of the $2.9 billion project had become uncertain after the World Bank cancelled its loan of $1.2 billion over serious allegations of corruption. The World Bank’s decision was followed by the other three fund-providers — the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Islamic Development Bank — also putting their credit offers on hold. Ms Wajed’s first responses to the creditors’ decision amounted to blatant political posturing. Instead of taking the allegations seriously and acting on them, she tried to brush them aside. Worse, she sought to wriggle out of the mess by spinning absurd conspiracy theories. The approach was not only wrong but could also prove to be disastrous for both the country and Ms Wajed’s government. Few took her promises seriously when she said that she would cut costs on other projects so that Bangladesh could finance the project on its own.
Ms Wajed has finally given up the pretences and agreed to remove four senior functionaries, including a minister and an economic advisor to her government, in order to comply with the Bank’s conditions for reviving its loan. Whether this late exercise in damage control helps her political fortunes remains to be seen. But it certainly brightens Bangladesh’s chance of building the 6.2-kilometre bridge and using it to usher in big change.
There is a lesson for West Bengal in Bangladesh’s about turn in the Padma Bridge controversy. The political classes in the two parts of what once was united Bengal have much in common. Politics in both parts rides roughshod over economic arguments. Bitter political rivalries hold the economies to ransom in both Bengal and Bangladesh. But Dhaka seems to be learning some lessons faster than Calcutta. It may have been just a coincidence that Ms Wajed corrected her steps and had the Bank loan revived at a time when Bengal declared a new crusade against foreign investment. It is no coincidence, however, that Mamata Banerjee allied herself with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party in opposing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. Even Bangladesh knows the importance of opening up to foreign capital and its prime minister is prepared to swallow her pride in the country’s interest. But in Bengal, feuding politicians can unite only in hitting the suicidal road.