Hasina: Sink or swim?
Oct. 20: Saturday was another thanks-giving day in Dhaka when 60-odd more “Friends of Bangladesh” were felicitated for their contribution to the 1971 war for the country’s liberation.
Over the next few weeks, Sheikh Hasina would be anxiously waiting to see if “foreign friends” can manage to rescue her — and Bangladesh — from one of the biggest crises it has ever faced.
When the World Bank cancelled its proposed loan of $1.2 billion for the $ 2.9-billion Padma Bridge Multipurpose Project last June on corruption concerns, Bangladesh’s communications minister Obaidul Quader called on “foreign friends” to try and persuade the Bank to reconsider its decision.
The time has come for Dhaka to know if the World Bank funds will finally flow for the single-biggest project in Bangladesh’s brief history.
Last week, a World Bank team held a series of meetings with officials of Bangladesh’s anti-corruption commission to find out what they have done about the corruption charges in the Padma bridge project. This followed a decision by the Bank last month to reconsider its loan commitment.
But the funds would come only if the Bank was satisfied that its charges were being properly probed not only by Bangladeshi officials but also by external experts. Dhaka now awaits the Bank’s response to its team’s findings.
The Padma Bridge scandal, as it came to be known after the Bank decided to cancel its loan offer, rocked Hasina as nothing else has done so far. Some analysts even thought it could turn out to be the beginning of the end of her rule — as Singur proved to be for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the long reign of the CPM in Bengal.
The conflict over the Padma bridge project is over corruption charges and not land acquisition, as it was in Singur. The similarity is in the high political stakes. “Hasina herself made the bridge a make-or-break issue for her political career,” says a former diplomat who would not like to be identified.
Bhattacharjee wanted the Nano factory at Singur to be the symbol of a resurgent Bengal. For Hasina, the bridge over the mighty Padma was to change the face of Bangladesh. It would not only connect Dhaka with 16 southwestern districts of the country but also change its economy, social and cultural geography and much else.
Once the bridge is completed, boats may still ply on the Padma but neither the river nor Bangladesh will be the same ever again. For centuries, crossing the Padma by boat was how the people living in that land reached out to the world. The bridge will consign all that to history.
For Hasina, though, politics, not history, is what matters about the Padma bridge project. She made it the big dream that she could sell to the people in order to win another election next year. It was one big change that could save or sink her, much like the dream of a new, industrialised Bengal that Bhattacharjee held out from the green fields of Singur and then Nandigram.
He sank when the dream that Singur symbolised was shattered. Could the failure to build the Padma bridge, that too over corruption charges, sink Hasina?
Her critics are sure it would. Even Awami League leaders and loyalists are worried that it could.
Hasina herself knew the dangers that the Bank decision to withdraw from the project held out. She fretted and fumed, blamed “vested interests” in Bangladesh for conspiring to prejudice the Bank against Bangladesh and made a promise, which no one took seriously, to have the bridge built with Bangladesh’s own resources.
Her lieutenants sought to make the Bank decision an issue of national honour. “I think the World Bank has insulted the country,” Bangladesh’s finance minister A.M.A. Muhith told its parliament days after the cancellation of the Bank loan agreement. “It can’t blame a country or hurt the dignity of its people by making baseless or imperfect allegations.”
All this was claptrap. As the Bank stuck to its guns, Hasina’s men initiated desperate rescue efforts. “Foreign friends” were not only urged but also pushed to take up Dhaka’s case.
“The Bank was not going to be influenced by political or diplomatic pressure as it had irrefutable evidence of the ‘conspiracy for corruption’ and even named six individuals involved in it,” said a well-known engineering expert in Dhaka who was on the committee that evaluated the project design.
It gradually dawned on Hasina that the Bank would not budge unless some concrete steps were taken to satisfy it. Several people involved in the project in various capacities were removed from their positions. They included a minister and the economic affairs adviser to the Prime Minister, Mashiur Rahman.
Only after these steps were taken, the Bank “revived” its commitment to the project. But her worries are not over yet. Corruption may not be a deciding issue in a country that tops the Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries every year.
“If she delivers on the promise about the Padma bridge, the corruption charge may not stick. If she can’t, it’s not so much the corruption as the failure to deliver the big promise that will hurt her,” said Rehman Sobhan, the economist who heads Dhaka’s well-known think-tank, Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Some analysts, though, think that the Padma bridge may not make a big electoral difference for Hasina. “She has to worry more about the law and order situation, about what the Chhatra League (the student wing of the Awami League) cadres are doing on the campuses and about the price rise,” said a former Indian high commissioner in Dhaka.
The Bank’s decision to reconsider the loan agreement has made Hasina breathe easy. She may have to thank her “foreign friends”, including good, old India, if foreign funds finally start flowing for the bridge over the Padma.