All the Madam’s (economic) men
(Warning: this post contains high degree of unsubstantiated speculation).
One good thing about blogging solo, or not writing op eds, is that you don’t have to follow any deadline or chase the latest headline. Blogging at UV, for example, used to involve having a timely post on whatever the major issue was in a given week. These days, on the other hand, I post on what I feel like, when I feel like. I haven’t seen the newspapers in the past 48 hours, and have no idea what’s the latest strom in the teacup. So I am going to post about a couple of speeches the BNP chairperson has given on economic matters.
The first speech was given way back on 1 December 2011. It was quickly overshadowed by some political violence or other that no one cares about any more. Well, no one cares about the speech either – evidently even BNPwallahs have forgotten it, because I can’t find a link to it anywhere. And that’s a pity, because unlike most political speeches, this one was based on facts and figures, stressing various macroeconomic imbalances apparent in the economy at that time.
The second speech is more recent, delivered just before the 2012-13 Budget. It is also more elaborate. Considerable amount of time is spent on setting the scene. From the Padma Bridge fiasco to the new ‘political’ banks to the rental power plants, Khaleda Zia criticizes the government with not Paltan maidan style rhetoric, but jargons one might find in the Wall Street Journal. Her basic macroeconomic story about government profligacy and IMF loan are based on facts. Of course, it being macroeconomics, one can counter her doom and gloom with rosier stories. But overall, Mrs Zia’s economic story is far more sensible than what Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are running on.
This raises the obvious question – who is the Madam listening to? Obviously, she didn’t write the speeches herself. Even her most ardent supporter will not claim she is econ-savvy. Who are the Madam’s economic men?
As the (to my knowledge) only English language blogger who writes about Bangladeshi economic affairs, obviously I have a curiosity about who are in BNP’s economic team (and who might get various econocrat jobs in a possible future BNP government). So whenever I get the chance, I ask people —neta, uponeta, juboneta, their friends and family, journalists, random retired people who look really knowledgable, random young people who like to show off their connections — about their view on this.
Until recently, MK Anwar was pretty much everyone’s first prediction as finance minister. But everyone also said ‘he might not want it because he is too old’. These days, people say ‘MK Anwar would have been good but he doesn’t want it’. Then the conversation moves to the qualities needed for the job. There seems to be some broad agreement that it should be a retired public servant with right qualifications. One name that comes up is Sabihuddin Ahmed. Another one, more surprisingly, is Kamal Siddiqui.
Among the non-civil servants, Moin Khan and Abdul Awal Mintoo are named for some economy-related job. Then there are academics like Dhaka University’s Mahbubullah or SOAS’s Mushtaq Khan and civil society types like Hossain Zillur Rahman. And finally, some relatively young (that is, below 50) Bangladeshi economists serving in economic institutions (both public and private) in the west are rumoured to have been approached.
At this stage, let me reiterate the disclaimer at the top – this is unsubstantiated speculation. Let me also stress that I don’t necessarily believe or disbelieve any of these speculations. I do think that it’s very important that the finance minister is someone who can manage the bureaucracy, corporate lobbyists and foreign stakeholders. Regulatory reform is a low hanging fruit in Bangladesh, but to do so means taking on the vested interest of corrupt bureaucrats/businessmen/politician. Both late Saifur Rahman and SAMS Kibria could do it, but no one in the current team has the capacity. A retired bureaucrat like Kamal Siddiqui could do this. An academic like Mahbubulah I am far less sure of. Of course, ultimately the buck stops with the head of the government. Maj Gen MA Munim pushed the same reformist lines as Saifur Rahman, but whereas the accountant was supported by her boss, the general was undermined by his. Even in his last term in office, Saifur was supported by Khaleda against the Hawa Bhaban push for rental power plants or political banks. Is it AMA Muhith or the Prime Minister that should be held responsible for the Awami banks and power plants?
I have no idea what kind of prime minister BNP will have in its next turn in office. Instead of that speculation, let me note couple of tid bits from the party chief’s budget speech.
First, she quotes some foreign dignitaries claiming that Bangladesh is facing an ‘image crisis’. Readers might recall, in the old days of early 2000s, folks like Shahrier Kabir spent a lot of time and energy in foreign cities exposing the rise of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. At that time, BNP heavily criticised these activists for creating an ‘image crisis’ for the country. Of course, now Sharier Kabir is among the people who criticise Dr Yunus for airing the country’s dirty laundry in foreign capitals. BNP seems to be saying ‘look, we don’t want to go and cry before the foreigners and worsen the image crisis, but the foreigners are already saying this government has created an image crisis’. Not that it will make any difference to anyone’s thinking, but I liked the approach.
Second, BNP seems to have swallowed the connectivity kool aid. Its pledge to the nation includes a lot of nice things like addressing infrastructure deficiencies and developing human capital so that Bangladesh can be a higher middle income country by 2030. And these include: “Develop and expand multidimensional connectivity with countries of South, South East and East Asia. The Madam is going after PurboPoschim’s heart.
Or maybe not. Look at the names that keep coming up – Sabihuddin Ahmed, Kamal Siddiqui and Mahbubullah. Along with Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, these men have something in common: they were the rare leftists from the freedom fighter generation who supported the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, but never supported Awami League. There are plenty of leftists who supported Bangladesh in 1971, and from Muzaffar Ahmed to Motia Chowdhury to Rashed Khan Menon, many of them have ended up with Awami League. And there are plenty of leftists who never supported AL, but also opposed Bangladesh in 1971 – Abdul Huq or Mohammad Toaha are the famous examples. Support Mujibnagar, but not Mujib, it’s rare to find that stance – Kazi Zafar Ahmed and Manan Bhuiyan come to mind. You can throw younger men like Zillur Rahman and Mushtaq Khan in that mix. In the context of the 2010s, these guys seem to look up to China in matters economic.
I wonder what, if anything, this will that mean for BNP’s economic, and other, policy.
Acknowledgment: Tacit for the link to the pre-Budget speech, and getting me interested in the topic.