The recent exchange between Abdul Jalil, Awami League General Secretary, and Dr. Alaluddin Ahmed, Adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, had laid bare some of the key rifts currently plaguing our ruling party. The Awami League (AL) currently has about four-fifths of the seats in our parliament; they also won about 49% of the vote in the last election held in December 29, 2008. Extrapolating back from this result, if elections would have been held on January 22, 2007, AL would have still had a similar majority. However, what has changed in the past two years are the individuals who would have been the key actors in an AL government.

In any government formed after AL won 2007 elections, Abdul Jalil, as General Secretary of AL, the most popular AL leader from North Bengal, and a key mastermind of the anti-BNP government tactics, would have been one of the senior ministers. The behemoth LGRD ministry, traditionally reserved for the number-twos of the party in power, would have become his personal fiefdom. He would have added his name to the illustrious list of former LGRD kingpins such as Barrister Abdus Salam Talukdar, (now President) Zillur Rahman, and Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, with a large budget, infrastructure spanning the length of Bangladesh, and a gargantuan patronage network, at his disposal.

The 2007 cabinet would also include heavyweights such as Tofael Ahmed, Abdur Razzaq, and Amir Hossain Amu, leaders with long decades of service to AL, serving in their second or third cabinet, experienced in the ways of the bureaucracy, and capable of implementing their own agenda. Sheikh Hasina would come close to, as close to as possible in our current personality-driven politics, being the primus inter pares, the first among equals in her council of ministers.

Instead, the current AL cabinet, much like the current Zimbabwe under-19 team, wears a forlorn look. Motia Chowdhury, who in those fiery days of her youth reputedly used to desire her wish to flay Sheikh Mujibur Rahman alive in no uncertain terms, is the senior minister from AL. Two of the five-most senior ministers are imports from General Ershad’s Jatiyo Party, another, Barrister Shafique Ahmed, is here in his capacity as the Prime Minister’s personal lawyer during the last two years. Both the Home Minister and the Foreign Minister are first-time MPs. Most of the other ministers and state ministers have never served in any ministry previously. The cabinet also contains, alongside several former Communist leaders, possibly Bangladesh’s first serving Communist cabinet minister, making it a matter of time before the we start hearing about the Awami League-Communist government.

Missing are Jalil, Tofael, Razzaq, Amu, Suranjit Sengupta, Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, Sheikh Selim, and the entire starting bench of AL leaders. When making this decision, Sheikh Hasina has also had to give up experience and government-savvy. As a result, the current cabinet’s newbies are still learning how to move files through their ministry’s bureaucracy, how to get project allocations for their desired projects, and how to keep DOs from dying in the bowels of their respective ministries.

As a counterweight, Hasina has hired six unelected advisers, with the rank of cabinet ministers, to shortcircuit the cabinet, report directly to her in the PMO, and keep the machinery running. As a result, this government is the most centralized administration ever to run our country. Most of the cabinet members do not have Hasina’s trust – when she had to go to Senakunjo to face down the distraught army officers, she only took Motia Chowdhury with her. The PM is having to do all the heavy-lifting by herself in quite a number of issues. While things go right, most of the cabinet will not mind going along this arrangement. But when things go wrong, as they did in February 25, PM will have to take on the blame solo. And she may find there are those within the party more than happy to point their fingers at her.

Jalil’s recent outburst, calling the current arrangement unconstitutional, is but the tip of the iceberg. The real strife between those six to eight individuals who would have been at the top of a 2007 AL cabinet, and the six to eight individuals who are at the top of the current cabinet, is just starting. Those who have been left out include those who were taken to the jail and tortured by the Caretaker Government after being identified as being personally loyal to Sheikh Hasina, and those who were used to try and oust Hasina from her party position. It will be interesting to see if they are able to make common cause, and how long it takes them to do so.

It is indeed ironic that the leader of a 230-plus member parliamentary party finds herself lonely in government. Hasina would do well to remember that strengh, at least in a democracy, lies in numbers. The alternative may not be to her liking.

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