About ten years ago, Zafar Iqbal wrote a piece in the Prothom Alo. While commenting on the general political situation, he noted that it was not true, as many people insisted, that all politicians had become corrupt and devoid of principles. As an example, Iqbal cited a member of Parliament who had recently been on the same flight with him. Upon arriving at ZIA, Iqbal recounted, he had expected a big, shiny SUV to come and pick the other person up. Instead, the lawmaker had suggested that they walk a little distance from the airport before getting a scooter, because the scooters right in front of the airport charged inflated fares.
At that time, Iqbal kept secret the identity of this person. However, in the subsequent years, it became known that he was talking about Nurul Islam Nahid, then a lawmaker from Sylhet and chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education. No one would dispute Iqbal’s characterization of Nahid as an honest and principled person. Currently the Minister of Education, he belongs to the select group of Bangladeshi politicians who are doubly on the side of the angels: aside from being an AL politician, he also has a distinguished record of service on behalf of the Left, which means that he has a ready-made fan base amongst Bangladesh’s media personnel.
However, the media seems to be failing Nahid at a crucial point of his career. Earlier this month, he finalized a list of schools across Bangladesh that would be included in the MPO (Monthly Pay Order), which meant that the government would pay the a percentage of the salary of the teachers of a school, as long as that school met certain performance criteria. As anyone with some familiarity with the job situation in rural Bangladesh knows, there is vicious competition for these teaching jobs. And since inclusion in the MPO means a steady stream of pay-checks, inclusion in the MPO is also hotly contested, especially given that there are always more schools applying for inclusion than there are funds available.
Now, the first version of the MPO that Nahid compiled and submitted to the Cabinet was touted by Nahid as being scrupulously fair and adhering to government guidelines. In practical terms, this meant that he chose those schools that had the best performance or were in remote area without other schools nearby. This offended a lot of Awami League lawmakers, who saw their own recommendations ignored as a result. The heat that was generated from Nahid’s MPO can be seen from the fact that the Prime Minister, after initially asking Nahid to update the list, had to backtrack. Ultimately, she asked her Education Adviser, Dr. Alauddin Ahmed, to compile an edited version of the list.
Now, this is interesting on several levels. Hasina has quite an iron grip on the current RATS-less Cabinet. That they went against her decision to allow Nahid to compile the edited list, and did so with enough heat to change the PM’s mind, means that this was well out of the ordinary. However, as stated above, it is hard not to be at least a little sympathetic to the plight of the other Awami League ministers. Inclusion in a MPO can often mean the difference between eating and starving for a rural family; I dare anyone to look into the eyes of a young supplicant whose future depends on the MPO and not feel sympathetic.
Now, what has made this more extraordinary is the fact that the media has largely kept silent on the issue. Here we have an elected lawmaker compiling a list by adhering to government principles; only to see that list revoked for not pandering enough to partisan politics. Then, the responsibility is shifted from the elected lawmaker to an unelected technocrat at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Not democracy at its finest.
However, instead of coming out strongly in this matter, most newspapers have taken a curiously muted position. They have pointed to the inclusion of Shahid Abul Kashem College, an education institution in Lalmonirhat named after the father of former BNP Minister of State Asadul Habib Dulu, as evidence that the list was flawed. After taking over, Dr. Alauddin promptly cancelled the inclusion of the school in the MPO. Incredibly, it fell to Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury to point out the obvious fact that the students of a school named after the father of an opposition politician had as much right to getting an education as students at any other educational institutions (for a different take, see A. B. M. Musa here). When Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury is the voice of reason in a matter, something is amiss.
This matter has created the unfortunate precedent of a technocratic appointee stepping in to resolve disputes in the Cabinet. It will also discourage any future government official who will go against his party to take principled action. While Nahid lives on to fight another day, the greatest hit has been to the small minority of government officials left in Bangladesh who are willing to work without dispensing undue favors to any lobby. This incident will be a further blow to them.