Exiting without graceby Nadim Jahangir
SURANJIT Sengupta’s resignation came a week after one of his aides and two railway officials were going to his residence around midnight when the driver of the microbus they were in reportedly pulled over near a check post inside the Pilkhana headquarters of the Border Guards Bangladesh and screamed that there were stashes of bribe money inside the vehicle. An amount said to be as high as Tk 70 lakh with no known source of origin was reportedly found in the microbus. However, different newspapers reported that the amount could be up to Tk 1.5 crore.
On April 15, Suranjit was summoned to the official residence of the prime minister, where he was reportedly asked to explain the April 9 incident. The next day, he announced his resignation. Although he claimed otherwise, it seems unlikely that he let go his portfolio by choice. Had that been the case, he would have resigned immediately after the scandal broke. What he did instead was waffle, shifting from one claim to the other.
Suranjit was quoted in the media as initially saying that ‘there is no question of resignation; the money does not belong to me and the destination of the car was not my house.’ Then, on April 12, at a press conference at the Rail Bhaban, he said ‘it is not me who is in danger, our democracy is in danger. We must work together to uphold our democracy. We must work together to investigate the money scandal.’ Suranjit was also brash with journalists, telling them they did not have the expertise on what questions to ask and how.
While there is yet to be any official account on the source of the money, it is perhaps not so difficult to guess. It is often alleged that people need to pay bribe for recruitment, posting and transfer, not only in the railway department but almost in every government offices. In fact, it has been reported in the media that most of the people who have got employment in the east zone of the Bangladesh Railways in the past one year had to pay Tk 2.5 lakh to Tk 6 lakh in bribe. The government needs to find out those who have paid bribes to top railway officials and ask them whom they have made payments to. To this end, it needs to first ensure that the persons making the disclosure are not penalised.
Moreover, assistant personal secretary to the minister is a political post. Suranjit’s assistant personal secretary is also not the first of his ilk to have been accused of carrying loads of bribe money. It has been alleged that the assistant personal secretaries are usually the conduits through which some ministers run their illegal activities. Besides, it is inconceivable that the assistant personal secretary to a minister would dare do something beyond the knowledge of, if not clearance from, his or her boss.
It is worrying that the whistleblower driver has remained untraced since the scandal broke. His parents have come all the way from Chandpur to Dhaka to trace their son but so far, they claim, no one is talking to them properly, let alone telling them about his whereabouts. The media has played an important role in bringing the scandal to public knowledge and should now follow up on the missing driver.
Meanwhile, at a press briefing in the parliament’s media centre on April 10, Moudud Ahmed demanded that Suranjit should resign within the next 48 hours and called for a judicial enquiry led by a retired chief justice into the ‘cash scandal’.’48-hour deadlines’ seem to have become a catchphrase for politicians, although such deadlines hardly pay any dividend. Moreover, investigations into such serious matters should not be unduly rushed and be allowed to take the time and course required to unearth the truth. Moudud also demanded that the Awami League-led government should step down. In many democratic countries, many ministers were accused of wrongdoing and made to step down but not necessarily the governments that they belonged to. Ironically, Moudud, when he was part of the autocratic Ershad regime, stuck to his post till the last moment and vehemently opposed the option of stepping down.
For politicians, public perception is very important, which helps them win elections. The public are looking for honest people to run the government. The scandal surrounding Suranjit will tarnish not only his public image but also that of ruling party politicians and other ministers. The people are more conscious these days and the media is more active.
Suranjit said he had taken a courageous decision in the interest of democracy and decided to step down although he had no direct or indirect involvement with the money recovered. He also claimed that a grave conspiracy is on against democracy in Bangladesh. While Suranjit claimed his resignation happened to be the first in the country’s history, there have been instances in the past where some sitting ministers had to step down.
The government and the ruling party are expected to not protect the accused in the scandal, overriding the public concern over the issue. In the past, there were allegations of graft against ministers and other high-ranking government officials and inquiry committees were formed to probe such allegations but the reports were never made public. The people expect that the same will not be the case here and truth will be revealed and individuals responsible will be called to account.
The government needs to realise that its own credibility is at stake here. The story should not end with the resignation of Suranjit. What is important is that the truth should come to light. People should know what actually took place and also what happened to the missing driver. Only and only then will the matter come to a complete and absolute close. The media should also not rest till such time.
Unfortunately, in a rather unexpected twist of events, the prime minister appointed Suranjit ‘as a minister without portfolio, relieving him of the charges of the railways ministry’ on Tuesday. The decision beggars belief and defies reason. While it is bound to undermine the government’s credibility, Suranjit may use it to redeem himself. He has insisted that the prime minister did not ask him to step down and that he voluntarily resigned. If so, he should now say that he would not take up the post of the minister without portfolio and will seek reinstatement only after he is proved innocent through an impartial and credible investigation. After all, action speaks louder than words.
Dr Nadim Jahangir is professor and dean, School of Business, Independent University, Bangladesh.
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