Published:  01:17 AM, 10 January 2019

Ministers in oath: A test that must be passed

The Prime Minister has watched, listened and done what she felt was necessary in her own wisdom in shaping her cabinet, a right she has as its head.

While there may not be any formal 360 degree  performance evaluation for her cabinet colleagues, one can easily see that the Prime Minister has been maintaining at least a mental note book, if not a formal one to contain her colleagues' performance records. The subsequent actions are clear to understand that she knew exactly where to hit the right nail, and when!

Notwithstanding what popular opinion may hold, there will be always people in favour or against the axed or inducted ministers. However, the overall decision to axe the  large number of non-performing ministers, including some with seemingly onset of senility due to age,  is a welcome move.

The new blood, replacing the old are to be tested while the continuing incumbents, and the three young State Ministers from the past cabinet need to be re-tested. The patience of the citizens were fast eroding when they did not find the PM firing her cabinet colleague who made some crude comments following the death of school students. The resulting unrest could have been quelled swiftly then. Who know she had in mind then. Finally, we see the powerful man go.

Let us take a few examples of what perhaps went wrong in a few ministries and draw these to the attention of the new leaders in the ministries if they wish to take a lead in mending the boxes.  Education first : the Ministry and its directorates are infested by people who are in plain and simple language, the hardcore Jamaatis who are all out to stab the government and suppress the many achievements it can boast of.

As an insider consultant for a couple of years to the Ministry, I tried in vain to start an advocacy and communication campaign on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The old minister did not care much, and the civil servants were all out to sabotage the move, lest the government become popular. Corruption at the Directorate level was considered high by the development partners, citizens, and the media at large, especially with the Directorates' engineering division, with status quo environment in staffing continuing for years.

The State Minister who was appointed to look after the Madrasah and Technical Education was hardly available in his office which he chose to locate in the Transport Pool building, and not in the mainstream environment. One development partner chief in Dhaka tried four months to get an appointment with him, and each time a call was made to his office, the advice was to call his designated 'gumman' or his daughter who had no formal business in the affairs of his office. No one knows what reforms were initiated over the period he was in office. He is gone now.

The most popular minister for Culture left plenty to be achieved, unfortunately. He was kind and prompt to be at the inauguration ceremonies of art and culture events, to the extent he had little interest to initiate any change management in the various directorates of his ministries. The Shilpakala Academy, Bangla Academy, Museums desperately needed changes in the helm of their affairs.

The cultural arena lost their confidence on the minister, as patronage seemed to be themost common denominator in his major decisions. The Chiefs and soldiers at the various Directorates under the Cultural Ministry need to be  reshuffled and moved away as needed. Another example goes like this : the organizers of the Classical music festival received all patronage from the Cultural Minister and the axed Finance minister; the latter of course did not contest the election, yet expressed his desire to continue as the minister.

This organizer that received immense patronage from the Cultural minister was never a fan of the Awami League government. They were rather waiting for the 'new government' to come before the Classical Festival will be held in February 2019, meaning during their much expected post-Awami League regime. No one questioned where the money comes from to fund the numerous festivals at home and abroad and the business ventures of the group.

Perhaps the best decision the Prime Minister took is keeping the members of the alliance at bay so far. One wonders if the Information Minister and his party men were of any positive benefit to Awami League ever. If anything, JSD, for example, did not donate any vote to Awami League, as they did not have much to spare; rather Awami League helped them get some standing, despite their controversial activities leading to the death of Bangabandhu, and after. Strategically perhaps, it was wise to have them in the bigger fold of the government when an alliance was forged in 2008; but enough should be enough for now.

The affairs of theInformation Ministry and its affiliates have come under many questions from the general citizens. There have been allegations of the Minister's party's extraordinary and undue influence in the management of the affairs of BTV, Betar and even the private televisions and newspapers, much to their personal gains. Another interesting characteristic of the new cabinet cannot be overlooked.

The cabinet is free from people with any past affiliation with any other party, other than Awami League. Although a long time Awami League devotee now, Matia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid, and Asaduzzaman Noor had legacy of the past with Communist Party and Students Union affiliation. Freeing them makes the cabinet fully an Awami League cabinet, something that can and should be preserved until there is a real need for their return, if at all.

Sheikh Hasina has again proven that she is a leader who knows how to strike  a good balance of act between what is practical on the ground and what is not. From the practicality perspective she had nominated several winnable candidates to make up the numbers with considerable vote banks, but did not necessarily consider them for cabinet portfolios. At the same time, she refrained from nominating several of her party men with somewhat controversial and tainted image, a lesson for everyone in the party. The cabinet now represents a great balance between the old and the young, new and experienced.

While most of the choice of ministers seem to be quite wise and appropriate given their age, years ahead of them, profile and commitment demonstrated by them so far, there could still be some questions in the minds those who understand economy as much as they follow politics. The choice of the Finance Minister cannot go unquestioned as this portfolio now needs a social reformer, coupled with a strong macro economics background, with proven honesty, and a strong public speaking and analytical acumen.

I wonder if the Minister would have done well in an open public competition for this position. The Planning Minister is a good and proven choice, as an educator, and an ex-civil servant and an astute mentor for his colleagues.  Among many qualities, public speaking quality in international stages is so important as I can cite an example of a minister who has now been kept out of the cabinet. In the High Level Meeting (HLM) on aid effectiveness in Nairobi in 2016, the minister representing the women and children portfolio was invited to be part of a panel discussion, that was meant to be spontaneous and in response to yet a fantastic presentation by a global leader in the development field.

Our lady minister took with her a speech highlighting her ministries annual report instead in a large A4 page, and read it out, with poor accent and fumbled all the way along when her turn came. She was there to merely reflect on the keynote speech, and not deliver an unrelated written speech.  It was a rather embarrassing moment for many present there.

The newly formed cabinet, in contrast, can boast of some talented personalities with impeccable English and Bangla, and with great presentation flare. They include the Education Minister Dipu Moni, Planning Minister Abdul Mannan, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam, and Education Deputy Minister Barrister Mohibul Chowdhury Nowfel, to name a few.

Notwithstanding some 'for and against' arguments, now is the time to test the experiment which the PM has undertaken with so much of expectations. As much as the PM wants to succeed, we as citizens want the ministers to come out with flying colours too. Time will tell if the well intended move of the Prime Minister was reciprocated with quality works by her young, as well as herexperienced cabinet colleagues.

As the cabinet members begin their journey, the Prime Minister may now gradually embark on reforming the ministries, something which is long overdue in the context of challenges ahead with regard to the economy, SDGs, and the country's graduation to a middle income country in the next few years. For example, in many countries, Education, Sports and Culture belong to a single entity and there are reasons for it given the holistic nature of modern education system and the outcomes that are demanded.

Also, as we attain food security and advancement in agriculture technology, Food and Agriculture could form a single entity. Similarly, Science, Technology and ICT could form a single ministry with three divisions. Jute and Textile could be two divisions within the Ministry of Industries. In many countries, Foreign Affairs have been merged with Trade given the international diplomacy dimension cutting across both the sectors. An innovation can be made with regard to Religious Affairs. It might well be linked to tolerance and social sanctity, as UAE has done by installing a full-fledged Ministry of Tolerance that oversees the multi-faith related affairs of the nation.

Another area of reform the PM could focus on is how to engage her advisers, as several of her advisers' tasks often overlap with the functions of certain Ministers. Together with this is the cry that she keep an eye on her PMO office personnel, that include the civil servants, people with special portfolios, and especially people who are meant to manage her Press Wing.

It is time, the Press Wing of PMO is reorganized, to call it Communication and Public Affairs, manned by an experienced group of professionals. Not all in the current Press Wing personnel carry the integrity, robust capacity and the social behaviour that can duly represent the image of the Prime Minister.

The writer is an international
development practitioner, a cultural activist and a Tagore exponent.  

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