The new cabinet: Full of surprises, and a first in Bangladesh

Published : 6 Jan 2019, 08:00 PM
Updated : 6 Jan 2019, 08:00 PM

No seniors among seniors. And no relatives. Not even her daughter's father-in-law, let alone any of her several cousins, long considered very powerful in and outside the party.

Leading a long list of discards are party veterans Amir Hossain Amu, Tofail Ahmed, Matia Chowdhury and the two engineers – both Mosharrafs.

Saima Wajed Hossain's father-in-law held the powerful and politically-important ministry of local government, rural development and co-operatives (or LGRD) – a portfolio traditionally reserved for the general secretary of the ruling party. His appointment five years ago was an exception. This time, the exceptional thing is that he lost his seat on the cabinet.

Amu and Tofail committed the cardinal sin in the post-1/11 days of military-run government when they, allegedly, plotted to end Sheikh Hasina's political career. They were only forgiven for five years but their crimes never forgotten.

But what went wrong with former communist Matia Chowdhury? Loyal and a long-time confidante, she is suddenly out in the woods. Her age? Maybe. The firebrand 1960s student leader will be in the backbenches after 15 years, in two stints, as a much-revered agriculture minister.

Engineer Khandker Mosharraf Hossain lost his position after an election which saw at least eight other members of Sheikh Hasina's family return.

The other engineer, Mosharraf Hossain of Chittagong, a freedom fighter, and a member of the party's policy-making presidium, was shown the door too. Did something go wrong at the ministry of housing and public works that he ran for five years?

Rashed Khan Menon, who had been removed in a shuffle from the civil aviation ministry, Hasanul Haq Inu, the ubiquitous information minister, and Ittefaq owner Anwar Hossain Manju are all gone. They have been long-time allies in the left-of-the-centre 14-party alliance.

A part of the Grand Alliance – the 14 plus the former dictator General HM Ershad's Jatiya Party – has chosen to be the opposition voice in parliament with its 22 MPs. So the exclusion of Ershad's men is understandable, but not a single cabinet seat for the 14-party friends? True, they wouldn't have won a single seat without the Awami League's backing.

Shajahan Khan turned out to be too much of a baggage to carry any longer. No questions at all. No eyebrows raised.

And who doesn't know about Asaduzzaman Noor's role in those 2007-8 days? It was a big question why he had been part of the cabinet for five years since 2014 in the first place. The advertising industry tycoon courted controversy within days of getting the job at the culture ministry by awarding his own companies contracts without any bidding. It has never been a secret that his media buying companies go out of the way to back the two newspapers which were behind 1/11 and the subsequent "minus-two" efforts.

There are at least three big-surprise inclusion or assignments: Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen (a younger sibling of outgoing finance supremo Abul Maal Abdul Muhith) and a relatively unknown Tajul Islam from Comilla as the powerful LGRD minister. Islam headed the parliamentary watchdog for energy and power for five years.

Dr Dipu Moni returns triumphantly to the front bench. Bangladesh's first female foreign minister (2009-late 2013) now becomes the first female education minister. The party joint general secretary has surely been rewarded for her hard work over the past five years.

Even more conquering is the return of Hasan Mahmud, as information minister. He had served with some discontent as a junior minister under Dipu Moni at the foreign ministry before being elevated to Cabinet rank and moved to the ministry of forests and environment. Mahmud is now way up the pecking order, at five after the prime minister, while his former boss slips a few places down.

The old members who survived and are most senior after the prime minister are Liberation War Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Huq, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal and Law Minister Anisul Huq.

Shahriar Alam, Nasrul Hamid and Zunaid Ahmed Palak – the three with strong ties to Awami League research outfit CRI – retain their rank and portfolio in the 47-strong council of ministers.

The new list has 31 new names, four of whom have returned after a five-year break. Twenty-seven have no government experience at all. No fewer than 34, the late Syed Ashraful Islam excluded, have been dropped from the old formation.

Some of the young faces are adorable. The 34-year-old Mohibul Hassan Chowdhury Nowfel, son of Chittagong Awami League legend ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury, will probably be a good deputy minister. This is another way for Sheikh Hasina to pay off a debt of gratitude to the late port-city mayor who was known to have refused a move to the capital with a cabinet job.

Several junior ministers have been promoted to cabinet rank with former civil servant MA Mannan in planning and Zahid Maleque in health.

Some grassroots politicians — not very known faces nationally — have been made ministers in a trademark Hasina move.

She had 256 MPs to choose from and took in two as technocrats. Making it as representative as possible was a tough task, which probably explains many of the inclusions and exclusions.

Some of the senior and mid-level party functionaries, who were denied tickets for the Dec 30 vote, were reported to have been assured of ministerial gifts. Nothing of that sort has happened so far.

Hasina retains quite a few of the important ministries including defence, public administration, energy and power. One would have thought Bangladesh now was mature enough to pass on the defence responsibility to someone other than the head of government.

In more advanced democracies, even in India, the prime minister doesn't bother about dealing with defence, usually passing the baton to a lesser politician. It is time Bangladesh did the same too, but that's not an acceptable proposition to many in our establishment yet.

There are surprises galore. To top it all off, the prime minister, who has been at the helm of her party for nearly four decades, surprised everyone by unveiling her team exactly a day before the formal swearing in. This is another first by the daring daughter — now billed as the 'Iron Lady of Bangladesh' by some in the Western media after an election that produced quite a few unsavoury headlines for her — of the man who led this country to independence.