Government Attempts to Grab Grameen

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has intensified the government's campaign against Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, seeking to move his famed "People's Bank" under the jurisdiction of the Bangladesh central bank.

Finance Minister AMA Muhith told Dhaka based journalists yesterday of the decision, saying the central bank would function as the monitoring and regulatory authority over the bank, which is now mostly owned by the poor women to whom it makes tiny loans. However, it is questionable whether the government can pull off the transfer of the privately owned bank to the government before the next national election, due before Jan. 24.

"It is simply impossible to bring the Grameen bank under Bangladesh Bank by the present government as the Hasina-led government has to relinquish power in the next few weeks," said Farzhad Mazhar, a Dhaka-based political analysis. "But if we observe the behavior of the present government, which is very much irrational, it can do so, because the Prime Minister is very much disappointed with Prof Yunus. And she can do that to satisfy her personal grudge."

The Parliamentary session, probably the last one prior to the election for the government, has been postponed, although it is supposed to resume soon -- without the presence of the opposition Bangladesh National Party headed by Hasina's bitter foe, Begum Khaleda Zia. The BNP walked out over the government's refusal to relinquish power to a caretaker government to conduct nonpartisan polls.

Hasina has been on a vendetta against the Nobel laureate since 2008, when he led a brief and abortive reform campaign to clean up Bangladesh politics. The prime minister has also long believed that Yunus took the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize that should have rightfully been hers for subduing restive hill tribes during an earlier stint as prime minister. He was forced out of the bank last year, ostensibly because of his age. He is 73.

The Awami League government, which Hasina heads, moved yesterday during a cabinet meeting to take a 25 percent share of the bank against the objections of the bank's officials and most of the public. Yunus founded Grameen Bank in 1983 to provide micro-loans for poor Bangladeshis, most of them women. The bank has 8.4 million members. The bank has made Yunus a national and international hero, its microloan philosophy applied to projects in 58 other countries including the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Norway.

The projected takeover of the bank, 3 percent of which is owned by the government, has been looming since July, when Muhith, announced the plan to split the bank into 19 separate entities and take government control. The government was forced to back away temporarily because of worldwide condemnation of the plan.

However, the government's campaign against Yunus was revived in August after he added his name to calls to restore the provision to the Constitution that would turn the government over to a caretaker to conduct the national elections. The Awami League jammed the provision through Parliament in June 2011 over the objections of the opposition. Hasina has insisted that her Awami League government, which is increasingly unpopular, would conduct the polls.

"There's no scope to have a free, fair and peaceful election without a non-party neutral government," Yunus said at the time. He also sought to emphasize the need for all political parties of Bangladesh to participate in the forthcoming general election.

The government's reaction was swift, with the National Board of Revenue, the country's tax authority, charging him two weeks ago with avoiding taxes on income from awards, book royalties and foreign tours.

Yunus's office denied the allegations, calling them "baseless," and saying Yunus has paid all taxes according to Bangladesh's laws.

The Parliamentary session has to deal with the issue of whether the election will be held under a non-party interim government. The BNP and its allies have already made it clear that they would not participate in the general election under the present government or even an interim government under the leadership of Prime Minister Hasina.

Lately Khaleda Zia has threatened to take the issue to the streets if the government doesn't restore the caretaker government arrangement, setting off alarms as far away as the United Nations, where Secretary Ban Ki-Moon has asked the political rivals to moderate the squabble. The Prime Minster has rejected the idea of restoration, claiming that the Constitution has been amended properly to run the national election under the ruling government.

Dhaka-based media have attributed Yunus's statements about the election as being the language of the opposition party, and some ruling political party leaders have criticized him as taking side with the Khaleda-led BNP. But political observers like Farhad Mazhar disagree.

"I do not think Professor Yunus has taken a biased stand against the government," Mazhar said. "Rather he has spoken the minds of conscious and rational citizens of the country. Of course, the BNP has tried its best to make political advantage out of his comments."

In a recent column in The Daily Star, a Dhaka-based English language daily, its editor Mahfuz Anam wrote, "What should be a festival of expression of the public will is being turned into, as we can foresee now, a destructive encounter between our two giant parties with voters becoming increasingly fearful of what is likely to happen. Theoretically, elections are when voters reign supreme. Tragically in Bangladesh, it is when the voters are cowed down the most."

"As the time for elections is drawing nearer, all sections of the society are becoming more and more apprehensive as to what is likely to happen before, during and after elections,' Anam said. "And all this is because Sheikh Hasina refuses to go to polls under a caretaker government and Khaleda Zia refuses to do the same without it."

Sheikh Hasina, Mahfuz Anam said, doesn't want the opposition to participate in the elections and is likely to take positions that would force the BNP to boycott the polls.

"The argument here is that Awami League cannot win a free and fair election and hence wants to create conditions that will force BNP to boycott," said Anam adding, "Then using the 'walkout' Sheikh Hasina will do everything possible to make it look like a free and fair election including taking less seats than she has now, thereby trying to give the impression that the polls were well fought in spite of the BNP's absence."