Extraordinary. There is no other word to describe the US’ interference on the question of what has come to be known as ‘Grameen independence’. The facts are rather simple. The Bangladesh government has decided to remove Muhammad Yunus from the post of managing director of Grameen Bank. Whether it was politically prudent to touch a high profile Nobel Laureate is a different matter, but the issue is now under sub judice. And Bangladesh is not lacking in a judiciary that can arrive at a fair judgement on Yunus’ appeal. What has Obama administration got to do with it – especially when the Supreme Court in Dacca is gearing up for the appeal?
US state department spokesman Philip Crowley said on Tuesday that he felt ‘troubled’, US will ‘continue to follow developments closely and await clarification’ from Dacca and that Washington hoped a ‘mutually satisfactory compromise can be reached that will ensure Grameen Bank’s autonomy and effectiveness’. This was 4 days after Senator John Kerry said he was ‘very concerned’ and warned of negative consequences for US-Bangladesh ties.
The first thought that occured to me was that Crowley must be joking. Okay, Kerry is a politician and it could be that he is grandstanding. But who is Crowley to pass judgment? What is his locus standi? But Crowley had a ready explanation, which goes like this: “I mean, he’s a Nobel Prize winner, Medal of Freedom winner, Congressional Gold Medal winner. His public service is widely recognised and respected, and civil society organisations such as the bank play an important role in Bangladesh’s development and democracy. So it is both to show support for his ongoing efforts and the efforts of the Grameen Bank and also to express our concern about developments in Bangladesh.”
Really? When pressed further by the press, Crowley let it slip that Hillary Clinton spoke to PM Sheikh Hasina ‘a few weeks ago’ on the issue.
Now, bingo, the very next day, Crowley is back – this time merrily ‘Twittering’ that “Secretary Clinton spoke yesterday with Dr Muhammad Yunus and expressed support for the independence of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.”
Now, bingo, 24 hours after Crowley ‘Twittered”, here comes Robert Blake, the south asian bureau chief in the state department. He gives an exclusive interview to FT
just on the strange case of Yunus. FT asked Blake point blank whether it is US’ business at all to interfere. Blake not only stood his ground but took a great leap forward, linking the Yunus case to all the God created in Sonar Bangla – its thriving ‘moderate secular democracy’; its ‘vibrant civil society and a history of religious and ethnic tolerance’; its ‘partnership’ with US on issues such as ‘counter-terrorism’, climate change, etc.
Blake claimed US is also concerned because “They’ve [Dacca] also I think made a lot of progress in relations with India, which is extremely important for us, particularly on this very important area of counter-terrorism. So this is a country that’s doing a lot of things right and a lot of things well. Some of their recent actions with respect to Grameen Bank are a little bit out of step with that, so we just felt as a friend that it was important to point that out and express our interest in seeing an amicable resolution of this.”
Without doubt, Yunus case is a high stakes affair for Washington. Blake made a vague hint that given the state of play he “wouldn’t want to make any predictions about the larger [US-Bangladesh] relationship.’ He concluded underscoring “This is something that is of wide concern inside the United States government, and as I said earlier, Professor Yunus has a great many admirers, not only in the current administration but also in our Congress.”
Why is US annoyed with Sheikh Hasina? For example, it is doubtful Washington will even whimper if our prime minister chooses to sack someone in Delhi who has ‘a great many admirers’ in the Washington circuit. [We do have a few such admirable people.] Not that our government will ever do such a rash thing. But, suppose it does – for argument’s sake. I doubt if Crowley and Blake and Clinton and Kerry will take the microphone or waste their breath. So, why double standards on Hasina?
Quite obviously, Americans are cheesed off with H over something and have been looking for a moment to put her down. There is nothing that can be more humiliating to be lectured publicly by middle-level officials of a foreign country. Hasina is an elected leader of a sovereign country. It seems to me that Washington had a few expectations when Hasina, who lived for several years in the US with her son in exile [like Benazir Bhutto], was elected as PM. What could have been the expectation? Hm…NATURAL GAS? Highly likely. When Big Oil interests are involved, Uncle Sam spares no effort to put pressure. And Bangladesh has a lot of gas and Big Oil has been keenly scavenging for quite sometime already.
There could also be some geopolitics thrown into it – considering that Blake drew India into his thesis quite deliberately.
Are we somewhere on the outskirts of Bangladesh-China relationship? Or, on Bangladesh-Russia nuclear cooperation? China is developing a massive container terminal and deep sea port and a road connecting Bangladesh to China via Myanmar. Russia is going to build nuclear power plants in Bangladesh.
Hasina has been told that in April on a visit she was planning to Washington to attend the World islamic Forum meet, she wouldn’t be granted an audience with Obama unless a compromise on Yunus is worked out which is ‘personally agreeable’ to the Nobel Laureate. Obama should know that’s carrying things a bit too far even if it were to be by a Nobel for another Nobel. Besides, Obama should know it’s unwise to project Yunus as if he is an American puppet on a string. It won’t do any good to Yunus’ career.
Hidden in all this, isn’t there a kernel of truth for India, too. What are the US motivations in stepping up interference in South Asia? Is this what securing ‘global commons’ can come to? If so, are we two countries – India and US – on the same side? Can India afford to be seen in its own backyard as the sidekick of a rumbunctious bully?