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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

The minister has a Hallmark moment

The Hallmark scam involves a dodgy loan made to the company by the nationalised Sonali Bank.

Abul Maal Abdul Muhith

t's the gift that keeps on giving. The comic timing of this government is priceless. If I didn't know better, I would suspect that they time things for the maximum possible laughs.

How delicious is that the very same week that the government changed the law to bring Grameen Bank under greater government control, all the while sending its earnest emissaries on air to argue that greater government control of banks is a good thing in this day and age, don't you know, that a massive banking scandal centering on one of the government's remaining nationalised banks would come to light, making their arguments look even more preposterous and laughable than before.

I mean, what are the odds?

Well, possibly, the odds are quite high, if corruption is as rampant as critics of this government contend. But nevertheless, the revelation of the scandal, which had been unfurling since April, seemed to be timed perfectly to make the government look even more foolish than normal.

Not that it needs much help in that capacity. No sooner had the Tk 4,000 cr scam been brought to light, than the finance minister was on the air, blustering that it was a small matter, and criticising the media for fixating on such trivialities.

You can't make this stuff up. And the honourable minister's subsequent speech in Parliament, where he said that he was going to limit his words because he had been cautioned not to talk too much, was pure comedy gold.

It makes me wonder who's scripting his lines. If this

finance minister gig doesn't pan out, it seems to me that Abul Muhith has a promising future in stand-up. Perhaps he's being fed lines by Naveed Mahbub, the country's most celebrated comedian. Sometimes I think the only place we could find more clowns would be at the circus.

But it gets better. What are the odds that the company involved in the Sonali Bank scam would be called something as awesome as Hallmark? It's too perfect. You may supply your own joke about the finance minister and his Hallmark moment.

But, of course, none of this is any laughing matter, and the joke is really on us, the long-suffering citizenry of this nation. When the dust settles we will find that it is we who are laughing on the other side of our face.

The slow-motion government takeover of Grameen Bank is no joke. It's a tragedy. Not content with ousting Dr Yunus, the government has now gone to war against the nine directors elected by the bank's owner/borrowers. It is as unnecessary and small-minded as it is counter-productive.

What makes Grameen Bank special is that it is a billion-dollar financial institution owned by its members, eight million poor rural woman, who have contributed 97% of the bank's capital (as against 3% kicked in by the government, which nevertheless retains 25% of the board seats), something unique in the world.

There is nothing stopping the government from amending the Grameen Bank ordinance, as it has done, to put more power in the hands of the government-appointed chairman and less in the hands of the elected directors, but it is an unjust and unwise policy.

The Hallmark scam is no joke, either. It is a national disgrace, and one that we are sadly all too familiar with in Bangladesh. Once again, we have a dodgy loan made by a nationalised bank, with bank officials paid off to look the other way as taxpayer money is siphoned off to fill the pockets of a fortunate few. As has been pointed out, Tk 4,000 cr is fully 2% of the national budget.

That the two crises should be juxtaposed together in such a manner is in some ways amusing. But the bigger picture which emerges is far from comforting. When taken together, what we have here is a government that is convinced of its own infallibility; even while evidence of its corruption and incompetence is everywhere you look.

Honestly, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

 
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