Kolkata Consulate: His candidacy 'could offer a possible out from the Hasina-Zia zero-sum game'

Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner known in particular for his microfinance initiatives in Bangladesh, appeared to have been aware of the risks and consequences of a move he made to enter the country's politics. He told Henry Jardine, the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, that he was aware of the “potentially bruising response” it would provoke from the ‘two ladies' [Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, and Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister] and other established political figures.”

A cable (96421: unclassified) sent on February 13, 2007 from the U.S. Consulate in Kolkata documented in detail the conversation between Mr. Jardine and Mr. Yunus when the latter visited Kolkata to participate in certain programmes. During a conversation over lunch, which was hosted by the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce (CCC), Mr. Jardine enquired about Mr. Yunus's political plans.

To enable real change

Hearing of Mr. Yunus's strong interest to join the political fray, Mr. Manoj Mohanka, president of the CCC, raised some questions about the “messy world” of Bangladesh politics and the “likelihood of Yunus's reputation being tarnished.” Mr. Yunus responded by saying that “he understood the dangers,” but “felt that responsible people had to step into the political field to make a real change in Bangladesh, which was wracked by corruption and poor governance.”

When Mr. Jardine raised questions about rising levels of fundamentalism, Mr. Yunus explained that “Muslim fundamentalists are a fringe not accepted by the Bangladeshi mainstream.”

The Consul General, however, pointed out that “even the Awami League [the political party led by Sheikh Hasina], which had been the primary advocate of a socialist, secular nation, had signed an agreement with fundamentalist group Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM)” to “recognize fatwas issued by Imams and block the introduction of laws contrary to sharia law.” Mr. Yunus criticised the agreement as “a reflection of the AL's [Awami League] moral bankruptcy and was based on pure political calculus to garner a few additional votes and another example of the need for a new political party.” Mr. Yunus was receptive to the idea of Bangladesh expanding economic relations with India. However, he was concerned “that often it became a divisive political issue, with Bangladeshi politicians stoking resentment against India for political gain.” He was also quick to point out that all was not well with the Government of India too, “particularly the significant non-tariff barriers that restricted Bangladeshi goods from reaching Indian markets.”

Opening of ports

His plans, as he narrated them to the U.S. diplomat, included the opening of the Chittagong port to regional trade with India, Burma, Bhutan and China, and “the possibility of financing a new ‘mega-port' project in Chittagong to meet the regional demand” through the Grameen Bank. Mr. Yunus founded the Grameen Bank in 1976 to help millions of poor Bangladeshis through microcredit lending. He and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 2006 in recognition of the services.

After documenting Mr.Yunus's views, the cable concluded that he was “a person of great moral stature and strong organizational skills” and that his candidacy “could offer a possible out from the present Hasina-Zia zero-sum game that cripples Bangladesh's democratic process.”

In March 2011, the Central Bank of Bangladesh removed Mr. Yunus as the Managing Director of Grameen Bank, holding that he was 70 years old, well past retirement age. His appeals against the order were rejected by the courts, including finally by the Supreme Court.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)