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Aborted colour revolution - Untold story of how Pranab nipped in the bud a Hillary-favoured plan to unseat Hasina

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K.P. Nayar: New Delhi, April 6: The curtain will come down on Sunday on what is, in all likelihood, the last instance of personal chemistry determining the course of diplomacy in a 45-year-old association when President Pranab Mukherjee, breaking with protocol, hosts a dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. That dinner will bring to a close Mukherjee’s honorary role of abhibhabak – guardian – to Bangladesh, a role entrusted to him by Indira Gandhi on June 15, 1971.

On that day, she had asked Mukherjee to initiate a discussion in the Rajya Sabha calling for New Delhi’s formal recognition of Bangladesh’s government-in-exile in Mujibnagar as the “sovereign democratic government of Bangladesh”. Indira Gandhi followed this up and reinforced Mukherjee’s role in aiding the creation of Bangladesh by sending him across the world to highlight human rights violations in East Pakistan, staring with the 59th conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union at Versailles on September 2, 1971.

In 2013, on his only visit to Bangladesh as President, Mukherjee was decorated with the Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sanmanona, the Liberation War award, which is given to those who contributed to the birth of Bangladesh nearly 46 years ago.

Pundits may hold forth on the nearly three dozen agreements that are to be signed on April 8, the second day of the Bangladesh leader’s stay in New Delhi, but the plain truth is that Hasina is in India officially after a seven-year gap to bid farewell to Mukherjee as he enters the twilight months of his presidency.

Mukherjee mentored Hasina during a long spell when she lived in New Delhi’s Pandara Road after the assassination of her father, “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and almost her entire family on India’s Independence Day in 1975. But Mukherjee’s protectiveness about Hasina did not end when she returned to Dhaka or even after she became Prime Minister.

In an episode that will probably be narrated in greater detail for the first time in the third volume of the President’s memoirs – which he is currently working on – Mukherjee may have more recently saved Hasina from a “colour revolution” of the kind that successfully attempted regime change in countries as diverse as Ukraine, Georgia and Egypt.

Both Hillary Clinton and her successor as US secretary of state, John Kerry, believed that corrupt politicians were holding back the potential of Bangladesh and favoured the idea that social entrepreneur and micro-credit pioneer, Muhammad Yunus, could deliver the country to better times.’

That they extended their support to Yunus, who has toyed with the idea of entering politics since 2006, is a matter of record. It is also well known that a number of world leaders such as Mary Robinson, former Irish President and later UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, openly supported Yunus as the man to “rescue” Bangladesh from the likes of Hasina and her political rival, Begum Khaleda Zia.

In March 2011, human chains were formed in many places in Bangladesh to support Yunus, whom Hasina’s government had removed from the post of managing director of Grameen Bank, the leading micro-finance institution he founded.

It appeared that these human chains would be the fountainheads of a colour revolution to overthrow Hasina, as in many countries where elected leaders were ousted by “popular” movements orchestrated from abroad.

As the political temperature rose in Bangladesh on the Yunus issue, Mukherjee, who was then finance minister in the UPA government, one day got a phone call from Clinton who, as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, was taking a degree of interest in South Asia that was unprecedented by the standards of most of her predecessors.

According to multiple sources from both the Indian and American sides, Clinton made an impassioned plea that India should support Yunus in his bid to frustrate Hasina and her efforts to prise Grameen Bank away from its founder.

Clinton may have been encouraged to make such a diplomatically risky phone call to Mukherjee because the two leaders had built a good rapport over many years of engagement in various capacities, including the period of negotiations on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Mukherjee was then external affairs minister and Clinton was the Senator from New York and a founding member of the Senate India Caucus.

One source said Clinton had gone so far as to suggest that Hasina would be an unreliable partner for India in the long run, and that New Delhi should distance itself from the Prime Minister and throw its weight behind Yunus as the potential head of a national or technocrat government. Mukherjee would hear none of it and asserted his faith and complete confidence in Hasina. The Prime Minister had reliable eyes and ears in the US, probably through her son Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed’s networking in Washington. Soon enough, it was Hasina’s turn to phone Mukherjee.

Again, according to multiple sources, Mukherjee assured Hasina that India would stand by her legally elected government and that she had nothing to fear. As it happened, any US and western effort to stir up a colour revolution and regime change in Dhaka fizzled out. Shortly afterwards, the judiciary in Bangladesh confirmed the ouster of Yunus from his micro-finance bank. But it is an episode that Hasina will not forget as she bids goodbye to the President this weekend.

The President’s late wife, Suvra Mukherjee, was like a second mother to Hasina’s two children, Sajeeb Ahmed and Saima Hossain Wazed, when they went to school in New Delhi during the family’s exile. Sajeeb Ahmed and Saima Hossain spent their leisure time in the Mukherjee home in all those years, playing with Sharmistha and Abhijit, two of the Mukherjee’s three children.

When Suvra Mukherjee died two years ago, Hasina dropped everything and rushed to New Delhi to commiserate by the President’s side and attend her cremation. That was when Mukherjee reminded Hasina that the last time she was in New Delhi was in 2010. He urged her to make a state visit. Hasina said she would visit while Mukherjee was still in office. But Hasina also said she could not return empty-handed from visiting India with elections in Bangladesh due soon. In this conversation lies the key to the outcome of Hasina’s visit and the role Mukherjee may have played in determining the gains from it.

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