These are dog days for microfinance in South Asia. The Bangladesh government could not have done itself a greater injustice by successfully ousting, for the time being at least, Muhammad Yunus from the top position of the internationally renowned Grameen Bank. An appeal against the high court ruling is being made, and it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will overturn the verdict. A developing country like Bangladesh, still in need of global goodwill and assistance, can ill afford to squander the equity that Professor Yunus created for it, first by successfully pioneering the idea and practice of microfinance, and then winning the Nobel Prize for it. A Nobel laureate is a national asset in any country and a government in its senses would co-opt the winner to reap all the soft advantages that such an association would bring. Instead Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has unleashed an undisguised vendetta against a distinguished son of her nation.
The technical issue, whether Professor Yunus had broken the law of the land by remaining managing director beyond the retirement age, can only be decided by the courts. But Professor Yunus has held the position since 1983 and it is actually the government, and the courts, which are on trial and have to explain why they have woken up to the alleged illegality of staying beyond the age of 60 a good ten years late. But the matter has ceased to be a legal issue long ago.
The political and ethical issue that has moved uppermost is how far can executive high-handedness go. This has been a most unfortunate turn of events for Bangladesh, which has more recently successfully tried to put its sorry past behind it, and catch up with the region in seeking to establish its democratic credentials. Bangladesh must show that its public life can be conducted with a sense of fair play. Professor Yunus is seen to have fallen foul of Ms Hasina by daring to consider forming a political party after winning the Nobel honour and his ouster is clearly the handiwork of some estranged former associates who are close to the current dispensation. The Grameen group has a large presence in several walks of life and trying to pack its leadership with people beholden to the government can only be short-sighted.
It is, however, a pity that Professor Yunus had not on his own initiated a process to find a successor who is capable, knows the organisation well and can take it forward imaginatively. Planned succession should have already figured on his agenda. Like so many patriarchs in so many walks of life who have built up enormous entities, Professor Yunus also finds it difficult to see his own creation running without him. One particular comment that stands out is that he is a man with a good but small heart. Even if this is true, what Ms Hasina has done is inexcusable. The right way to go about the task would be to initiate a consultative process within the Grameen family for it to select its own future leader.