I argued in the last post that Bangladesh is back to politics-as-usual. Whereas I was surprised by the Shahbag Awakening*, needing a reassessment of a lot of my priors, nothing like that is needed to analyse politics-as-usual. I can use my mental model of politics — including the key players and their objectives, incentives and strategies — to analyse the situation. That doesn’t, of course, mean the analysis will be necessarily correct. But even when I get things wrong, I can update my views with the latest infromation as long as the basic framework of my analysis is intact.
An analysis of unfolding events since Friday makes for some rather uncomfortable conclusions for me. And yet, there are times when one ought to make a stand, even if it means taking a side. I believe now is such a time. Over the fold is why this blog rejects tomorrow’s hartal.
In pre-modern Europe, no one had ever seen a black swan. So they had a Latin expression — rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno — meaning ”a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan”. Then they discovered Australia, where black swans are a-plenty. A Bangla equivalent of the whole thing perhaps would be white crow. In South Asia, crows are black. But Australia is home to the white crow.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularised the term in his 2007 book The Black Swan. His own pithy summary of the thesis is thus:
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Are we seeing a black swan / white crow event in Bangladesh? Let’s think about it systematically.
I was in Dhaka during the 2008 election. The day before the election, I told Asif Saleh that BNP was making a remarkable comeback and the election would be very tight. I was, of course, way off. Turns out so were pundits like Nayeemul Islam Khan, Asif Nazrul, Mahmudur Rahman and Nazim Kamran Chowdhury – who all noticed a massive momentum towards BNP. I was reminded of this episode last November, when Republican spinmeister Karl Rove refused to accept election results as they were coming in — apparently it wasn’t consistent with the momentum (Mittmentum) he had observed.
I (and more famous Deshi pundits) had an excuse. We didn’t have any proper opinion poll or survey data to guide our thinking. One pundit who did see such data — Zafar Sobhan – did predict an Awami landslide, and he was proved right. Of course, Rove and his ilk didn’t have such excuse. In America, people like Nate Silver looked at the polls and other relevant information and predicted the final election outcome quite accurately.
Compared with America (and other advanced democracies), opinion polls are still few and far between in Bangladesh. But compared with 2008, we now have regular polls by Daily Star and Prothom Alo. Good luck to anyone who believes they know the public pulse and don’t care for polls. Personally, I have no idea what the public believes, so I find these polls very interesting.
Here is the Daily Star survey, done by Centre for Strategic Research. Here are detailed results of Prothom Alo survey, conducted by ORG Quest (here is its news report, here is the methodology). As far as I can tell, these polls are done in the same way similar polls are done elsewhere. There are margins of error, and the polls are indicative of public opinion, not an exact predictor of anything.
With those caveats in mind, I think these polls should make BNP and Ershad supporters optimistic, while AL should be quite worried. The polls also hold interesting results for third force enthusiasts.
In one of my previous day jobs involving forecasting, a colleague used to say that it was like urinating against the wind — you think it’s hot, while everyone else laughs at you. However, the pundits at Financial Times seem to have gotten most of the things right about 2012. Their 2013 predictions include possible evidence of life in Mars and Istanbul winning the 2020 Olympics.
Just as well that I don’t write for them, because I don’t really have anything profound or foolish to say about the thing most Bangladeshi political animals care about — the result of the 2013 election (which, incidentally,
the outside world Guardian pundits don’t much care about).
I was very happy with the US election result, not just because Barack Obama was re-elected — though that too, but because the result vindicated people like Nate Silver. Silver and others like him predicted the election result very accurately, based on a detailed reading of polls and ‘fundamentals’ data. And according to them, the contours of the election remained pretty constant throughout the year. But they were pilloried by pundits and bloviators who saw gamechangers and momentums every week. As a ‘facts and figures’ guy, I was firmly in Mr Silver’s camp, and I am glad that he won.
Yes, if it’s not obvious, I try to be as much about facts and figures as possible. This doesn’t mean my analysis is free of judgment or bias — not only is that impossible, but also, hopefully, the readers care about my opinion. But I feel strongly that those opinions should be based on something solid. In economic analysis, that means looking at the data. In the realm of politics, that means looking at what the players publicly promise or do.
I don’t have access to the corridors of power. Nor do I know the high and the mighty. So I cannot rely on the inside story from anyone, or base my analysis on the atmospherics. But most of the time, the detachment actually helps with the analysis. For example, back in January 2010, when most people were either ecstatic or apoplectic about the Bangladeshi Prime Minister trip to India, I parsed the Indo-Bangla joint communique and decided to ignore the hype.
I’ll let the reader judge how my analysis of Hasina Wajed’s India trip played out. Instead, let me talk about Khaleda Zia’s India trip. For those of you affected by the Hurricane Sandy or too busy following the US election, Bangladesh’s leader of the opposition visited India between 27 October and 3 November. The trip has got the Bangladeshi chattering classes talking. For a big picture analysis of what it means for our politics, I refer you to Zafar Sobhan, with whom I fully agree on this occasion. In a personal correspondence, he adds:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t think India’s support for this government is that deep. If push comes to shove, they won’t bail them out, and perhaps that is all that BNP can ask for.
Okay, all that is good, but what about the fact-based analysis, you ask? Well, it’s a bit hard because opposition politicians don’t get to write communiques. But turns out, we can still analyse BNP’s India policy by parsing some publicly available documents.
Zafar Sobhan is a good friend, great editor, and sometimes, a good political analyst. Yes, I’ve had my public disagreement with him, for example about the 2010 Indo-Bangla summit (my scepticism has been backed by reality). But Zafar also got some big things right. His general Awami leanings notwithstanding, he was one of the first to be bluntly honest about l’affaire Yunus — something many of my AL-er friends have failed to do. More importantly, when all the pundits — from Mahmudur Rahman to Asif Nazrul to Nayeemul Islam Khan to Nazim Kamran Chowdhury to yours truly — expected a last minute rally towards BNP in 2008 election, Zafar correctly called the Awami landslide.
Sadly, his recent piece on Bangladeshi politics is not one of those stronger ones. Rather, it characterises both elements of Zafar’s analysis — astute description of the underlying issue, and a rather naive conclusion.
(Warning: this post contains high degree of unsubstantiated speculation).
One good thing about blogging solo, or not writing op eds, is that you don’t have to follow any deadline or chase the latest headline. Blogging at UV, for example, used to involve having a timely post on whatever the major issue was in a given week. These days, on the other hand, I post on what I feel like, when I feel like. I haven’t seen the newspapers in the past 48 hours, and have no idea what’s the latest strom in the teacup. So I am going to post about a couple of speeches the BNP chairperson has given on economic matters.
As noted in my last post on Bangladesh politics, five and a half years after BNP was booted out of power, and three and half years after its electoral drubbing, the ‘facebook class’ still blames the party for much of what ails Bangladesh. Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP’s de facto number two-and-half (depending on one’s views on Tarique Rahman’s active involvement in BNP politics), seems to be well aware of the problem. In a rather well written piece last year, he makes the case for BNP to that part of the ‘young generation’ who indulge in ‘ফেসবুক, বাংলা ব্লগ ও অনলাইন পত্র-পত্রিকার পাঠক প্রতিক্রিয়া’ (Facebook, Bangla blogs, and readers’ reactions in online magazines).
He runs two lines of arguments. First, BNP has better (or not-as-bad) record than AL in office. Second, it chooses to not dwell on the past. Here is a key sentence:
আমাদের রাজনীতি এই বর্তমানকে ঘিরে এবং আমি নিঃসন্দেহে দাবী করতে পারি যে আমরা আওয়ামী লীগের চেয়ে বেটার ম্যানেজারস। (Our politics is about the present and I can unequivocally claim that we are better managers than the Awami League).
That BNP’s record is at least as good as AL’s, if not better, when it comes to the economy is something reflected in the data. And one could make a similar case for non-economic matters too. Curiously, the author doesn’t actually spend much time with these facts and figures. Perhaps he thinks it’s self evident. But if that were so, his target audience would not be blaming BNP at the fag end of AL’s term. I guess recognising this, BNP has of late started to use numbers to support its case — its alternate Budget outline is a good example of that.
If the piece isn’t stuffed with data, then perhaps there was some ‘grand historical narrative’? Disappointingly, no. Mr Mirza is a good writer, and an erudite person. He could have launched a strong salvo for his party in the history wars. Instead, he dodged the fighting.
It’s an iconic 1980s song, played in the stereo systems of many a nerdy college kid over the past decades. Along with Hanif Kureishi’s work, apprently it’s among the best commentary on the Thatcher era England. It was also one of the themes of this classic Aaron Spelling drama. And now, it seems to be a great commentary on Bangladeshi political scene. Reading the Economist’s recent editorial and news story on Bangladesh, I kept recalling Morrissey’s matter-of-fact statement: when you say it’s gonna happen “now”, well, when exactly do you mean? see I’ve already waited too long, and all my hope is gone.