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.
All About Eve, the Oscar-winner in 1950, is a drama set in the black-and-white era Broadway. It shows how the seemingly innocent Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) connives, deceives and manipulates people and event to eclipse the ageing star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). In her quest, Eve is initially assisted by the theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). But before long, DeWitt makes it clear who calls the shot. Let me outsource to wiki to describe how the movie ends:
After the awards ceremony, Eve hands her award to Addison, skips a party in her honor, and returns home alone, where she encounters a young fan—a high-school girl—who has slipped into her apartment and fallen asleep. The young girl professes her adoration and begins at once to insinuate herself into Eve’s life, offering to pack Eve’s trunk for Hollywood and being accepted. “Phoebe” (Barbara Bates), as she calls herself, answers the door to find Addison returning with Eve’s award. In a revealing moment, the young girl flirts daringly with the older man. Addison hands over the award to Phoebe and leaves without entering. Phoebe then lies to Eve, telling her it was only a cab driver who dropped off the award. While Eve rests in the other room, Phoebe dons Eve’s elegant costume robe and poses in front of a multi-paned mirror, holding the award as if it were a crown. The mirrors transform Phoebe into multiple images of herself, and she bows regally, as if accepting the award to thunderous applause, while triumphant music plays.
You see, whether it is Margo or Eve or Phoebe — it’s Addison who makes or breaks the star. The question is, what makes Addison tick?
And more generally, what motivates the media?
There is a tendency in Bangladesh to compare local politics with the latest development overseas. Thus the comparisons in 2008 between the Awami League and Obama election victories, or the calls for ‘OWS by the Buriganga’, or both AL-ers and BNP-wallahs claiming to be ‘Bangla’r Thaksin’. Such comparisons are likely to miss important nuances. I find it more useful to think about Bangladeshi conditions — something I am likely to know more about than, say, Thailand — and suggest factors that may matter elsewhere.
That’s how I started a post on the lessons our history could provide to emerging Arab democracies. That was a year ago. In the year since, democratisation process in Egypt — the most important country in the region — has been much more messy than anything we saw in Bangladesh. As Bangladesh walks into the next political crisis, it may be a good idea to revisit our own transition from military rule to electoral democracy, and ponder where we went wrong.
It’s a common refrain amongst Bangladeshis of a certain age and socioeconomic background that “four decades of independence / two decades of democracy and we’ve got nothing”. When you point out that in terms of per capita income or life expectancy or most other measurable metric, things are much better in 2012 than they were in 1992 or 1972, the argument changes to “but we have fallen behind this, that or other country”. Then you point out that, for example, despite being half as rich as India, Bangladesh does better on a range of socioeconomic metrics, showing we have not fallen as much behind as they fear. When you do that, the last line of pessimism among these doomsayers is “ah, what about inequality’”.
Yes, inequality has risen in Bangladesh over the past decades. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps. Perhaps not. For example, when compared internationally, Bangladesh doesn’t apper so unequal. When discussing the subject, we need to explore why we think inequality has risen, and how we think it is affecting the society. There are strong grounds for possible concerns with rising inequality. Unfortunately, Rezwana Abed and my friend Syeed Ahamed make a rather poor argument about inequality in their latest Forum piece.
I am not an American. But as a de facto subject of the de facto American Empire, obviously I have an interest in who our next Imperial Overlord will be. Four years ago, I urged my American readers to vote for Barack Obama. Those arguments, broadly speaking, still holds. So, dear reader, if you’re an American and for some reason still undecided, please re-elect your president.
Four years ago, I thought Obama was going to win, and acted on that belief. I was lot more sanguine about the better angels of America than my friends with whom I wagered — they were convinced that America wasn’t ready for a black president with middle name Hussein.
Turns out, I was lucky. According to a fascinating paper, racism might have won the election for John McCain. And if these estimates are right, Mitt Romney might easily be the next
Global Emperor President of the United States.