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.
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.
We’re talking about a South Asian country where the government is under pressure from several corruption scandals and not-so-good economic news. The ruling party led the country’s independence, and supposedly stands for secularism and pluralist democracy. In reality, the party is a dynastic fiefdom of the country’s founding leader, and once the current matriarch passes, the future looks uncertain for the dynasty. The opposition is no better. It supposedly reflects a more authentic nationalism than the one espoused by the ruling party, but in reality it has often fueled communal bigotry and violence. It used to attract professionals and businessmen a generation ago, but not any more. The country has a strong tradition of community and grass root activism and media tradition. Dissatisfied with both the main parties, these civil society groups are clamouring for a third force. Meanwhile, violent extremism that was once thought effectively suppressed may be biding time in remote rural areas.
I could be talking about either Bangladesh or India. Everything in the above paragraph describes both countries. But there is one crucial difference. When people talk about the third force in India, they mean a coalition of parties that will reject both Congress and the BJP. Any potential third force in India will be based on electoral politics. In Bangladesh, the most plausible third force, on the other hand, is a military coup.
As I argued here, our history has made us vulnerable to military interventions in politics, right from the beginning of the country. As we get close the next general election, there will be a lot of talk of yet another coup of some form. Is there no end to this cycle?
While commenting on an early draft of my post on the chronology of coups and mutinies, a friend suggested I turn it into a long form magazine, or even semi-academic article. Now, I am not in a position to write anything long form — or short, op ed, form either; dear reader, this blog is the only thing I write in these days. If I were writing a long article, I would pose two questions:
1. Did history pre-dispose Bangladesh to military interventions?
2. How do we end the cycle of interventions?
This post tackles the first question. There maybe a separate post on the second one.
The country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising – so said the Mughal court chronicler Abul Fazl in the 16th century. Four hundred years later, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been a country where the dust of dissension has repeatedly risen among the men armed to guard the republic. The allegedly thwarted coup in January is but the latest in a long list of coups / mutinies / revolutions / military interventions going all the way back to the country’s very foundation in 1971.
The country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed with most of his family in a brutal coup in 1975. Within a decade of the country’s 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan, much of the political and military leadership of the war were either killed or politically delegitimized by successive coups. And the coups of the 1970s reverberate even today, as Humayun Ahmed (a popular novelist) found out recently — Mr Ahmed’s latest novel, set in 1975, has been effectively banned because his depiction of history doesn’t suit the version favoured by Bangladesh’s current political dispensation. The politicised quest for what Naeem Mohaiemen calls shothik itihash (correct history) stifles the freedom of speech and thought, and sets back academia and creativity.
Of course, what actually happened in the 1970s, and beyond, should be subject to serious debate. History isn’t, after all, mere recount of dates and facts. History should be about understanding what happened and why they happened. Needless to say, one’s understanding depends on one’s own political biases.
Over the folder, I summarise major mutinies/coups/rebellions of the past four decades, and the narrative reflects my own biases and ideological prisms – just as one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so is one’s mutiny someone else’s revolution. For the interested reader, a reading list is provided at the end.
Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is meant to have quipped ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’. It seems to me that in Bangladesh we have three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and Zia-bashing.
Sometimes these lies about Ziaur Rahman get out of hand. For example, when Quamrul Islam, the State Minister for Law, claimed Zia was a Pakistani spy, even some of his fellow partymen thought he went too far. And the mainstream media, otherwise happy to partake in Zia-bashing, chastened him. The minister eventually backtracked.
But such backtracking is rare. The usual state-of-affair is one of unabashed series of distortions, half-truths, and intellectual bullying when it comes to Ziaur Rahman. And no, I am not talking about the Prime Minister or senior Awami League leaders’ bloviation. I am talking about what passes for conventional wisdom among our pundits and intellectuals when it comes to Zia’s views on Mujib, 15 August, Jamaat or India.
On each of these subjects, Zia’s positions are presented in the worst light possible by the supposedly non-partisan punditry. The irony is that his political opponents have adopted, in one form or other, most of his ideas. And the tragic thing is, his own political heirs are completely ignorant of his legacy.