Mukti

Trust, but verify

Posted in army, Bangladesh, democracy, history, politics by jrahman on January 10, 2019

Ataur Rahman Khan was a veteran politician with the unique achievement of becoming both the Chief Minister of East Pakistan and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.  He achieved the first in the 1950s, when his Awami League commanded a majority in the provincial assembly after the 1954 election.  His government was dismissed in October 1958, when Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan declared martial law.  He remained steadfastly opposed to the Ayub regime, but formed his own party — Jatiya League — after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pipped him to the AL leadership.  He was arrested by the Pakistan army in March 1971.  He joined neither the Mujib nor the Zia regime, and was elected as an opposition MP in both 1973 and 1979.  A key member of the BNP-led alliance against the Ershad egime, he was considered a principled, seasoned counsel to the political neophyte Mrs Khaleda Zia.  I don’t know if she ever asked why he became the prime minister under HM Ershad’s military dictatorship.  But Mr Khan’s quip to a journalist was that he joined the general to help him shed his uniform and promote democracy.

I was reminded of this politician during a recent political adda where couple of online activists had come up.  Both of them staunchly self-identify as progressive, and would have been described by the so-called ‘pro-1971’ folks as fellow travellers.  One has been in exile since exposing the Bangladeshi army’s link with jihadi extremists when BNP was last in power.  The other, a vocal Shahbag reveller, is in hiding because of his criticism of the current regime.  Both of these men actively supported the Jatiya Oikya Front.  And some of my so-called ‘nationalist’ friends aren’t quite sure of the bona fide of either activist.  It occurred to me that my own record can be questioned too.  And more importantly, as we hunker down for a potentially long period of totalitarianism, how do we choose trusted allies?

One way to choose allies we can trust is by applying some form of litmus test — such and such can’t be trusted because of attending Shahbag, or supporting the 1/11 regime, or once sitting in the same table with Gholam Azam, you get the idea.  One problem with this approach is that it can become dogmatic quite quickly.  And what is the correct litmus test anyway?

An alternative approach might be to ask two sets of questions.  First, consider the person’s stated aim.  What do they say they want?  Why do they want it?  How do they propose to get it?  Second, are their actions consistent with their stated aim?  If they can explain in a satisfactory way that their actions are consistent with their aim — and note, its their aim, not ours, we don’t have to agree with their aim — then perhaps they can be given the benefit of the doubt.  If they can’t, then they are likely to be an opportunist.

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The day after tomorrow

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on January 6, 2019

The infamous 30 December not-quite-an-election is now truly behind us, and Bangladesh today is exactly where it was five years ago.  And there is no sign of anything changing anytime soon.  The regime of Prime Minister Hasina Wajed holds a tight grip on power, and it’s hard to see anything loosening that grip today.  But tomorrow — figuratively, not literally — will certainly be different.  The super-densely populated humid swamp that is Bangladesh is always at the edge of chaos.  Credit where its due — Mrs Wajed has been extremely deft at keeping her regime, and the rest of us, from falling over the cliff.  But nothing lasts forever.  Sooner or later, there will be a tomorrow when the regime finds itself out of credit to pay off the crisis.

What will happen the day after?

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2019 wishes

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 31, 2018

The nearly-nine will be going for a brown belt in taekwondo in 2019.  A few months ago, he graded for the brown tip.  I asked him if he was sure, because he had missed several weeks of training in the winter.  He said he felt confident.  So he tried.  Unsuccessfully.  He was distraught.  Massive waterworks.  Then he trained his heart out for the next few weeks, and got the tip before the end year break.  But he was still quiet on the drive home.  A number of kids who started after him has passed him to get black belt.  Did it upset him?  No.  They are better.  Well, yes.  I am not that good, am I?  Meanwhile, the nearly-seven got a C in maths and was upset.  It’s not fair.  I do my homework all the time, and listen to my teacher all the time, and work hard!  It’s true, she does.

We tell them that we are proud of them because they work hard, and whether it is teakwondo or maths, they give it a full shot.  I guess they are learning that the game of life may not always be fair, but it’s alright as long as we can look into the mirror and say — I gave it all I had.

Here is to giving it all in 2019.

The choice is clear

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 29, 2018

K Anis Ahmed’s New York Times op ed is half-right, and therefore is all wrong. Bangladesh indeed does face a choice, and on one side stands authoritarianism.  The other side, however, is not extremism as he alleges.  On 30 Dec, Bangladesh faces a choice between continuing a brutal authoritarianism and the beginning of liberal democracy.  This blog stands for liberal democracy, and urges all its readers who are eligible to do so to go out and vote for Jatiya Oikya Front.

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A people’s republic

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 28, 2018

A country isn’t changed by politicians, but its people…..  You are Bangladesh…..  We have no more fear.  We have put Bangladesh in our heart such that there is no place for fear in it…..  On the 30th….  you will take ownership of this country…..  We want to leave this country to our children.

A few weeks ago, I asked why the promises of a few old men should be taken seriously.  Harassed, threatened, beaten, bloodied, shot, arrested, family members arrested — yet, Jatiya Oikya Front is still spreading a message of hope.  Their grit alone deserves to be taken seriously.  And Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir’s inspiring words are backed up by specific commitments that will return the republic to its people.

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Showing up

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 27, 2018

Is there a proper Bangla term for Monday morning quarterback.  There sure ought to be.  After all, we all know many of them in real life — that chacha who confidently opines about the mistakes of everyone on everything from cricket to quantum physics, or that khala who has the told-you-so ready for every occasion.  In the first couple of weeks of 2014, Deshi cyberspace was full of such so-called expert opinions on how BNP should have participated in, and won, that winter’s election.  As Awami League blatantly rigs next week’s election, there will probably be a chorus explaining how BNP got it wrong by participating when clearly a boycott was the better option.

Now, I don’t presume to lecture veteran politicians on how to do politics any more than I can tell a doctor how to diagnose illness or prescribe medicine.  There can, of course, be analysis of what happened, might have happened, should have happened, and what will probably happen.  To the extent that some of this is, well, Monday morning (or five seasons later) quarterbacking — I beg your indulgence.

This might come as a surprise to many that up until the 1980s, election boycott was relatively rare in Bangladesh.

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The end of the beginning

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 26, 2018

Election is not just the act of voting.  Before a voter gets to the centre, there has to be candidates representing all sides, and the candidates need to be able to campaign freely.  By all accounts, the electoral process so far has been far from free and fair.  And after the votes are cast, there is the process of counting — who knows what kind of shenanigan awaits us there.  So, even if the voters get inspired enough to vote, is there real any cause for optimism?

Let’s think this through in a systematic way.

How could things end?  Either Awami League brutally and blatantly rigs the election on 30 Dec (or early hours of the 31st if the rigging is to be done during the counting process), or it fails to do so.  These are the two possibilities, right?  What’s a reasonable probability of AL failing to carry out its designs?  Obviously there is no formal mechanism to put a number on it. Let’s say there is a 20% chance that AL won’t be able to steal the election.

Does that mean there is a 20% chance of Jatiya Oikya Front winning?  No.  It’s more complicated than that.  There are two ways AL could fail to rig the election.  One is, of course, the silent voter revolution — the turnout is so high, and voter rejection of Mrs Hasina Wajed is so overwhelming, that the boat just simply sinks.  But that’s not the only way AL could fail to rig — violence could get out of hand on the election day, or blatant miscounting could trigger a popular uprising that ends in a military coup, or a combination of these, and other violent stuff, could eventuate.  Let’s say there is an equal probability of the peaceful and violent failure-to-rig scenarios.

That would leave us with a mere 10% chance of a peaceful change of government.  Not very uplifting, right?

Wrong.

Think about the 80% probability that on 30-31 Dec, Awami League will ‘win’ a majority, and sometime in the following week Mrs Wajed will be sworn in for a third consecutive term.  Will 2019 and beyond be like the past decade?

No.  No matter what happens, Bangladesh will enter a new phase next week.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous observation after the Battle of El Alamein — Now this will not be the end. It will not even be the beginning of the end. But it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning.

 

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Cometh the hour…

Posted in elections, music, politics, rock by jrahman on December 25, 2018

One common concern trolling among the Awami League supporters is regarding the leadership of the Jatiya Oikya Front — who is your leader, if you win, who will be your prime minister, who will be the real decision maker etc.  The idea of collective leadership, cabinet governance, the party room deciding who will be its parliamentary leader — these notions are simply alien to Bangladeshi political culture.  Meanwhile, in many seats, it’s hard if not impossible for many JOF candidates to present themselves before the voters — some are in jail, others are forced out of their areas by AL thugs, and violent interruption of electioneering is commonplace.

Does it matter?  Perhaps the public doesn’t mind that JOF is a collective effort.  Perhaps it’s all about the election symbol.  Perhaps the public sentiment is: We don’t need another hero / We don’t need to know the way home / All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.

If people come out to vote, is state machinery strong enough to suppress the public will?  But will people come out to vote?

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What to expect if you are expecting?

Posted in economics, elections, institutions, politics by jrahman on December 23, 2018

In just a few days, Bangladeshis might have a chance to vote.  I have no idea whether the election will be free and fair.  Nor can I venture a guess about the winner.  For all we know, the government will follow the path of Pakistan over India — that is, it will rig the election following ZA Bhutto’s 1977 example, and not accept defeat in a free and fair election like Indira Gandhi did the same summer.  However, one can always hope, and expect.  If you were to expect a Jatiya Oikya Front victory on 30 December, what should you expect for the economy for the next five years?

As with anything to do with economy, the answer is mixed.

On the one hand, even if Mrs Hasina Wajed allows a free and fair election, accepts defeat, and peacefully hands over power, there is a significant risk that she will still have left the new government with a Pakistan-like situation.

Pakistan too had an election earlier this year.  The previous government claimed, with some justification, to have tackled the country’s electricity and other infrastructure problems.  Pakistan economy seemed to have turned a corner.  However, the government’s books were a mess, and there was a risk that the country couldn’t meet its external liabilities.  The incoming government had won the election promising good governance on a whole raft of fronts.  But the new prime minister Imran Khan and his finance minister have spent most of their time travelling the Washington DC, Beijing and Riyadh with a begging bowl.  And all the grand promises seem to be melting into thin air.  If you are expecting a triumph of democracy on 30 December, you would do well prepare for a Pakistan-style crisis in 2019.

On the other hand, if they can avoid a crisis that would be Mrs Wajed’s parting gift, there is much to look forward to a Oikya Front government for.  And a crisis is not a fait accompli.  A train wreck can be avoided if you see the locomotive rushing towards you.  The thing about expectations is, if you know what to expect, you could adjust your actions to avoid the worst possible outcome, and temper your expectations to face the situation in a stoic manner.  I suspect the would be econocrats of the Oikya Front are well aware of the mess they might inherit.  They will need to take a few steps to diffuse any looming disaster before launching their longer term tasks.  And if they can get to it, judging by its manifesto, and BNP’s Vision 2030, a new government will attempt an ambitious but realistic programme.

Let’s unpack these step by step.

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Summer of ’77

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 15, 2018

Abu’l Fazl, the Grand Vizier of Akbar, didn’t like Bengal much.  Since he wrote in the 16th century that the country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising, Bengal delta had been part of Empires, a monarchy and a republic, all of which extending beyond the current borders of Bangladesh.  In all these years, only three Mughal Governors — Shah Shuja, Shaista Khan, and Azim-ush-Shan — and Nawab Alivardi Khan had ruled this for a longer period than Prime Minister Hasina Wajed has.  One cannot be in power for this long without having certain leadership qualities.  And one admirable quality of Mrs Wajed is her ability to learn from experience.

Take for example her loss in the 1991 election.  While rejecting the result in a knee-jerk fashion — shukkho karchupi — she accepted that merely asserting the Awami League’s claim to power on its pre-1971 leadership role or the tragedies of 1975 would not be sufficient.  The party needed to appeal to the majoritarian sentiment to win votes.  At the same time, there was a need to assuage the urban, educated, increasingly affluent section of the society that the party had broken decisively from Bakshal-style socialism.  By donning a hijab and downplaying secular credentials, she achieved the former.  To manage the latter, she brought into the fold acclaimed professionals like SAMS Kibria.  Similarly, from her loss in 2001 election she learnt the importance of alliance and electoral arithmetic, which paid dividend in 2006-08.  Also from that election and the aborted 2007 one, she learnt the difficulty of remote control management of the caretakers — so she did away with the caretaker system altogether.

What will happen in Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months will depend crucially on what lessons the Prime Minister learnt from two elections of the summer of 1977.

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