Guest post by Tacit. First posted at Rumi Ahmed’s.
The current political problem in Bangladesh is primarily one of imagination. Obviously, neither Khaleda Zia nor Sheikh Hasina will accept an option that is total defeat for them. However, a study of the priority of the two leaders may allow us to glimpse what s solution to the current, bloody impasse may look like.
If Sheikh Hasina currently allows an election, she will lose. She will hand over the government to BNP for the next five years. She will certainly face many uncomfortable cases and inquiries about the BDR massacre, the Padma Bridge controversy, the atrocities committed by RAB in the days leading to and the aftermath of the 2014 election, the Share Market scam, and so forth. Moreover, given the age of both these individuals, it is highly likely that this would be the last time they would face off. Hasina understandably does not want to end with a defeat.
On the other hand, even if hypothetically an election were to take place tomorrow, and BNP was to win the expected 250+ seats, it would very quickly find itself in a world of hurt. BNP has always been composed of two wings: the governance wing and the AL-lite wing. Ever since 2006, the governance wing has been badly worn down. The Chairperson’s faith in Rafiqul Islam Mian, Jamiruddin Sircar, M K Anwar, et al isn’t what it used to be. And there are too few Shamsher Mobin Chowdhurys and Salahuddin/Sabihuddin Ahmeds to fill the void. This is understandable, because BNP has now been in continuous war footing for the 9th year running. If we take Ershad’s ascension as the formal start of his dalliance with Awami League, then this is the longest stretch that a party has been in the role of the “Opposition”, faced with the full brunt of state savagery. It’ll take a while to reset from this to governance mode.
No, not the politics of the Star Wars saga — been there, done that in what seems to be a long time ago….. (oh, the Daily Star archives don’t work! — note to self: must do something about old articles. No, not the politics of the star wars, but politics in the star wars, to be precise, in the upcoming trilogy.
A few weeks ago, there was a debate about whether the new movies should dabble in politics. I think I should note my thoughts about this very important matter.
(Guest post by Tacit. First posted at Rumi Ahmed’s).
In the current conflict of attrition between BNP and Awami League, AL’s main advantage is that it has the resources of the state to inflict as much damage as it can on BNP. Furthermore, the creation of RAB means that AL is able to hand-pick the most AL-leaning of armed forces men and send them on killing sprees, while the rest are kept cooped up in the cantonments. Against this, all BNP can hope for is to slowly unravel the unwieldy coalition of military and civilian bureaucrats and businessmen who are now currently keeping AL in power. In this conflict, as in most conflicts in Bangladesh, the situation favors the state.
মুঘল ইতিহাসবিদ আবুল ফজল লিখেছিলেন বাংলাদেশের জলবায়ু নাকি মৌলিক প্রবৃত্তিকে উস্কে দেয়, ফলে এদেশে সর্বদা বিদ্রোহের ধুলি ওরে। আমার কাছে দেশের ভ্যাপসা গরমে কখনো বিপ্লব করতে ইচ্ছে হয়নি, তবে আমাদের মনে হয় ছোটবেলা থেকেই একটা বিপ্লবী anti-establishment romanticism দিয়ে মগজ ধোলাই এর চেষ্টা চলে। বিশ্বাস হচ্ছে না?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularised the term ‘black swan’ in his 2007 book. It comes from the Latin expression rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno, meaning “a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan” — they didn’t have any black swan in Europe, and thought swans must be white. That notion changed when the Europeans came to Australia. Taleb pithily summarises his thesis as:
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.
In Bangladesh, perhaps we could think about ‘white crow’ events — our crows are black, we think crows must be black, but of course there are white crows Down Under.
Taleb’s work gained much popular acclaim after the 2008-09 financial crisis. The thing about black swans / white crows, however, is that they are hard to predict ex ante. That’s Taleb’s first attribute. As such, for analysts and policymakers, it might seem that Taleb has little of practical value to offer.
Thus, instead of trying in vain to predict such “Black Swan” events, it’s much more fruitful to focus on how systems can handle disorder—in other words, to study how fragile they are. Although one cannot predict what events will befall a country, one can predict how events will affect a country. Some political systems can sustain an extraordinary amount of stress, while others fall apart at the onset of the slightest trouble. The good news is that it’s possible to tell which are which by relying on the theory of fragility.
For countries, fragility has five principal sources: a centralized governing system, an undiversified economy, excessive debt and leverage, a lack of political variability, and no history of surviving past shocks.
How does Bangladesh look through the prism of Taleb’s theory? I’d argue we should be at least concerned about the possibility of things falling apart, though there are also things to be hopeful about.
Some time ago, there was a facebook meme about 10 books:
List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They do not have to be the great works of literature, just the ones that have affected you in some way. Tag 10 friends and me so I can see your list.
Over the fold, for archival purposes, are two lists — one general, the other economics related.
I’ve been asked recently about what to read to clarify one’s thoughts about 1971. My answer is over the fold.
….. because life got in the way.
Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic. Let’s start again. It used to be the case that to have a professional career as an economist in America, you needed a PhD. That’s changing a lot. There’s a general glut of PhDs. And organisations such as the IMF are now more interested in people with practical experiences than half a decade or more of often impractical academic training. In any case, outside America, PhDs were always for those who wanted to pursue an academic career. So, other than the vanity of being addressed as Dr Rahman, I’ve never really seen much return from doing a PhD.
And yet, every now and then, I think about the ideas over the fold and wonder what might have been.
Present is like Rome — all roads lead to it. Wherever we find ourselves today, we look back and think of many reasons that brought us here. A year ago today, we ended the ‘compact of co-existence that was forged between the AL and BNP at the end of the 1980s, and that has provided the pattern for the past quarter century of political life’. I am quoting Zafar Sobhan:
As far as the AL is now concerned, the BNP is a party founded in the cantonment, by the man they hold responsible for the massacre of August 15, by the party that rehabilitated the war criminals, and is nothing more than a rag-tag assembly of opportunists, criminals, and killers that created political space for itself at the point of a gun. It represents only those Bangladeshis who are enemies of the state. There can be no compromise with such a party, no accommodation, no peaceful co-existence. After the grenade attack of August 21, 2004, the AL has come to the conclusion: It is us or them. There is no space in Bangladesh for both the AL and the BNP. The AL plan for the coming year is therefore straightforward: Continue to squeeze the life out of the BNP.
Maybe the partisan minds made this inevitable. Maybe not. Maybe the institutional set ups of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh made such an outcome quite likely, with events and contingencies doing the rest. And maybe what actually happened a year ago today was the beginning of the end of politics in that republic. Maybe politics as we have known it simply won’t do. Maybe the only way out of this is to begin anew. Let me quote Zafar from February 2014:
The simple truth is that the current system we have in place is incapable of delivering to us a workable political solution that is competent to address the needs of the country.
Our single constituency, first-past-the-post electoral system, that delivers all power to the winner, fails to keep any kind of a check and balance on our elected representatives, and cannot ensure any kind of separation of powers so that independent branches of the government can actually operate independently, has reached the limits of what it can deliver.
Let’s take this one step at a time.