Three is a crowd

Posted in politics by jrahman on June 13, 2008

The regular reader will know that I am no fan of Bangladesh’s de facto military government.  I am for an immediate end to the emergency and transfer of power to an elected government – there is no ifs and buts here.  The devil is, of course, in the details.  And one particularly important detail is that we don’t have two players – the regime and the opposition – in the current political game, we have three – the regime, opposition A and opposition B.  This makes for a difficult situation.  Three players can’t produce a stable equilibrium.  Dear reader, three is a crowd, and when this game ends, at least one of the players will be no more.  The question is, who will go, and how, and what that might mean.

A brief digression.  Let’s think about a basic model of location.  Imagine a strip of sea beach on a hot summer day with two ice cream sellers.  Where should these sellers locate?  It’s relatively straightforward to see that the best location for each of them is exactly in the middle, with each covering exactly half the beach. 

And what should they sell?  Well, they would want to differentiate their products.  So one will sell hokey pokey and the other English toffey.  Each will claim how theirs is the better product for the hot day.  And this will continue until one of them figures out that in addition to ice cream, they can sell colas.  So one will market coke, and then the other will sell pepsi, and so on and so forth.  If no one figures out that colas will sell, eventually one of the sellers will be able to outsell the other.

This is a crude description of how most political markets in electoral democracies work.  Major political parties congregate in two coalitions and compete for the median voter.  The competition takes place in a given paradigm, with shared understanding of the rules of the game.  The parties accept the broad parameters as given and compete on their brand names – personalities and competence.  And once a generation or two, a groundbreaking politician changes the landscape.

So, for example, the American presidents usually get elected on the basis of their likeability – who can feel the median voter’s pain better, or who would be a better companion for a beer.  And then, at crossroads of history, a Franklin Roosevelt or a Maggie Thatcher arrives to change the paradigm – replace icecreams with colas.

And our democratic politics was like this too.  In the late 1970s, when Gen Zia established competitive politcs, there were two camps, each had some clear and distinct ideas about the rules of the political game, how we imagine our nation, how we want develop our economy, foreign policy, and the role of religion in the society.  By the eve of the aborted January 2007 election, the parties blurred all ideological distinction, and the contest was going to be on competence and personalities. 

And this wasn’t a bad thing.  It wasn’t a bad thing if the median voter had a choice between a party that delivered 12 taka a kg of rice against another that delivered 28 taka a kg, or a party who made a noticeable dent in Dhaka’s traffic nightmare against another under whom traffic and polution only worsened.  It might not be as glamorous or intellectual as the battle of ideas, but until we had someone with new ideas, this Sheikh Khaleda vs Hasina Zia election was still better than any alternative, as we are finding out now.

Now, of course, we have three sides.  And with three players, the neat model described above breaks down.  We can’t predict where each seller will locate, or what degree of differentiation will they have.  It all gets messy.  With the two-sided contest, we could look at the parties’ record at office, campaign strategies, electoral arithmetic, and make a reasonable call on the likely winner.  With the three-sided contest, it is hard to even guess what the players will do, let alone who will win. 

But still, let’s think about what the players want.  Well, everyone wants a peaceful and prosperous Bangladesh.  That’s a motherhood statement.  Let’s tick that one and ask what else they want.  They all want power.  Yes.  That’s why people enter politics.  Move on.  Let’s ask bluntly, what are the minimum things each player – Hasina, Khaleda, Moeen – would settle for?  What are the non-negotiables? 

For Hasina, the non-negotiable might be justice/retribution.  She wants the murderers of her family to be punished in a transparent manner.  And after the 2004 attempt on her life, the list of people she wants punished may have become larger. 

For Khaleda, the non-negotiable might be the safety of her immediate family.  It’s hard to see her sacrificing her sons in the alter of democracy or some higher cause.

For Moeen, the non-negotiable might be indemnity against a future retribution. 

(Please note that I say these might be the non-negotiables.  I’m happy to be provided with arguments why something else should be on the list.) 

Forget all the talk about a corruption free Bangladesh, a secular democratic Bangladesh, a sovereign Bangladesh, or any other grand words you hear.  The political game being played out will have to either take into account these non-negotiables or force the player out of the arena. 

The first part of Hasina’s non-negotiable is the easiest to handle – if Lt Col Rashid can give TV interviews claiming Ziaur Rahman was involved in the 15 Aug conspiracy then there is no reason he can be extradited back to Dhaka! 

On the other hand, Moeen’s fear of retribution is very difficult to assuage.  If Hasina could bring the killer majors and Taheruddin Thakur to book 21 years after 15 August 1975, Moeen must need a pretty strong guarantee to give up power. 

And somewhere in the middle is Khaleda’s non-negotiable. 

There are many ways this game could unfold.  Given the common enemy in the Zia family, a Hasina-Moeen deal (exit Khaleda) seems reasonable.  But a Khaleda-Moeen deal (exit Hasina) where her sons are given safe exile in return for Khaleda delivering her votes to Moeen also seems reasonable.  But then again, can we rule out a Hasina-Khaleda deal (exit Moeen) where their non-negotiables are agreed upon?

Predictions are hard, particularly about the future.  Let me finish with quoting Mr Robert Zimmerman:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.


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  1. fugstar said, on June 18, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Agreed, and mournful on the lack of ideas issue.

    but why can’t three players make a stable equilibrium? Political Polygamy might just be the way to go, think of all the half brothers and sisters you would have.

  2. Chowdhury Irad Ahmed Siddiky said, on June 19, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Bhai Jyoti,
    I have a different way of looking at this problem. Following is my analysis.


    An assessment of the Kamrul Model of Social Change in Bangladesh and the Myth of Social Equality

    By: Chowdhury Irad Ahmed Siddiky.

    Any educated person should know, where there is too little for too many, social influence dictates over common sense. Upward social mobility through an egalitarian and progressive system of education can help to change the lot of many “have-nots” in Bangladesh but to cut through the social network of the “few haves” is a challenge.

    Since reading some of the emails and posts in this forum, it appears to me that the social engineering of the progressive and upstart intelligent havenots of our society have limited success as their complete success is prevented by the very nature of our society that will not change in one day but the ball of change has started rolling a long while ago. Let me explain one of these phenomenon.

    Kamrul is a son of a tailor from the Panchagarh district in the far north of Bangladesh. He finished his primary, and secondary education in the Panchagar district schools and colleges, stood first-class-first in SSC and HSC and got admitted to BUET to study Electrical Engineering. From village to BUET the total amount of money spent by Kamrul’s family is no more than 50,000 taka (including all fees and educational expenses).

    In BUET, Kamrul meets the daughter of a joint secretary of the Ministry of Finance who is good looking and was educated in Holy Cross College but never stood first-class-first like Kamrul. Her average and mediocre simple first-division along with her joint secretary father’s influence peddling got her also admitted to BUET.
    Now the rest is a boy meets girl story. Kamrul finishes his Bachelors degree in engineering from BUET, manages a teaching assistantship in a Midwestern American university, and convinces the joint secretary that he is a successful, progressive and promising individual. The joint secretary who was also a son of the farmer from Magura, who like Kamrul climbed upward the ladder of social mobility in the previous generation, agrees with him; the marriage happens and they move to the United States.

    In the United States, Kamrul finishes his Masters and doctorate degrees in 4 years and joins IBM Inc. for a pay of 60,000$. In other words, Kamrul started to earn in one month what he could never dream to earn in his entire life from zero to 35. This means a big social change has happened for a family of tailors from Panchagar who have not only improved their occupational choice and moved upward economically but also financially and socially.

    This kind of stories is no longer rare. These are very, very, common. However these changes do not change the well-being of 130 million in Bangladesh overnight. The 130 million cannot follow the path of Kamrul as there are limitations in opportunities, abilities, intelligence and luck. A few Kamruls do not make Bangladesh prosper.

    In the next cycle, Kamrul now becomes a social activist and tries to sell his formula of success by starting a web based human rights organization and NGO. He starts collecting money from other expatriates and sends them to Bangladesh. In the mean time Kamrul’s father-in-law retires from civil service and joins Awami League, seeking a ticket to run. The father-in-law engages Kamrul to start writing articles about him in Daily Star and New Age. Kamrul soon realizes that one of his BUET engineers has become a journalist in the Daily Star and a human rights activist for Awami League since he could not find any suitable job in Bangladesh as the profession on engineering in Bangladesh is overcrowded.

    After writing several articles about his father-in-law’s deeds in the Daily Star and the New Age, Kamrul visits Bangladesh and is introduced to Sheikh Hasina. Hasina tells Kamrul to do web campaign and propaganda for Awami League and promises his father-in-law a ticket to run in the next election.

    Kamrul now goes back to California, organizes expatriates and starts collecting money for them for Awami League in the name of Human Rights. He then transfers this money to his father-in-law and tells him that his election expenses are covered and he will not only have enough money to run from Awami League from the coffer of the expatriates but he will also be able to buy a flat for Kamrul in Baridhara with the money from the coffer of the expatriates.

    Kamrul comes back to Bangladesh just before the election and is given a red carpet reception. His father-in-law fails the election but Awami League is voted to power and they get to keep the flat in Baridhara bought with the money of expatriates. Even though the election is lost, Sheikh Hasina quickly makes Kamrul’s father-in-law a minister without portfolio. Kamrul can now start influence peddling even though the mandate was not received.

    As you can see, the recent progress of Bangladesh has given rise to plenty of Kamruls who have come up the progressive ladder of social mobility and became a part of the same corrupt social network that they initially began to fight against as the son of a dorji (tailor) in the backwaters of Panchagar in remote northern Bangladesh.

    Kamrul is a fictional character that I used to explain a pattern of behavior of many progressive individuals on upward social mobility in Bangladesh. Do Kamruls change the system by manipulating the logic of collective action? Can Biswa Shahitya Kendra (or the Prem-Nibedan Kendra of Abdullah Abu Sayeed) close the social learning gap in Bangladesh by making every Bangladeshi a cultured citizen? Why are we buying into these clever ideas without making any assessment of their true commitment to our society?
    Studies on human development have shown that when a noble man becomes poor he begs for food and when a commoner becomes poor, he steals food. I always wondered why? May be because the learning and preferences of the noble men were formed over long periods of their lives of nobility and even after all was lost to poverty what can never be lost is their noble birth, noble learning and noble experience that shaped most of the period of their existence. That is why Nawab Shiraj-ud-Dowla did not get on boat without his majestic nagra shoes and was caught in the process by the army of Mir Jaffor.
    However, the commoner who always lives by his common sense also dies by common sense. The commoners use their common sense to get by as opposed to a life of uncommon sensibilities of the nobility and therefore the commoner will always apply his common sense to get himself out of hunger by stealing food. This is another reason why the zamindars and the noblemen are to be trusted in public life with responsibilities of a public office more so than the progressive and upstart Kamruls of our society who always have a higher propensity to committing crime and stealing food, without wasting their common sense or allowing it to be influenced by positive social learning and good social values.


  3. […] Jyoti Rahman has pointed out, that Bangladesh’s politics is currently a three-player game, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resolve without putting one side out of […]

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