Three is a crowd
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’.