The case for a meeting
A meeting between the two former Bangladeshi prime ministers that is. Ever since Barrister Rafiqul Haque, legal representative of both the leaders, proposed such a meeting couple of weeks ago, our chattering classes have been busy discussing it. Thus far, the BNP chairperson has agreed to meet the AL chief, and the latter has said she will think about it. Awami-leaning opinionmakers have been less than enthusiastic about a meeting – and that’s putting it mildly. And very few appear to be optimistic about what such a meeting could produce. I am in the latter camp – I don’t really see a meeting achieving too much. But I am still strongly in favour of such a meeting.
Let’s begin with some standard lines pushing for a meeting. We often here that 1/11 was the result of both leaders’ refusal to accommodate reasonable concerns of the other. A rather sexist version of this stresses the fact that the leaders are women – how often have we seen the terms ‘battling begums’, as if men can’t be obstinate! The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that if only the two women met and talked to each other, our political conflict would be resolved and eternal peace would prevail.
This is extremely simplistic nonsense that is comparable with other inanities like the quest for honest and qualified candidate that came out of this regime’s cheer squad over the past couple of years. This line of thinking completely misses the crucial faultlines and cleavages in our politics. We can classify the cleavages in three layers. Firstly, most Bangladeshis support one of the two major parties (or alliances) for their take on a number of issues including: interpretation of national identity, attitude towards India or political Islam, or simply regionalism/family ties/personal benefits (once upon a time economic ideology also mattered). These political differences are accentuated by the winner-takes-all nature of our political system, which raises the cost of losing a national election, resulting in must-win-at-all-costs strategy that is bound to produce a 1/11 like situation regardless of the leadership. And finally, all of this rests on the bitter events of 1975. It is hard to see exactly what a meeting, or even a series of meetings, between the two leaders will achieve about these cleavages.
Indeed, it is not even clear whether the first set of cleavages – ideological or philosophical differences – even need to be reconciled. I’d argue that such differences ought to be celebrated – it would be the sign of a healthy and mature polity. Reconciling the second and third cleavages are very much desirable. One can think of a number of ways the losing side (often the majority) can be accommodated into governance. But it is crucial to understand that it is unreasonable to expect the two leaders to sit and hammer out any magic solution. In fact, any rushed ‘solution’ imposed by the regime on the leaders – a National Security Council or a national government – are likely to seed more conflicts. And the two leaders need not meet to bring a closure to the tragedies of 1975 – if nothing else, the verdict of history is pretty clear about it, and as the post-1970s generation takes the centre-stage, this cleavage will have a natural reconciliation.
Therefore, I don’t expect a meeting to achieve much. I think it would be a good photo-op for the leaders. Conversely, if either of the leaders refuse to meet, she would be blamed as the spoiler, and it would almost certainly impact on her image during the election. And there is a risk that the leaders will be presented with an NSC-style package at gun point. But despite all this, I strongly support a meeting.
Let me answer that with a digression into a theory of conflict escalation (drawing on game theories of applied microeconomics). When is it rational to escalate a conflict? If you think your opponent is much weaker than you are, it makes sense to threaten an escalation – if you can beat the other guy up, then you can demand their lunch money. And if the opponent shares the belief about your relative strength, they will surrender – if the other guy is much shorter and skinnier than you, they will give into your bullying. Conversely, if you think you’re the weaker party, you play ball, you negotiate, cut a deal. The trouble happens when you and/or your opponent make a mistake about your relative strengths. That is, you might think you’re Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali together, but the other side thinks of you as Tele Samad (and in reality you are both wrong). That’s when escalation turns into a quagmire, and when the fighting ceases, the settlement gives neither side anything that couldn’t have been achieved through negotiation at the outset. So, how do you avoid a costly and mistaken war? One way is to set up a communication channel that can be used as soon as it appears that a miscalculation is made. The best example of such a channel is the hotline between the White House and Kremlin set up during the Cold War.
Okay, what do all these have to do with a meeting of our leaders? I contend that such a meeting would be the first crucial step towards creating a hotline that can be used at crucial moments.
Think about it. After the 21 Aug 2004 attack, if it was politically possible for Mrs Zia to rush to Sudha Sadan, wouldn’t things have been better? If nothing else, it would have meant that the average AL supporter would find conspiracy theories about the attack being plotted by the then government less plausible. And by the same token, if Mrs Zia could show such political courage, the average BNP supporter would not entertain the ridiculous notion of the attack being an Awami plot to destabilise the country. And if the two leaders had regularly met over the past decades, it would have been impossible for Mrs Zia to not grieve with Zillur Rahman on 22 Aug 2004.
If for nothing else than a photo session, I urge the two leaders to meet. That photo session could very well make another 1/11 less likely.