Mid-summer political ramblings — 3

Posted in politics by jrahman on July 6, 2011

(Today marks the halfway point of this government).

Previously: the Awami League wants to hang on to power after 2014 by any means necessary, and BNP‘s prospects of successfully resisting are rather dim. 

Things can play out in a number of ways.  Perhaps prices will stabilise, electricity situation will improve, and AL can scrap through to a re-election in 2013.  This can also be assisted by a possible fragmentation or weakening of BNP — as I write this, the Zia dynasty’s political prospect looks extremely bleak.  And if all else fails, AL will no doubt try a one-sided or low turnout election like that of February 1996 or March 1988 or blatantly change the election result like in May 1986, and BNP will probably be too feeble to do anything about it.  

So, there are good reasons to expect an AL win in 2013 election.  What happens then? 

In the big budget Bollywood movie Jodhaa Akbar, the leading characters note the difference between vijay / fateh (win) and raj / huqmat (govern).  As I discuss over the fold, AL may well win the 2013 election, but its ability to hold on to power and govern successfully will depend on four key powerbrokers in Bangladesh: the bureaucracy, the army, foreign powers, and the business sector. 

It’s not by any means certain that these pillars of establishment will back AL beyond the winter of 2013.  But as of now, there is no reason to think that any of these will abandon AL. 

Let’s start with the bureaucracy. 

It’s literally impossible to govern without the bureaucratic machine.  Both the Ershad regime and the second BNP government learnt this the hard way in 1990 and 1996.  In the 1970s, Mujib and Zia differed stongly in their ability to get the bureaucracy working.  Closer to our time, the 1/11 regime stumbled partly because a risk averse bureaucracy simply stopped working. 

The people who make up mid-to-senior ranks of the bureaucracy have spent most of their working lives during the post-1990 era.  Like everything else in the country, these officers are directly or indirectly categorised (by themselves, their peers, and their bosses) along partisan lines.  And most officers have learnt to live with the system — if your party is out of power, you cover your head, put up with the situation, and survive for five years, after which your party will be back, and you’ll make up for the lost time with accelerated promotions and foreign trips. 

The two years of 1/11 rule had slightly upset this balance.  But because both Awami/pro-71 types and nationalist/Islam-pasands were hurt equally, it was a wash overall.  If all of a sudden it appears that there is no prospect of a non-AL government beyond 2013, a significant part of the bureaucracy will reassess the situation. 

One possible scenario is that anyone who lacks the strongest Awami credential (family from Gopalganj, elected into some student council in the 1980s with a Mujibist BCL ticket, suffered under BNP) will become extremely risk averse.  The result, implementation of various programmes and policies will become even more lacklustre than is already the case. 

But beyond worsening the quality of governance, it’s not clear whether the bureaucracy will actively precipitate a political crisis, let alone recreate a civilian coup like 1996. 

If the bureaucracy is not going to move against the government, the chance of a political changeover emanating from the cantonment is even lower.  As I argued here, the only likely scenario under which a military coup is plausible is during a post-election political crisis where the army is asked to crack down on the opposition. 

I don’t think the army will defend any government if that means shooting at thousands of unarmed civilians.  As I said here:

…our army is drawn from the same socio-economic, cultural, ethnic and geographic background as that whence our university students, political party workers, and industrial workers come from.  Bangladesh is a very homogenous country.  An average army captain has an in-law in a university.  An average jawan has a cousin in a factory. 

Our army is not a foreign occupation force.  It really is composed of our fathers and uncles, brothers and cousins.  

Just like the Pakistan army chose to overthrow Zulfi Bhutto than shoot civilians in Lahore, if there is a political crisis in the summer of 2014, our army will overthrow the Hasina government.

But again, there is no reason to think that the army will actually precipitate a crisis, or conspire to overthrow the government.  Unlike Pakistan, army doesn’t see itself as the ‘natural party of power’.  There is no ‘strategic depth’ or ‘1,000 year jihad’ that Bangladesh army holds sacred.  If the army didn’t launch a coup when 57 officers were brutally murdered, it’s hard to see why they would conspire to meddle in politics.

Unless, that is, its gravy train in the UN missions is threatened.  And this would only happen if the western powers want it to happen. 

Will the west abandon AL?

One might be tempted to say no.  As long as images like this are beamed to the foreign services in the western capital, AL could count on the foreing support, one might argue.

(As an aside, is it just my warped mind, or there is something odd about the recent spate of hartals by the mullahs?  For the past twenty years we’ve heard about the might of Jamaat-e-Islami.  But Jamaat hasn’t been able to hold a single meeting in the past 30 months, even though most of its leadership has been put in jail.  How is it then that people like Amini get away with days of hartal?)

And as Asif Nazrul implies, if the alternative is between Tarique Rahman and Sheikh Hasina, the west may choose the latter regardless of what happens to, say, Muhammad Yunus. 

But things might not be so straightforward a few years hence.  For one thing, the government may well successfully convict Tarique for 21 August, and thus effectively retire him from politics.  With him (and his mother) out of the picture, BNP may fragment.  But with him gone, the west may well start backing a new anti-AL configuration more seriously.  Talk about unintended consequences!

Also, how much will the west care about radical Islam in Bangladesh in the post-Osama, post-Arab revolution world?  Barack Obama’s second term (or Michelle Bachman’s first term) will be about budget cuts, not what happens beyond the shores. 

It’s quite likely that Bangladesh will drop off the radar of western powers.  But this will not be so in New Delhi and Beijing.  Now, to be sure, I don’t think in either capitals Bangladesh matter a lot.  But they may start taking a bit more notice.  How this will happen, and whit it might mean, are worthy of serious analysis. 

For now, let me note that China doesn’t seem to be unhappy with the AL (it goes without saying that India prefers to see an AL government in power).   Of course things could change in future.  Particularly if the government ends up tilting overtly towards India at the expense of China.  But unless that happens, China has no reason to meddle, particularly if its business interests are secure.

And that takes us to the fourth pillar: the business sector.  The most important factor for the business sector is that it dislikes uncertainty.  It would have been happy to put up with Tarique Rahman and Hawa Bhaban rule had he been able to pull off a re-election in January 2007.  On the other hand, it rejected the 1/11 regime because of the uncertainties created by the so-called anti-corruption drive. 

If AL succeeds in winning 2013 and is able to maintain political stability, there is no reason the business sector will turn on the party. 

The reader will note that I don’t say anything about the media or the civil society, or the opinionmaking class in general.  This is not because I think the media or the civil society don’t matter.  They do, immensely.  But I don’t think we have an opinionmaking class in Bangladesh that is independent of the four pillars of establishment and major political parties.  If, for example, the business sector and the bureaucracy turned on the government — for example if it took the ‘return of socialism’ seriously — the media will shape the public opinion accordingly.  But I don’t see the civil society play a decisive role by itself.

So, inevitable rise of fascism then? 

No, not quite. 

A country like Bangladesh is always just one spark away from a violent conflagration.  In the heat of April 2014, anything could set of an uprising that would make Tahrir Square look like a picnic.  If that happens, the army will not kill, the business sector will not foot the bill, secretaries will stop working, and foreign powers will welcome anyone — even the mullahs — who could provide stability. 

But one would be a fool to predict when and where the lightning will strike.  So, for the foreseeable future, the AL will be safe.

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  1. On the caretaker system « Mukti said, on August 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    […] Amendment is about the AL’s desire to cling on to power at any cost.  And as long it has the establishment support, or the establishment remains apprehensive about BNP, it will be able to stay in […]

  2. The India connection « Mukti said, on August 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    […] establishment support, that is.  The Economist correspondent gets his view from, among other places, folks he shares an […]

  3. […] As the generations that lived through the Mujib era depart, hagiography can only help her partisan needs.  Ultimately, whether her government will survive beyond 2013 will depend on the establishment’s hard-headed calculations.  […]

  4. The Madam’s gambit « Mukti said, on October 29, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    […] the establishment will put up with AL for the foreseeable […]

  5. […] what I wrote in July 2011.  To be sure, I got a lot of things wrong.  Follow through the links and you’ll find that I […]

  6. On the edge of order and chaos | Mukti said, on January 27, 2014 at 8:18 am

    […] what I wrote in July 2011.  To be sure, I got a lot of things wrong.  Follow through the links and you’ll find that I was […]

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