Bangla politics — Zafar Sobhan style

Posted in AL, BNP, Islamists, politics by jrahman on October 11, 2012

Zafar Sobhan is a good friend, great editor, and sometimes, a good political analyst.  Yes, I’ve had my public disagreement with him, for example about the 2010 Indo-Bangla summit (my scepticism has been backed by reality).  But Zafar also got some big things right.  His general Awami leanings notwithstanding, he was one of the first to be bluntly honest about l’affaire Yunus  — something many of my AL-er friends have failed to do.  More importantly, when all the pundits — from Mahmudur Rahman to Asif Nazrul to Nayeemul Islam Khan to Nazim Kamran Chowdhury to yours truly — expected a last minute rally towards BNP in 2008 election, Zafar correctly called the Awami landslide.  

Sadly, his recent piece on Bangladeshi politics is not one of those stronger ones.  Rather, it characterises both elements of Zafar’s analysis — astute description of the underlying issue, and a rather naive conclusion. 

Zafar begins with identifying various ‘constituencies’ among Bangladeshi voters:

1. “secular, progressive, rights-minded, focused on social welfare, wary of the private sector, who look to the state and non-profit sector as the guarantors of opportunity and equality”

2. “more pro-business and believe that entrepreneurism and private sector-led growth is the best way to provide opportunity to all, not low-income housing and subsidies for farmers”

3. “prefer a more independent and radical economic message”

4. ” nativists, who bemoan the despoliation of the culture and language, and are rooted in the traditional Bengali cultural sensibility”

5. “the modernists”

6. “an Islamic revivalism within which to ground their moral and ethical precepts and would like to create a society that is more self-consciously Islamic in its outlook and orientation”

Then he says that: Awami League is the ‘natural home’ of (1) and (4) ‘ have always been found disproportionately’ in the AL; BNP ‘has always been more welcoming to’ (2) and (5) ‘always had an affinity for the BNP’; and Jamaat-e-Islami should be the natural home for (6). 

So far, so good. In fact, this is a pretty neat summary of political differences, at least among the urban, affluent classes.

He starts wobbling with his claim that (3) ‘…have by now migrated to the Jamaat, with its message of social justice married to contempt for the West, including its economic principles’.

Really?  Who exactly are the people preferring a radical economic message?  It’s people like Anu Mohammad who oppose foreign investment in the energy sector.  It’s people like Farida Akhter who oppose commercial agriculture.  These people are Jamaatis?  I know that AL-ers like to call any and all of their opponents — including Dr Yunus and his supporters — ‘Jamaati/razakar’.  Is Zafar falling into that trap? 

And where does he get the idea that Jamaat has contempt for the West’s economic principles?  Has he actually followed the literature of Jamaat or its ideological brethren in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia?  Other than token nods to ‘Shariah banking’, these guys are as committed to the market as any neoliberal Gulshanite sharing a peg or two with Zafar. 

After describing the ‘natural constituencies’ of the three main parties (curiously, he doesn’t mention Jatiya Party, even though it has consistenly polled better than Jamaat), Zafar claims that none of them actually ‘hit the mark’ — both AL and BNP, in power, falls way short of their ideals, while Jamaat is burdened with 1971 baggage.  And, provocatively, Zafar has this to say about Jamaat:

The Jamaat’s sins of 1971 have always been a millstone around its neck, and the elimination of its 1971-generation leadership is the one way it can repudiate its past and draw a line under 1971.

Freed from the taint of 1971, it is possible that the Jamaat could try to recast itself as a truly authentic voice of Islamic revivalism, appealing to those who are sickened by the moral disorder and corruption of society and politics, and looking for a self-consciously Islamic solution to that which ails us.

Well, I’ve talked about a reformed Jamaat (and Islamist politics more broadly) too: see here and here.  So I see the merit in this argument.  But by focussing on Jamaat, Zafar is missing out on AL and BNP, big time.  And perhaps his own biases about BNP weakens his analysis.  Here is what he says about BNP:

The BNP had an opportunity to recreate itself after the debacle of the 2008 elections. It was the perfect time to start anew by reinventing itself as a modern, conservative, nationalist party. It didn’t do so.

The thing is, BNP has actually started anew.  BNP went into the 2008 election with a ‘no quarters’ strategy.  Advised by Mahmudur Rahman, the campaign was all about the ‘Indian bogey’ and ‘Islam-in-danger’.  Fast forward to 2012, and Khaleda Zia is writing long form articles on Indo-Bangla relations, and joking with the Economist about visiting New Delhi when it’s less hot there.  Under Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, it has shaken up its grass root organisation, which bested AL across the country in January 2011.  In fact, BNP’s rejuvenation should have been noticeable over two years ago.  Too bad that Zafar still fails to see it.

And this rejuvenation is nothing unique to current BNP.  The AL did something very similar after it lost, in 2001, but also in 1991.  In the 1990s, the party attracted people like SAMS Kibria to refashion its platform.  In the 2000s, to quote Zafar, ‘… it might successfully reform and refashion the party into a more progressive, responsive, and inclusive entity, and there were high hopes again following its landslide victory in 2008’.  And after its 1996 defeat, BNP attracted the youth vote with fresh faces of Tarique Rahman and Mahi B Chowdhury. 

Of course, in each of these cases, the promises of reform and rejuvenation in opposition failed to materialise in government.  Perhaps it’s the winner-takes-all politics, perhaps it’s something much deeper, but we have had four governments since 1990 (five if you count the army-backed 1/11 regime) that failed to live upto expectation.  Or  perhaps it’s the unrealistic expectations that’s the problem.  Whatever it is, astute political analysis would be to explain why things go wrong in office.  Sadly, Zafar does no such thing.

Then again, Zafar is in good company.  Our entire political punditry is always about the ‘coming election’, and never about what happens after the election.

11 Responses

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  1. Raihan said, on October 12, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Leave Zafar alone. He is very cute.

  2. logicat said, on October 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    a fair critique, jyoti.
    taking up economics first, let me rephrase: if there is any party that is ever going to stand up against neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism it is more likely to be jamaat than AL or BNP (back me up here, fug!). they may be chummy chummy with the americans now, but the logic of their worldview dictates that they will eventually turn on their erstwhile allies in the west, and i suspect that when the break comes, it will encompass economics, as well.
    and you may well be right that my own biases blind me to the great strides BNP is making in reinventing itself, but i really see very few of the steps suggested by a wise pundit some years ago being followed:
    this is not just my opinion. to a man, all my pro-bnp friends and colleagues agree that the party is in desperately poor shape, organizationally. and intellectually i just don’t see the kind of reimagining of what the party stands for that could have been accomplished. it is possible that your perspective may be a function of somewhat wishful thinking, too!
    finally, in answer to your query as to why things go wrong in office: i think it’s self-evident. any change or reform or reinvention the parties undertake are nothing more than electoral strategies, and neither their own improvement nor the nation’s is as strong a priority as misusing public office for advantage both personal and political once they are in power.

    • fugstar said, on October 14, 2012 at 5:28 am

      The politics of decolonial tawhesion means that I cant back you up or do anything but moon at your political market segmentation model.

      • logicat said, on October 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

        please put your bottom away, fug, no one wants to see that.

    • jrahman said, on October 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      Touche on countering bias with wishful thinking. 😛 I guess this is something we can come back to.

      On ‘standing up against neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism’, of course AL or BNP won’t do it. There may well be some Islam-pasand group preaching fiery populism. But then again, there may well be some genuinely left-radical alternative. Though I doubt either will actually happen. My (admittedly limited) observation is that Bangladeshi urban poor dreams of making it rich, and just not into revolution.

      But as long as Jamaat remains a legitimate, publicly functioning political party involved in electoral, constitutional politics — and Jamaat has learnt the lesson of 1971 very well, and is not interested in armed struggle — I don’t see it becoming a populist party. The ‘logic of their worldview’ has not dictated similar parties turning on the west in Turkey, North Africa or Southeast Asia. Where they have taken seemingly anti-imperialist line, it’s usually a function of local politics, not worldview as such. I think Jamaat will be the same.

      You know, a pro-market economy (your number 2) plus Islamic revivalism and social mores (your number 6) could be a winning formula that could easily knock BNP out of the field, particularly if BNP is led by Tarique Rahman’s old chums, and Jamaat can regroup after the 1971 generation is gone.

  3. Udayan said, on October 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    “Our entire political punditry is always about the ‘coming election’, and never about what happens after the election.” But isn’t this also the mindset of the voter?

    If there is a landslide vote for BNP at the next election (or even if not landslide vote, a landslite of seats given the electoral system) as in 2001 following 1996-2001, won’t this be followed by people saying “just wait – AL will come back with a landslide at the next election given all the X,Y,Z wrongs of BNP govt” around 2017? Rather than, “but do you remember how bad AL was in 2008-2013” just as now no-one seems to be saying “do you remember how bad BNP was …”

    • jrahman said, on October 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      I guess it depends on which voter we have in mind. There are the partisans, who don’t believe their side really lost. Then there are the ‘swingers’, who may well think as you say. But I am not sure there were that many swingers in the past. And finally there are the ‘youth vote’ that broke overwhelmingly to AL in 2008. As much as half of them went against family trend, and I doubt these folks will come back to AL in 2013. Whether they become permanently anti-AL is anyone’s guess.

  4. kgazi said, on October 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

    “but do you remember how bad AL was in 2008-2013″
    That response becomes moot because each successive term seems to far exceed the previous one, at an exponential scale. Right now, no past regime has ever been as bad as what AL has managed to establish by 2012. BNP 2006 may have been bad, but their corruption sounded “only” to the tune of $ Millions. Tariq Zia Rahman was hung drawn & quartered for “$200 (M) Million”,

    Here we are in AL 2012 and the corruption figures are in pure $ (B) BILLIONS. Corruption AL style 2009-12 already accounts for Padma bridge $3.2 billion, Destiny $2 Billion ?, Sonali Bank Hallmark $1.5 Billion, Stock Market $2.5 Billion, Biman $2.0 Billion, Transit/India $1.0 Billon, natural Gas $? Billion. These are only the fashionable Billions, it has been reported that underground, at-least $47 Billions additional, un-reported in the media, have also disappeared in the past 4 years from govt coffers, under AL watch (see previous posts here).

    Can the next BNP regime beat the AL corruption $Billions ?
    Even worse, if AL wins again in 2013, will they meet the escalating corruption goal of $ TRILLIONS ?

    Question that I want to ask is – how will Bdesh people recover the $100 Billion disappeared by AL 2009-13 ?

    • jrahman said, on October 27, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      Kgazi, don’t believe everything you read. Depending on the exchange rate, Bangladesh’s official GDP is a bit over $100 billion. If AL-ers have stolen $100 billion, then the obvious inference is, if not for this corruption, GDP would have been twice as big by 2013. That would mean, if not for Awami corruption, annual GDP growth would have been 14% in the five years to 2013. That’s a ridiculous number.

  5. My politics « Mukti said, on October 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    […] guess Zafar Sobhan would pin me to BNP – I am much more of a ‘modernist’ than a […]

  6. […] has revived an ancient tradition among Deshi bloggers in English — bash up Zafar Sobhan.  Okay, compared with the heavy duty dholai Zafar used to get from Tacit-Dhaka […]

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