White crow rising?

Posted in AL, BNP, democracy, politics by jrahman on March 1, 2013

In pre-modern Europe, no one had ever seen a black swan.  So they had a Latin expression — rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno — meaning “a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan”.  Then they discovered Australia, where black swans are a-plenty.  A Bangla equivalent of the whole thing perhaps would be white crow.  In South Asia, crows are black.  But Australia is home to the white crow.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularised the term in his 2007 book The Black Swan.  His own pithy summary of the thesis is thus:

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Are we seeing a black swan / white crow event in Bangladesh?  Let’s think about it systematically.

I am not aware of any analysis by anyone that remotely pointed to the possibility of anything like a Shahbagh Awakening.  And yet, pundits have already started to retrospectively rationalise it.  So the first and third attributes are very much there.  The question is, whether there will be an extreme impact.

What’s an example of an extreme impact?  Anything that alters the pre-Shahbagh political trajectory — Awami League heading for an electoral drubbing, the unresolved issue being how the election would be organised — would classify.  Rumi Ahmed provides one example — another minus-2 attempt on the back of instability.  Is it possible?  Too early to tell.  But Rumi bhai does provide a crucial marker:

One would wait, very eagerly, to see how the next week goes in Bangladesh. If there is a relative and noticeable lull in the downward spiral, any such attempt will be less likely and this piece will sound illogically alarmist.

The corollary being that the violence yesterday — 47 dead so far — is a precursor to 2/11.

Is it?

I am not so sure.

Violence, intability, anarchy, leading to the government being toppled — that seems to be a very attractive option to Jamaat.  I am not going to comment on whether the war crimes trial process is fair or not.  If the trials are flawed, then its leaders look likely to get death sentences.  If the trials are genuinely free and above-board, then there is still a high probability that they might get death sentence.  Jamaat has known this all along.  They have tried all possible avenues — legal battles, international lobbying, pressuring its ally BNP into going into tough street agitation, backdoor negotiation with the AL.  Nothing seems to have worked.  So violence seems to be their way out.

Given the possibility of a violent reaction by Jamaat, and the risk to its own survival that any instability poses, was the government caught off guard?  Perhaps.  Incompetence is always a valid explanation.  But it need not be the only explanation.  Awami League benefits a lot, both direcetly and indirectly, from a certain amount of violence.  Directly, because it can use the violence as a pretext to take draconian measures — facebook and tweeter are blocked (albeit not fully implemented), ostensibly for public safety.  Mahmudur Rahman is an easy target (and he is probably relishing the prospect of being a ‘hero’ of the ‘resistance’ against ‘Awami fascism’).  I’ll leave the reader to think of other examples.

More important, and consequential, are the benefit AL gets indirectly from the violence.  The violence is widely blamed on Jamaat (even if most of the victims are its cadres).  It puts the BNP in a very difficult position.  Its chairperson will hold a press event later tonight.  She better put on an extraordinary performance.  Can she afford a public opprobrium by not dumping Jamaat?  Can she afford to dump Jamaat?

Politics being a zero sum game, whatever is bad for BNP is good for AL.  The ruling party stands to gain a lot from the opposition’s discomfort.  Can it gain enough to ride the Shahbagh wave to re-election?  Now, were that to happen, that would truly make Shahbagh Awakening a black swan / white crow event.

So I would not at all be surprised if the violence will be rapidly suppressed soon after the political benefits are realised.

Meanwhile, the reader might be asking, what does this violence mean for Bangladesh?

As I said last week: In case of Bangladesh, I don’t want a ‘grand sweeping away of the rat infestation’ (as a fellow blogger has put it). Rather, I want to persist with our 6% a year growth that has made lives of most Bangladesh better than any of their ancestors.  The thing is, I worried a lot more about falling off the steady path last week.  Last week’s violence, it seemed to me, involved people who take the Prophet’s honour very seriously.  This is a much wider section of the society than Jamaat.

This week, we are seeing politics-as-usual.  Well, perhaps more violent than usual.  But the difference from the norm is one of degree, not kind.  If a dozen old men with blood on their hand were to hang tomorrow, Bangladesh would not turn into a golden land (and no one made that argument anyway).  Similarly, violent reactions about them, on their own, will not turn Bangladesh into a failed state.

Note the ‘on their own’.  It’s not clear whether the violence is planned from the top, or whether the local leaders are making their own decisions.  Fragmentation, and Naxalisation, of Jamaat is something that needs to be analysed.

5 Responses

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  1. shafiq said, on March 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    ” If a dozen old men with blood on their hand were to hang tomorrow, Bangladesh would not turn into a golden land”- No Bangladesh won’t become a golden land but it will make lot of strides towards becoming a normal nation. No longer, every national debate, be it elections, Padma bridge, corruption, economic policy, microcredit social policy, everything will rapidly devolve into who is for ’71 and who is against. We could hope to have normal conversations.

    That will be a great leap forward for Bangladesh.

    • BDAF said, on March 3, 2013 at 5:30 am


      ——-No longer, every national debate, be it elections, Padma bridge, corruption, economic policy, microcredit social policy, everything will rapidly devolve into who is for ’71 and who is against. We could hope to have normal conversations.——-

      From a practical standpoint, there really is a point to that. A lot of people have used the highly non-trivial argument that stability > ideology. This is very reasonable, and I agree with it. But it ignores the wider point that if you let these things festoon for too long you end up with something like this, which DOES distract from issues of development. If you can nip it in the bud [again, highly non-trivial and I’m not suggesting it can be done nearly so easily] once and for all there’s a real possibility it won’t be an issue constantly infringing on the important stuff.

      • jrahman said, on March 4, 2013 at 5:03 pm

        Agree with both of you.

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