Forecasting is a bit like urinating against the wind, you feel the heat, while everyone else laughs at your expense. Okay, that’s not my original. I heard it from a former boss, who, being an Antipodean, used to express it in rather more colourful terms. But anyone involved in any kind of forecasting will tell you that it’s a mug’s game. Scenario analysis, however, is not forecasting. Rather than saying X will happen, scenario analysis is about what if X happens.
I have no idea what will happen in Bangladesh. Anyone who tells you that they know what will happen in Bangladesh is either pushing an agenda, or is delusional, or both. However, it is possible to make an informed commentary on plausible scenarios. And it’s even easier to comment on scenarios laid out by someone else. Fortunately for me, Arild Engelsen Ruud has already described five possible scenarios for Bangladesh. Over the fold is my take on these.
Let’s start with the scenario implicit in Ruud’s analysis — BNP fails in its current strategy – using oborodh and hartal as the sole weapon to force the government to change the constitution and call a fresh election (italics are his word). Ruud ends his piece by saying a scenario where BNP’s current strategy is successful isn’t even considered. Let’s start from that.
So, what is the most likely outcome if BNP fails? Is it much different from this?
….the Awami League will continue its encroachment on the government machinery and the politicisation of the state. The judiciary is already highly politicised, and so is the bureaucracy, including the local levels, and the army.
Increasingly, the Awami League will have a finger in the pie in the media world – withholding licenses, warning editors, asking them to appear in court. And in civil society organisations, in particular those that refuse to tow the line.
Again, licenses are useful, police investigations, court cases, and many other kinds of pressure. Other would-be independent institutions such as the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission are clearly under the government’s rule as it is.
I am quoting Ruud’s ‘autocrat scenario’, except this seems not a future hypothetical scenario to me, but the Bangladeshi reality of recent years.
This the Bangladeshi status quo, and absent any external shock — I’ll come back to this — I’d argue that this is likely to continue in the near term.
What about a few years hence?
The Jatiya Party is poised to reap a great advantage if the situation develops in the following manner: The BNP continues its policy of oborodh and hartals, with less and less effect, and rapidly loses support and activists. Many will end up in jail or go into hiding, others will jump ship …. provided that the leadership of JaPa knows how to play the situation, it may well be ready to harvest a great many dissatisfied BNP voters and activists…. With a withered BNP, the Jatiya Party can take over whole sections with leaders and supporters and emerge as the real opposition party.
Jatiya Party will rise out of the rump of a withered BNP — that scenario has been around since the 1980s. So, it’s hard to take this scenario seriously at face value. But let’s pause, ignore the JP tag, and think about the underlying idea.
There is definitely something about disaffected but surviving BNP supporters and grassroots flocking under the banner of some stronger anti-AL platform. Add to that the powerful anti-incumbency wave that will sweep through any quarter-decent election, and one might just see something like this playing out. Order-and-stability seeking urban classes, conservative rural and urban folks, anti-India sentiments — you can see the contours of a winning coalition here. How about the jatiyatabadi scenario?
Okay, semantics aside, it’s reasonable to argue that there is a vast support base and a large number of grass root and second tier local politicians to form the basis of an opposition party, should BNP end up vacating that space. There are just two issues with this scenario.
First, it’s hard to see BNP vacating that space as long as Mrs Khaleda Zia is around. BNP second tier leadership was under tremendous pressure and temptation to join the 5 Jan 2014 election. The grass root has been under fire for years now. Those who stood by Mrs Zia, for whatever reason, for so long aren’t likely to jump ship now. But what will happen when she is gone?
That leads me to the second issue — jatiyatabadi scenario lacks the nationalist leader. BNP loyalists point to Tarique Rahman. Well, they have to, don’t they? Me? I am not so sure.
Of course, one cannot preclude the possibility of an as yet unknown face emerging in a few years time. Ziaur Rahman was nobody in 1970. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or ZA Bhutto were just one of many vying for a spot in the top league in 1960. So, who knows what the future might hold?
But right now, it’s hard to think of a jatiyatabadi scenario that doesn’t include some external shock, which leads me to Ruud’s ‘trigger scenario’ — an unfortunate moniker because the word conjures up images of the bloody 1970s, when what the author really means is an event, a shock, that may force both parties to the negotiation table, or will convince them that to do so will not constitute a climb-down. Such triggers may come in any shape or form – from national disasters (floods, acts of terrorism, a foreign threat) to attractive new opportunities. (Italics: his).
Not to get too Rumsfeldian, but this seems to me like saying there are unknown unknowns, and stuff is such an unknown, and stuff happens!
And yet, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb has recently argued, in a centralised political system without shock absorber / safety valve of regular elections, relatively minor shocks can lead to the unravelling of the political order. The unravelling of the mighty Ayub regime, for example, started with a seemingly minor scuffle between students and soldiers outside Rawalpindi.
Of course, should a sufficiently big stuff were to happen, the army might just step in. Military coups are back in vogue, as we have seen in Thailand and Egypt. But it has to be a might big stuff for the generals to take over. We saw some big stuff in 2013, and the cantonments were quiet. Colour me sceptic about the ‘army scenario’.
And colour me sceptic about the ‘Islamist scenario’ too:
The Islamists will provide the ogre because their particular interpretation of Islam is anathema to most Bangladeshi Muslims. The government can easily provoke the Islamists in so many ways. If their assets are frozen, their businesses closed, or more war criminals hanged, Islamists could easily be provoked into actions that will help the government rally support.
We saw that playbook in 2013, and lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Interestingly, there is one scenario that Ruud doesn’t mention — implosion. Whether it’s the online ultra-1971 types like Omi Rahman Pial and Dr Aijuddin, or various factions of BSL, mayor aspirants in DCC, Awami League is hardly a monolithic, disciplined force. Mrs Hasina Wajed has had a remarkable run at the helm, but even the greatest of innings does end. Is there a plausible scenario where she is taken on by someone from the fold?
Is there a Morarji Desai to our Mrs Gandhi?