A theory of andolon

Posted in democracy, politics by jrahman on October 13, 2015

Historically, most street movements, andolons, launched by the opposition party failed to achieve the stated objective.  And yet, politicians ranging from Tofail Ahmed to Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury have, while in opposition, advised their respective parties to persist with street protests.  Why?

Drawing on the work of Bert Suykens and Aynul Islam of Belgium’s Ghent University, we can tell a reasonably coherent story with a possibly scary implication.

The authors focus on hartal — general strikes.  Here’s the abstract:

Hartal, the general strike or total shutdown, is one of the defining features of politics in Bangladesh. While opposition parties proclaim it is one of their only weapons to put pressure on the ruling party, Bangladeshi middle classes and the international (donor) community view hartal as essentially disruptive. Focusing on the local organisation of hartal at the ward level, this article argues that hartal plays a crucial role in the organisation of the local power structure in Bangladesh. By considering hartal as a complex political performance, we are able to show that hartals offer unique opportunities for local party organisers to show, maintain and improve their position in the local power structure. Addressing a multi-levelled audience, it enables them to gain access to beneficial patronage relationships with the party (leadership) at the local, regional and national levels. The willingness to take risk and the ability to recruit hartal participants offers important markers to establish and improve these relationships. As such, efforts to move away from hartal to ‘less disruptive’ forms of protest are misguided.

While the authors focus only on hartal, I think their analysis can be generalised to include other facets of andolon such as oborodh — blockade.  I’ll do that in what follows.

Let’s think through their story step-by-step.

The stated objective of the opposition movements in the post-1990 era had been to force the incumbent to change the ‘election ground rules through economic shutdown‘.  The authors note that ‘respondents thought it common sense that they should expect a lot of hartal days from a year and a half before the national elections, increasing in intensity as the election comes closer’.

Beyond this stated objective, the authors note that the andolon serves as demonstration of the opposition’s presence to a number of intended audience — the incumbent, general public and foreigners.  They also note that a number of other studies have observed this purpose of hartal/andolon, and questioned the effectiveness of this ‘demonstration’ purpose.

I think this ties into an argument I’ve made before:

Arguably, the difference between 2007 and 2014 is that in the first case, AL had convinced Bangladesh’spowerbroker establishment to ditch BNP, while in the latter case AL had convinced the same group to let it ram through its agenda.  In both cases, AL was successful not out there in the streets, but behind the scene in halls of power.  Interestingly, AL did not always have such a strong grip on the bastions of power.  Even in the 2001 election, these powerbrokers refused to back AL’s designs, and openly or covertly endorsed BNP.  Obviously, since then BNP has fallen out with the establishment.

That falling out is BNP’s real political failure, not anything that has happened in the streets.

That is, while hartal/andolon can demonstrate the opposition’s presence, that demonstration isn’t sufficient.  Fine.

But is it even necessary?  If the real game is palace conspiracy, then why do opposition parties — both Awami League and BNP — spend so much blood, sweat and treasure in the street?

Politicians are dumb and don’t know what they are doing — that would be the lazy answer of armchair pundits.  I am not arrogant enough to presume to know better than Matia Chowdhury or Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir when it comes to Bangladesh politics.

And this is where I think Suykens and Islam really add to our understanding of things.  They draw our attention from the national to the local, and make an often ignored point — hartal/oborodh/andolon is an effective way for the local leaders to demonstrate their ability to the hierarchy.

Think about violence such as burning of vehicles.  Even before the orgy of arson in most recent andolon episodes, torching of buses was hardly good publicity for anyone at the national level.  But at the local level, to quote the authors: violence is mostly used to show … khamata … to control the Mohalla

The use of violence, however, is quite nuanced.  The authors report that it’s the younger activists who engage in violence, while the mid-level ones — so called jubo netas — show their mettle by organising rallies or other events.  These mid-level leaders are also the ones to be more likely to risk arrest, which wasn’t necessarily a problem because it served as a signal of loyalty to the party higher ups.  For the leaders a bit further up, risk involves property more than physical harm.  And again, by minimising the damage to one’s own side while willing to risk own property serves clear signalling and demonstration purposes.

Keep in mind that this is all playing out against the backdrop of patronage politics where the party hierarchy needs some way of sorting out those more deserving of the spoils of power.

I think the authors do a pretty good job of explaining why opposition parties have engaged in andolon even if it’s not immediately obvious that such andolons, on their own, amount to much at the national level.

The authors conducted their fieldwork during the Awami League led andolons of mid-2000s, and the paper was published in March 2013.  Does the analysis hold for more recent andolons?

Here I am going to get into conjectural mode.  Obviously I have no way of backing any of this, but let me posit:

  1. Going into the 2013-14 andolon, BNP perhaps tried to replicate what was done in the previous episodes (that is, the authors’ analysis held).
  2. In practice, BNP’s national leadership was less potent than AL’s in convincing the establishment.
  3. Further, the current government has been far more ruthless in suppressing the mid/local level opposition than had been the case in the past.
  4. The combination of the second and third conjecture created a perverse effect on the party machine at the local level where the ‘complex political performance’ described by the authors became ever-less-effective.

The implication of this last conjecture was arguably visible in the 2015 andolon, where the grass root BNP machine responded to the call of andolon, but hartals/oborodhs lacked the ‘script’ of picketing/rallies etc that have been the traditional features of andolons past.

If this story is right, then it’s quite scary. It suggests that we may have traded well understood and expected forms of political violence for more random and futile acts of violence.

Here’s hoping that the authors are wrong.
Bert Suykens and Aynul Islam, ‘Hartal as a Complex Political Performance: General Strikes and the Organisation of (Local) Power in Bangladesh‘, Contributions to Indian Sociology, March 2013.

(Thanks Mubashar Hasan for the article).

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