Hiatus reflections

Posted in democracy, elections, political economy, politics by jrahman on November 24, 2019

Blogging went on hiatus in March 2013.  Since then, there has been occasional pieces, notably around the election seasons of 2013 and 2018, and a few forays every now and then on matters serious and not so.  But none of that has been regular.  What have I learnt in this extended time off?  What am I most surprised by?  What is something truly unpredictable from the 2013 vantage point?

The answer is, of course, a lot.  But in the context of Bangladesh, it should be no surprise to anyone that the longevity of the current regime would be the single most surprising development to the 2013-me.

Yes, the 2013-me expected that the regime of Hasina Wajed wouldn’t survive much beyond the winter of 2013-14.   Of course, I expected the government to attempt election rigging:

The prime minister knows she can count on the millions of AL voters, in every moholla and para of every city, town and village.  If BNP leadership can be neutralised, that will be sufficient for a re-election.  If not, in the lead up to the election, in 30,000 centres around the country, many anti-AL voters could be disenfranchised through targeted violence and intimidation.  Essentially, what many Hindu voters in southern Bangladesh experienced in previous elections could happen to the anti-AL voters across the country.

And all these could happen days and weeks before the actual election day, with the state machinery playing an active role in it.  Indeed, the election day could well be very peaceful, even festive.

The reality, of course, played out differently.  But even after the non-election of January 2014, I questioned the regime’s durability:

One cannot stress enough that the Prime Minister’s grip on the pillars-of-power rests on one and only one claim: she can provide stability.  Not the spirit of 1971.  Not development records.  Not Digital Bangladesh.  Nothing like that.  All she has is the promise — seemingly justified at this stage — that she can provide order, while her rival invites the risk of chaos.

What can make lie of this promise?  Why, events, my dear reader, events.  …..

…. The reality, however, is that she stands on the precipice of chaos, for the simple reason that Bangladesh — a super-densely populated humid swamp — is always at the edge of chaos.  Usually, mandate from a democratic election, or the prospect of the next one, keeps us from falling over the cliff.  By taking away the option of a democratic election, the Prime Minister has effectively put a ticking time bomb on herself.

And yet, remarkably, no such bomb ever exploded.

There was the terrorist attack of 2016.  And there were youth uprisings demanding quota reforms and safe streets in more recent years.  The 2014-me would have predicted regime change from any of these.  The reality, however, was at most a mild Sheikh-up, definitely no Sheikh-down (yes, yes, terrible pun, I know).

I had never written it down anywhere, but I have had a longstanding working assumption about Bangladesh politics along this line: if Dhaka folks — of all classes, but crucially the affluent chattering ones that care about stuff like Islam / India / 1971 / history wars and such like — came out to vote, it would create a momentum against which brutal rigging would not work.  Essentially, I had believed for years that once the denizens of Dhaka were out on the streets, their sheer numbers would dissuade any would be riggers.  This is why I thought election boycotts — whether by Awami League in 1996 and 2007, or BNP in 2014 — were counterproductive at best, if not cynical attempts to induce a constitutional crisis.

The dying days of 2018 has disabused me of that notion.

It’s not that there was political apathy as such.  From all accounts, Dhaka people did actually leave home to try to make it to the polling centres.  I have no idea whether they would have voted for the Jatiya Oikyo Front candidates.  In 2013, if opinion polls were to be believed, BNP had landslide support.  Maybe that was also the case in December, or maybe the polls were wrong all along.  But all that is beside the point.  People came out to street in numbers, and then essentially went home without fuss, contradicting my expectation of a spontaneous uprising.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised given my own scepticism about the urban middle class Bangladesh:

For the secure middle class to actually exert influence and be a change-agent, it has to be sufficiently large.  When they are too small, the secure middle class are more likely to to be inside the room and than out on the streets and to see their interests aligned not with the poor and the strugglers but with the rich.

In fact, it would seem to me that at least as far as Bangladesh is concerned, the income-secure middle class actually doesn’t depend much on the state.  These households don’t send their kids to government schools, they don’t use government hospitals, they don’t even rely on state provided law and order — they have their own security guards.  They, people like me, and Faham, and Zia, and Jayed, simply don’t need the state much, and if / when we are harassed by the state, it’s easier for us to use our personal connections than to fight for systemic change.

In fact, my working assumption about the urban middle class contradicts a model of politics by Sergei Guriev (Sciences Po, Paris) and Daniel Treisman (UCLA) that I thought was a very good description of Bangladesh in the 2010s.  Crucially:

…. the longer the regime survives, all else being equal (for example, absent any negative shock), the more likely it is to survive, for the simple reason that the masses come to believe that the dictator is truly competent (or more competent than the alternative).

During my hiatus I had a lot of reasons to eschew any hope for change.  I don’t regret hoping for a new beginning in 2019.  But if I am to continue writing into the 2020s, I will be more grounded.



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