Mukti

Putting a ring on it

Posted in politics, elections, democracy by jrahman on November 14, 2018

The Fonz, was a cool guy.  No, the leather jacketed Fonzie was the cool guy in the small all American town of Happy Days — a 1970s American sitcom set in the 1950s reruns of which aired frequently in the 1990s.  The Fonz was so cool that no one ever dared cross him, except no one ever saw Fonzie actually throw a punch.  Fonzie was cool because everyone agreed that he was cool.  He had the credibility that he was cool, even though no one quite knew how he earned that credibility.

Credibility is a subject of great interest to policy-oriented social studies types.  For example, consider the case of terrorists — of the mid-20th century, non-suicide bombing, pre-jihadi variety — taking over a skyscraper or a battleship, and declaring that they would kill a hostage every hour unless their demands of a million dollar in cash and safe passage to Brazil are met.  Well, if the authorities consist of cool guys like the arse-kicking president who would never give in to the terrorists, and the terrorists knew this well, then perhaps terrorists would never attempt their nefarious act.

How does one establish credibility?  Finn Kydland and Ed Prescott studied this in the 1970s, and won the Bank of Sweden Prize in 2004.  One implication of their theory, and theories that followed, is that credibility is dependent on actions.  If you make a promise, and incur some costs in the process of making or keeping the promise, then you’re more likely to be taken seriously.  This is where the idea of putting a ring on it comes from.  A diamond ring is costly, and serves no practical purpose other than to signal to the potential bride that the guy is serious.

I have been thinking about credibility a lot in the context of Bangladesh’s new opposition alliance and the upcoming election.  Specifically, Shafquat Rabbee’s recent op ed got me thinking.

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Ghosts of Shapla Chattar

Posted in Bangladesh, history, Islamists, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on November 4, 2018

What is the current status of Jamaat politics in Bangladesh?  The country’s largest Islamist party — at least in terms of parliamentary representation over the past few decades — is denied registration by the Election Commission.  So it can’t participate in the next election under its own name.  Its members can, of course, participate as independent candidates, or under some other party’s ticket.  In either case, they won’t be able to use the party’s traditional electoral symbol of scale.

But Jamaat is not officially banned.  The party still exists.  And is used as a cudgel by every Awami hack to beat up, literally all too often, any opposition voice.

Ironically, the legal status of Jamaat in today’s Bangladesh seems to be pretty much what it was under the bette noir of the current regime.  As Rumi Ahmed describes in detail, Jamaat was denied electoral registration when Ziaur Rahman restored multi-party politics.   ‘Zia rehabilitated Jamaat’ is one of the commonest lie in Bangladesh, and is so successful as a propaganda that even BNPwallahs don’t tend to refute it.  The fact of the matter is, to quote Rumi bhai:

Ziaur Rahman’s assessment was that after their direct opposition to Bangladesh in 1971 and their atrocities – Jamaat brand politics is too toxic and unsuitable for Bangladesh. He was also very aware of Jamaat’s organizational base and 5-10% vote base which he wanted to be used in the joint moderate IDL platform.

To elaborate on this, Zia was acutely aware of the risk of disenfranchising a part of the country that was capable of ruthless, organised violence.  In that regard, allowing a parliamentary party that explicitly drew its politics from Islam was an act of far-sighted statesmanship in 1978 — that is, before the Muslim world was rocked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran, Soviet tanks in Kabul, and the bloodbath in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

Anyway, this post is not about Zia’s legacy.  Instead, I want to think through some issues around Islamist politics in Bangladesh as we head to what might be another politically charged winter.

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You say you want a revolution….

Posted in Bangladesh, history, politics, TV, uprisings by jrahman on June 6, 2018

During the 1972 Sino-American summit, Premier Zhou Enlai told President Richard Nixon that it was ‘too early to say’ what the impacts of the French Revolution were.  Deep and poignant?  Apparently not! It turns out, the Premier was not talking about the July 1789 storming of the Bastille, but the protests that brought France to a standstill fifty years ago this month.  Of course, it wasn’t just Paris where one heard the sound of marching, charging feet.  Protests against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had been raging in the United States for a while, there was the Prague Spring east of the Iron Curtain, and the global south — from Mexico to Pakistan — were rocked by upheavals.

Channelling the Stones in his 1960s memoir, Tariq Ali lamented the failure of the street fighters to usher in revolution anywhere.  Reviewing his work for my first published article (in a student magazine — it was the 1990s, and I don’t even have a copy, let alone a link) ahead of his visit to our campus, I wondered as a Gen-Xer whether the fascination with 1968 reflected the Baby Boomers’ demographic plurality.  Of course, they are still reminiscing about the glory days, but there is a lot in the reflections of the ultimate soixante-huitard that resonates with me, for example: pseudo-revolutionary violence would change nothing, but peaceful reforms might.

What are the Deshi equivalents of Baby Boomers and Gen-X, and for the sake of completeness, Millenials?  Following the Pew Research, let’s roughly divide these generations as those born between: mid-1940s and the mid-1960s; mid-1960s and 1980; and after 1980.  I guess we can channel Rushdie and call the oldest generation the Midnight’s Children.  The middle generation can be called the Liberation generation — for the older part of this group, events of 1971 and aftermath form the first memory though they would have been too young to recognise their significance in real time, while the aftermath of the war shaped the childhood of the younger ones.

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Jammin until the break of dawn

Posted in army, books, democracy, economics, history, political economy, politics, uprisings by jrahman on December 2, 2017

What do you do during the evenings, after the day’s tasks are done, of work trips?  You might be tired of being up in the air, or just simply tired.  But depending on the jet lag, you might not find much sleep.  I certainly don’t, even when there is no jet lag — I hate hotel beds.  If you find yourself in a hotel that used to be one of Idi Amin’s torture chambers palaces, and your colleagues are fellow political junkies, you will likely talk about politics over a nightcap.  So did we that rain-soaked Kampala evening.  We talked about, among other things, Zimbabwe.

Why didn’t they get rid of him the old fashioned way, you know, APCs on the streets, tanks in front of the presidential palace, radio or TV broadcast by some unknown major…..

An old Africa hand explained why Robert Mugabe wasn’t toppled in a coup.  No, it wasn’t because of his liberation cred.  Kwame Nkrumah or Milton Obote were no less of independence heroes to their respective countries.  Both were ingloriously booted out, not just of their presidential palaces, but also the countries they led to existence.  At least they lived, unlike say Patrice Lumumba.  Clearly being a national liberator figure didn’t make one coup-proof, particularly if one had turned his (can’t think of a mother of the nation top of my head!) country into a basket case, and had faced concerted political pressure from home and abroad.  According to my colleague with years of experience in the continent, the key to Mugabe’s survival was in relative ‘latecomer’ status.

Mugabe came to power much later than was the case for other African founding fathers.  And the disastrous denouement of his rule happened during a period when the great powers saw little strategic importance in regime change in an obscure corner of the world.  The second factor meant there was no foreign sponsor to any coup.  The former meant that any would be coupmaker, and their domestic supporters, knew from the experiences elsewhere in the continent about what could happen when a game of coups went wrong.

Mugabe gave them hyperinflation.  Getting rid of him could lead to inter-ethnic war.  Easier to do currency reform than deal with refugees fleeing genocide….. 

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The middle

Posted in democracy, economics, elections, governance, political economy, politics by jrahman on November 3, 2017

The Middle is an American sitcom about a middle class family’s struggle in the wake of the Great Recession.  I never watched the show beyond the first episode in 2009.  At that time, it seemed to me to be a poor derivative of Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne.  Facebook tells me that this will be the final season of The Middle.  Maybe I should watch the show.  Set in the mid-western state of Indiana, the protagonist white family might have been just the type that put Donald Trump where he is.  Aristotle wrote that …those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large.  Some argue that stagnation of the American middle class lies behind the rise of Trump.  I am not so sure — perhaps tribes matter more than class.

I don’t want to spend precious time and energy pondering about the plight of the white American middle class.  Instead, let me talk about the role of the middle class in Bangladeshi politics.  The term Bangladesh paradox is now at least half a decade old, and refers to the idea that Bangladesh has been surprisingly good at improving the lives of its poor despite dysfunctional politics and a stunted private sector — that’s from the Economist.  William B Milam, former American envoy to Dhaka and Islamabad and a keen observer of both countries, often talks about another Bangladesh paradox:

….Bangladesh should have become, over the past 25 years, a modernized democracy, knocking on the door of entry into the middle income category of developing countries. Its economy has grown for most of the last two decades around 5-6 % per year, and its social development indices have improved rapidly and now are generally better than most other South Asian countries except Sri Lanka. Instead, over those same two decades, Bangladesh has regressed along the democracy/authoritarian axis no matter which of the two major parties was in power.

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The transition blues

Posted in democracy, development, economics, governance, institutions, politics by jrahman on October 24, 2017

….nearly every country that experienced a large democratic transition after a period of above-average growth  ….  experienced a sharp deceleration in growth in the 10 years following the democratizing transition.

That’s from the Pritchett-Summers paper covered in the last post.  Let the sentence sink in.  Then, if you’re interested in Bangladesh, read on.

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Political impact of remittances

Posted in democracy, elections, labour, political economy, politics by jrahman on July 12, 2017

Along with the garments industry and the NGOs, there is a broad consensus that remittances have played a key role in Bangladesh’s economic development over the past decades.  Notwithstanding that broad consensus, the economic impact of remittances may be more nuanced than one might think, as I conjectured a long time ago:

Well, how about a stylised, and very speculative, story along this line — while RMG has meant women entering the formal workforce, migrant worker boom has sent a lot of risk-taking men overseas; aided by the NGOs and microcredit, households have smoothed consumption and invested in human capital of their children; but they have not invested in physical capital, avoided entrepreneurial activities, and have not pushed for a more investment-friendly polity.

We would want to explore this story further. We would also want to explore the income side of GDP, and tie it into a political economy analysis.

The remittance boom, for example, should see the labour share of the economy rise. Of course, the question is, what happens to the money that is remitted back? It’s reasonable to assume that unskilled labourers are from the poorer parts of the society. So, in the first instance, any remittance back to the villages is a good thing in that it reduces the direst type of poverty — that is it stops things like famine or malnutrition. But what happens after that? My tentative hunch is that a lot of remittance has been saved but not invested in a productive way, rather they ended up fuelling land/stock prices —this is an area that needs to be explored in detail.

Needless to say, I have not followed up on these questions.  But at least the economic impact of remittances is something people have thought about.  What about the political impacts?  That’s the question Shafiqur Rahman of Oregon University explores.*

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Dhaka consensus

Posted in democracy, Islamists, politics by jrahman on April 17, 2017

The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity — wrote WB Yeats nearly a century ago.  Given his own illiberal politics, I am pretty sure to him neither were liberals particularly good nor nationalists and statists bad.  But these days, it does seem that it is the liberal democrats who lack all conviction, while those full of passionate intensity usually idolise a strong state in the service of ‘the people’ — though often there is vocal, sometimes violent, disagreement about exactly who constitutes the said people.

Liberalism has never had much support in Bangladesh, where the writers and critics dealing with ideas have tended to cling to some variant of statism and nationalism.  In fact, as Shafiqur Rahman notes, there is:

…. a curious complete inversion of progressive thinking in Bangladesh compared to the rest of the world.

Throughout the world universalism and rationality are regarded as the bedrock of progressive thinking; in Bangladesh parochial nationalism and emotion are the guiding principles of progressives. Throughout the world progressive historians regard debunking national exceptionalism and national glory as essential for historiography; in Bangladesh progressives regard glorifying national history and suffusing it with strong emotions as the sacred duty of historians.

Throughout the world the best literature are dispassionate and clinical analysis of the human and social condition, in Bangladesh the more emotions you can pour in art and literature the better is its reception to the critical elite. Throughout the world the best political commentators are those who can provide detached, reasoned analysis of political developments, in Bangladesh the best political commentary are saturated with messianic imagery and the most cloying emotional appeals.

Shafiq calls this Bangladeshi intellectual paradox, and goes on to offer an explanation.  His thesis is that in the post-9/11 world,  Bangladeshi elite (his term) reached a consensus that ‘…a fundamentalism based on national glory, sacrosanct past and hallowed individuals’ was the only defence against the risk of a political order rooted in fundamentalist Islam, and liberal notions such as ‘universalism, rationality, freedom of expression’ would only weaken that defence.

I broadly agree with Shafiq’s analysis — under different life circumstances might have written something like this myself.  Of course, a good piece should make one think, and this made me get out of my stupor to jot down my thoughts.

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So long, Obama

Posted in culture, people, politics by jrahman on January 18, 2017

Consciously or otherwise, most of us tend to compartmentalise our existence into home and work.  On the first front, above everything else, I consider myself a father first.  And on the second, well, let’s just say that I have been a bureaucratic functionary for most my working life.  On both, I cannot stress how much there is to learn from the outgoing American president.

Anyone who has ever worked in any bureaucracy would know to choose cock ups over conspiracies.  Well, it’s remarkable how few cock ups — I am talking about executive failures such as Katrina, not policy failures like Vietnam or ethical breaches like Watergate — there has been under Barack Obama.

Hats off Mr Chief Executive.

It’s been slightly over 10 years that I first saw the beginning of the Obama campaign.  I emailed my then wife that there was this really cool guy running for presidency, too bad he won’t get it.  Upon joining me in DC a few weeks later, she saw him and said that I was wrong, that this guy would make it all the way.  A few years later, while expecting our son, the mother-to-be read Obama’s memoir.  Barack was in the running for middle name right till the morning of his birth (losing out to his maternal grandfather).

Much has been written about the mercurial nature of Obama’s rise, his intellect, or oratory, or his policy and political legacy.  And I am sure much more will be.  But to me, it is much more striking how this ‘skinny boy with a funny name’ overcame his personal demons and with equal partnership with Michelle Obama raised two kids.

I am never going to have as demanding a ‘work’ as Mr Obama.  But I do have the privilege — and it is a privilege, not a right — to be a father.  I will reflect on his experience.

So long, Barack.

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Game of coups

Posted in army, Bangladesh, history, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on November 5, 2015

In the blood-soaked history of Bangladesh, this week marks the 40th anniversary of a particularly dark and grim episode.  On 7 November 1975, dozens of army officers of were killed by mutinous jawans.  The mutiny was orchestrated by Lt Col Abu Taher, who was retired from services a few years earlier and at that time was a key leader of the radical Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal.  The mutineers killed Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, who had instigated a coup few days earlier against the regime of Khondaker Moshtaq Ahmed, in power since the bloody putsch of 15 August that killed President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family.  Amid the confusion caused by Mosharraf’s manoeuvres against the ‘killer majors’, four senior Awami League leaders — including Tajuddin Ahmed, the country’s first prime minister who led the war effort in 1971 when Mujib was interned in Pakistan — were assassinated in the central jail, allegedly with the consent of President Moshtaq.  The chaos and carnage of 7 November, coming on the heels of the August massacre and the jail killing, threatened to put the very existence of Bangladesh at risk.

Fortunately, Taher’s mutiny proves short-lived as the army rallied behind Major General Ziaur Rahman.

This post isn’t about revisiting our coup-prone history  or explaining it.  Rather, using the ideas of Naunihal Singh, an American political scientist, I want to discuss why some of those coups were more successful than others, and what they might tell us about the present day Bangladesh.

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