Mukti

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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Meddling foreigners

Posted in cold war, democracy, foreign policy, history, politics, US by jrahman on October 18, 2015

Updated: 431pm 19 Oct 2015 BDT

As I try to get back to writing, I asked an old friend and longtime reader about potential topics.  Syria came up, hardly surprising given the recent news.  I have, however, been quite surprised with the way Bangladeshi cyberspace has been reasonably united in reaching the conclusion that Putin’s Russia is the ‘goodie’ in the conflict and America is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in that benighted country.

I have nothing particular to add on Syria except to observe that the United States and allies occupied a country to get Saddam Hussein, bombed another but stopped short of invasion to get Muammar Qaddafi, and did neither when it came to Bashar Assad, and yet Syria is just as much a mess as Iraq or Libya — so the ‘it’s all America’s’ fault line doesn’t really gel with me.  But hey, if it unites Shahbag revellers, Shapla Chattar mourners, and everyone in between and beyond, who am I to disagree.

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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.

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Political business cycle in Bangladesh

Posted in economics, governance, political economy, politics by jrahman on October 10, 2015

While looking for something else, I recently discovered that in 2013-14 financial year, Bangladesh government’s current expenditure — that is, money spent on salaries, procurement, subsidies and loan repayments — increased by 0.8 per cent of GDP.  On top of that, government investment also increased by 0.7 per cent of GDP.

That is a lot of spending.

Now, I haven’t been following economic and policy developments in as much detail as in the past, so I may well have missed great policy initiatives that underline the apparent spending binge.  But according to the work of IMF’s Christian Ebeke and Dilan Olcer of Riksbankrise in government expenditure of that magnitude is not uncommon in election years in developing countries.  More worryingly, they show that this kind of binge usually ends badly.

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Leaders

Posted in democracy, governance, institutions, politics by jrahman on August 30, 2015

If only we had the right leader….

If only Bangabandhu (or Zia) had lived….  

If only we had a Mahathir….  

I am sure you can finish the sentence with all sorts of claims about how Bangladesh would have been, or could still be, a much better place with better leadership.  Never mind the fact that all things considered, Bangladesh might actually have done more-than-okay.  To many of our chattering classes, we’re doomed because we haven’t been blessed with the right leader.

How much does leadership matter?

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