Posted in economics, politics by jrahman on January 12, 2020

It seemed to me last week that every man, woman, child, and their pet dog had an opinion about the US-Iran stand off.  But I have never seen anyone predict this October surprise — The Donald striking a deal with the Supreme Leader.  If that happens, then you hard it here first.

Meanwhile, let’s have a crack at some soothsaying.

  • Will Boris Johnson agree a trade deal with the EU?  Yes
  • Will Britain’s Labour party return to electability?  Yes
  • Will Angela Merkel’s grand coalition collapse?  No
  • Will Matteo Salvini come back to power in Italy?  Yes
  • Will Donald Trump win the popular vote in November’s election?  No
  • Will the US go into recession?  No
  • Will China become world leader in 5G telecoms?  No
  • Will India regain its status as the world’s fastest growing large economy?  No
  • Will there be a war with Iran?  No
  • Will South African debt hit junk status? Yes
  • Will the protests that have shaken Latin America continue?  No
  • Will France’s Emmanuel Macron engineer a “reset” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia? No
  • Will we see meaningful regulation of Big Tech? No
  • Will Disney+ change the game in streaming?  No
  • Will Uber become profitable in 2020? No
  • Will vaping be banned? No
  • Will global carbon dioxide emissions fall? No
  • Will Brent crude prices end the year above $65 a barrel? Yes
  • Will the three-decade bond rally finally come to an end? No
  • Will Europe’s banks keep slashing jobs? Yes


Update: Shafquat Rabbee speculated along these lines in 2019.

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London calling

Posted in politics by jrahman on December 15, 2019

Two friends in the woods see a wild bear, or a wolf, or some other fierce beast.  Seeing one ready to run, the other says — You can’t out run the beast!  The reply is — Of course not, but I can out run you!

I was reminded of that when the British election results came in.  Boris Johnson is a liar, has disregarded norms and institutions of democracy, and his signature policy platform — Brexit — is just stupid.  He deserves to be thrown in the dung heap of history.  It’s just that the other side was led by people — not just Jeremy Corbyn, but his entire leadership apparatus — whose world view seems to be straight from 1919!  Anyway, many have written about Corbyn, so I don’t need to belabour the point.  I do, however, wonder if Tarique Rahman was watching the election results and thinking of the prospects of facing the son of his mother’s nemesis……

Johnson can now preside over a soft Brexit and call it a victory, pump prime the economy to avoid a recession, and then call it a victory.  Whether he does that, or something more stupid, Scotland may well go its separate ways.  Seeing the prospects of a disunited Kingdom, I am reminded of how Brexit has traditionally been done:


And anyone who is crestfallen about the prospects of being governed by a craven knave should remember that BoJo is hardly the last mayor of Londonistan.  A jummah praying, Ramadan fasting, pork avoiding brother who is perfectly at ease with gender and sexual diversity and equality, and more importantly, someone who has the track record of competence in running a global city — isn’t Prime Minister Sadiq Khan something to look forward to?


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No place for street fighting

Posted in politics, Uncategorized, uprisings by jrahman on December 12, 2019

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet… Mick Jagger’s wailing has never been more true since protesters rocked the streets in Paris, Prague, Mexico City, Chicago, and closer to home in Lahore and Dacca fifty years ago.  In the past few months, cities around the world have witnessed street protests.  Causes have differed — ranging from metro prices and tax on whatsapp usage to draconian laws and rigged elections.  As have results so far — ranging from policy, if not regime, change to bloody suppression.  Frankly, it’s hard to keep track of the protesters who are rocking the free and unfree world.

Of course, the political junkies that we are, we can’t help but draw conclusions and inferences from these, including what it might mean for Bangladesh.  Unsurprisingly, our reactions reflect our political biases, conscious or otherwise.  That’s why I have seen some friends noting the coup in Bolivia after the previous regime tried to rig the election, while others shared articles about the supposed death of neoliberalism in Chile.

Can we do slightly better? Unconnected and spontaneous the protests maybe, but is there really no pattern to them?


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.


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The Finished Revolution

Posted in Bengal, history, left, politics by jrahman on March 25, 2019

Traffic was uncharacteristically brisk that winter morning in Dhaka, and it took me less than an hour to get from Lalmatia to Savar.  We barely even stopped around Asad Gate, and only after we had crossed the junction that the historical significance of it occurred to me — fifty years ago that week, those red pillars in Mohammadpur got its current name.  That evening, I flicked through seemingly endless streams of Bangla channels to find not a single mention — no septuagenarian waxing nostalgic, no Tagore-quoting melodramatic fictionalisation, not even a perfunctory news item, nothing — about Asad’s bloodstained shirt.


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Trust, but verify

Posted in army, Bangladesh, democracy, history, politics by jrahman on January 10, 2019

Ataur Rahman Khan was a veteran politician with the unique achievement of becoming both the Chief Minister of East Pakistan and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.  He achieved the first in the 1950s, when his Awami League commanded a majority in the provincial assembly after the 1954 election.  His government was dismissed in October 1958, when Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan declared martial law.  He remained steadfastly opposed to the Ayub regime, but formed his own party — Jatiya League — after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pipped him to the AL leadership.  He was arrested by the Pakistan army in March 1971.  He joined neither the Mujib nor the Zia regime, and was elected as an opposition MP in both 1973 and 1979.  A key member of the BNP-led alliance against the Ershad egime, he was considered a principled, seasoned counsel to the political neophyte Mrs Khaleda Zia.  I don’t know if she ever asked why he became the prime minister under HM Ershad’s military dictatorship.  But Mr Khan’s quip to a journalist was that he joined the general to help him shed his uniform and promote democracy.

I was reminded of this politician during a recent political adda where couple of online activists had come up.  Both of them staunchly self-identify as progressive, and would have been described by the so-called ‘pro-1971’ folks as fellow travellers.  One has been in exile since exposing the Bangladeshi army’s link with jihadi extremists when BNP was last in power.  The other, a vocal Shahbag reveller, is in hiding because of his criticism of the current regime.  Both of these men actively supported the Jatiya Oikya Front.  And some of my so-called ‘nationalist’ friends aren’t quite sure of the bona fide of either activist.  It occurred to me that my own record can be questioned too.  And more importantly, as we hunker down for a potentially long period of totalitarianism, how do we choose trusted allies?

One way to choose allies we can trust is by applying some form of litmus test — such and such can’t be trusted because of attending Shahbag, or supporting the 1/11 regime, or once sitting in the same table with Gholam Azam, you get the idea.  One problem with this approach is that it can become dogmatic quite quickly.  And what is the correct litmus test anyway?

An alternative approach might be to ask two sets of questions.  First, consider the person’s stated aim.  What do they say they want?  Why do they want it?  How do they propose to get it?  Second, are their actions consistent with their stated aim?  If they can explain in a satisfactory way that their actions are consistent with their aim — and note, its their aim, not ours, we don’t have to agree with their aim — then perhaps they can be given the benefit of the doubt.  If they can’t, then they are likely to be an opportunist.


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The day after tomorrow

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on January 6, 2019

The infamous 30 December not-quite-an-election is now truly behind us, and Bangladesh today is exactly where it was five years ago.  And there is no sign of anything changing anytime soon.  The regime of Prime Minister Hasina Wajed holds a tight grip on power, and it’s hard to see anything loosening that grip today.  But tomorrow — figuratively, not literally — will certainly be different.  The super-densely populated humid swamp that is Bangladesh is always at the edge of chaos.  Credit where its due — Mrs Wajed has been extremely deft at keeping her regime, and the rest of us, from falling over the cliff.  But nothing lasts forever.  Sooner or later, there will be a tomorrow when the regime finds itself out of credit to pay off the crisis.

What will happen the day after?


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A people’s republic

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 28, 2018

A country isn’t changed by politicians, but its people…..  You are Bangladesh…..  We have no more fear.  We have put Bangladesh in our heart such that there is no place for fear in it…..  On the 30th….  you will take ownership of this country…..  We want to leave this country to our children.

A few weeks ago, I asked why the promises of a few old men should be taken seriously.  Harassed, threatened, beaten, bloodied, shot, arrested, family members arrested — yet, Jatiya Oikya Front is still spreading a message of hope.  Their grit alone deserves to be taken seriously.  And Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir’s inspiring words are backed up by specific commitments that will return the republic to its people.


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Showing up

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 27, 2018

Is there a proper Bangla term for Monday morning quarterback.  There sure ought to be.  After all, we all know many of them in real life — that chacha who confidently opines about the mistakes of everyone on everything from cricket to quantum physics, or that khala who has the told-you-so ready for every occasion.  In the first couple of weeks of 2014, Deshi cyberspace was full of such so-called expert opinions on how BNP should have participated in, and won, that winter’s election.  As Awami League blatantly rigs next week’s election, there will probably be a chorus explaining how BNP got it wrong by participating when clearly a boycott was the better option.

Now, I don’t presume to lecture veteran politicians on how to do politics any more than I can tell a doctor how to diagnose illness or prescribe medicine.  There can, of course, be analysis of what happened, might have happened, should have happened, and what will probably happen.  To the extent that some of this is, well, Monday morning (or five seasons later) quarterbacking — I beg your indulgence.

This might come as a surprise to many that up until the 1980s, election boycott was relatively rare in Bangladesh.


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The end of the beginning

Posted in elections, politics by jrahman on December 26, 2018

Election is not just the act of voting.  Before a voter gets to the centre, there has to be candidates representing all sides, and the candidates need to be able to campaign freely.  By all accounts, the electoral process so far has been far from free and fair.  And after the votes are cast, there is the process of counting — who knows what kind of shenanigan awaits us there.  So, even if the voters get inspired enough to vote, is there real any cause for optimism?

Let’s think this through in a systematic way.

How could things end?  Either Awami League brutally and blatantly rigs the election on 30 Dec (or early hours of the 31st if the rigging is to be done during the counting process), or it fails to do so.  These are the two possibilities, right?  What’s a reasonable probability of AL failing to carry out its designs?  Obviously there is no formal mechanism to put a number on it. Let’s say there is a 20% chance that AL won’t be able to steal the election.

Does that mean there is a 20% chance of Jatiya Oikya Front winning?  No.  It’s more complicated than that.  There are two ways AL could fail to rig the election.  One is, of course, the silent voter revolution — the turnout is so high, and voter rejection of Mrs Hasina Wajed is so overwhelming, that the boat just simply sinks.  But that’s not the only way AL could fail to rig — violence could get out of hand on the election day, or blatant miscounting could trigger a popular uprising that ends in a military coup, or a combination of these, and other violent stuff, could eventuate.  Let’s say there is an equal probability of the peaceful and violent failure-to-rig scenarios.

That would leave us with a mere 10% chance of a peaceful change of government.  Not very uplifting, right?


Think about the 80% probability that on 30-31 Dec, Awami League will ‘win’ a majority, and sometime in the following week Mrs Wajed will be sworn in for a third consecutive term.  Will 2019 and beyond be like the past decade?

No.  No matter what happens, Bangladesh will enter a new phase next week.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous observation after the Battle of El Alamein — Now this will not be the end. It will not even be the beginning of the end. But it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning.


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