Mukti

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 few old men

Posted in Bangladesh, democracy, elections, history, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on December 4, 2018

A corrupt, selfish elite rules over you, an elite in cahoots with foreigners, to whom the nation’s assets and future is being sold; and the lying media and rootless intellectuals stop you from seeing the truth; and yet, you sense the truth, that’s why you flock to the leader; even as the enemies of the people demonise him for not echoing their sophistry, you feel he tells it as it is — that he will kick the elite out, drain the swamp, lock the corrupt up, kill the criminals, and fix what ails the country; and make no mistake, it’s not hard to fix things, it’s just the knavery and perfidy of corrupt elite that need to be rooted out, and the leader will do just that; and he has proved it, hasn’t he, in his remarkable career as (business tycoon or mayor or army officer or whatever); he will make the country great, because he is truly of the country, like you are, and unlike those footloose elite who will flee the land with their ill gotten wealth if things get tough.

In recent years, variations of the above have reverberated from Washington DC to New Delhi, Warsaw to Brasilia, and Istanbul to Manila.  And politics around the world has been shaken.  There appears to be one exception — there doesn’t appear to be a Bangladeshi strongman on the scene.

There might have been.  After all, charges of corruption and ‘selling the country to foreigners’ can be laid quite easily against the current regime in Dhaka.  And historically, Bangladeshis have proved as susceptible to the cult of the leader as any other people.  So there might well have been a would be strongman leading the opposition.

Curiously, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, strongman in Bangladeshi politics is a dog that didn’t bark.

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Politicsback

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on November 25, 2018

These old men are bringing politics back, yeah / Them other guys don’t know how to act, yeah…. — okay, that’s enough frivolities, this is a serious political post.  Jatiya Oikya Front is taking on the regime of Hasina Wajed through the ballot box, thereby bringing politics back, politics that was sent packing by the prime minister of East Peccavistan five years ago.  What exactly is going on?  How did we get here?  That’s hard enough to answer, never mind any prediction of what will happen next!

What do I mean politics was sent packing?  Four years ago, I argued that our institutional settings — unitary republic with a unicameral legislature, constitutional bar against floor crossing, and the first past the post voting system — plus the historical baggage carried by the two party chiefs led to the autocracy of Mrs Wajed.  Her rival, Mrs Zia, was soundly beaten.  And with that, politics as we knew it ended.

The institutions we created/inherited, with the historical factors, led to the politics of the past decades. After 1991, BNP realised that it had power over so many things, while AL realised that it had power over absolutely nothing.  AL immediately set on winning power. It went with what it knew well —andolon. BNP panicked and rigged a by-election in Magura, giving AL a casus beli. After 1996, BNP figured that andolon would not do, so they introduced the alliance concept. After 2001, AL did andolon, but also formed a bigger alliance and introduced behind-the-scene moves with the establishment. Meanwhile, each successive government took centralisation to a new level.

And all this, because losing is not an option in a winner take all world.

At least in that world, the existence of two parties created some form of balance of force.  That balance is now gone.  BNP is not able to dislodge the government.  Calling for a free and fair election is a pointless exercise because the government isn’t interested in offering one, and the establishment isn’t convinced switching the masters will do anyone any good.  As a result, politics as we have come to know is finished.

A few hours after I posted that, another round of andolon ensued.  I don’t know whether this was premeditated or spontaneous, but the opposition BNP’s apparent number two called for the street protest to continue until the government fell.  I don’t know whether the violence that ensued were acts of agent provocateurs, but force did not bring politics back.

So, how did politics come back now?

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Putting a ring on it

Posted in democracy, elections, politics 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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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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