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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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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Learning from history

Posted in democracy, elections, history, politics, South Asia, Uncategorized by jrahman on July 5, 2015

Forty years ago last week, things were happening in New Delhi that are more often seen in Islamabad and Dhaka.  India came under a State of Internal Emergency on 25 June 1975.  Indira is India — the cult of personality around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi preceded the Emergency, but with wholesale detention of opposition politicians on spurious charges, draconian censorship, executive decrees and ordinances bypassing the legislature and subordinating the judiciary, Indian experiment in democracy seemed to be over.

Then, in early 1977, Mrs Gandhi called fresh elections, which were held on the announced date, in a free and fair manner, and her party was thrown out of office by the voters, she herself losing her seat.  Accepting the verdict, she stepped down.  Indian experiment in democracy returned, to be continued to our time.

The Emergency plays a climactic role in Salman Rushdie’s much-celebrated novel Midnight’s Children.  But it’s Shashi Tharoor’s treatment in The Great Indian Novel that I find more nuanced.  Tharoor’s rendition of the Mahabharata has the general election of 1977, following the Emergency, as the modern-day Battle of Kurukshetra.  Duryodhana, the leader of the ‘baddie’ Kaurava clan, is recast as Mrs Gandhi, while the ‘goodie’ Pandava brothers are: Morarji Desai (who replaced Mrs Gandhi as the prime minister) as the virtuous Yudhishtir; the Indian army as the valiant Bhim; media as the heroic Arjuna; and the civil and foreign services as the Nakul-Sahadeva twins.  As the epic battle isn’t simply ‘good trumps over evil’ in the Epic, so it is in the novel, which ends with a place of honour accorded to Priya Duryodhoni / Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi in the ‘court of history’.

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Something for everyone

Posted in democracy, elections, left, politics by jrahman on April 25, 2015

Voters of Dhaka and Chittagong are supposed to exercise their democratic right on 28 April.  These elections are hardly going to change the political status quo that is Mrs Wajed’s one-person rule over Bangladesh.  And yet, there is something for everyone in these elections.

In Dhaka North — where yours truly spent a part of his life — there really is a choice.  Towards the end of this post, you will find the preference of this blog.

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Flying with broken wings

Posted in army, books, democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on January 16, 2014

A magical realist masterpiece, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has weird and improbable events and people juxtaposed against the history of the 20th century South Asia up to the late 1970s. One such improbable fact was that at the time of writing, and thus the story’s culmination, military rulers of the erstwhile two wings of Pakistan had the same first name.

This is not the only parallel between the political history of Bangladesh and post-1971 Pakistan.

Both successor states of United Pakistan started with larger-than-life charismatic leaders, whose rules ended in tragic denouement inconceivable in 1972.  Both giants found governance to be much harder than populist rhetoric, both resorted to un-democracy, and both ended up meeting cruel ends at the hand of their trusted guards.  Both countries succumbed to dictatorships in the 1980s, although the extent and mechanism varied.  In both countries democratic opposition developed.  In both countries, some form of democratic politics came into practice by the 1990s.

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The not-so-quiet Americans

Posted in democracy, elections, foreign policy, politics, US by jrahman on November 22, 2013

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was published in 1955, after the Dien Bien Phu, but years before America bumbled into Vietnam.  A film version was released in 2002, after Tora Bora, but before America bumbled into Iraq.  Without giving away the story, anymore than you can discern from the trailer above, this is one of the best work on the unintended consequences of American intervention.

Americans are, of course, interested in Bangladesh too.  They have been for a while.  In the post-9/11 world, how can they be not interested in one of the largest Muslim countries in the world?  And their interest has been registered not as quietly as was the case in Greene’s Saigon.  In 2007, as in now, their interest was expressed vocally.  Nonetheless, the plot went awry in 2007.  Will this time be different?

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Credibility and the campaigns

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on October 28, 2013

From Facebook status writers to TV talking heads via op ed columnists, everyone is talking about the BNP chief’s speech.  Unsurprisingly, the BNP supporters are positive about it, while AL-ers find the speech not-so-positive, focussing on the number of former caretaker government advisors still alive in good health and with interest to serve in a potential new caretaker government.

All that minutiae discussion completely misses the forest for the trees.  The best take on Mrs Zia’s speech that I have come across is David Bergman’s.  His title sums it up —Smart with an eye on the international community.

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Predicting the election result from the polls

Posted in democracy, elections, politics by jrahman on October 4, 2013

1543 BDT Oct 10: Thoroughly updated for the latest PA poll.

“Had it not been for the protests, now we would all be focusing on next year’s elections and looking at the government’s record in office and the opposition’s pledges,” said Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune, an English daily. “Now, all bets are off and elections seem a distant concern. It is hard to see how things will revert to politics as usual after this.”

That’s from Syed Zain-Al-Mahmood’s excellent Guardian report on Shahbag.  That was February.  Now it’s September October.  The protesters are long gone.  And everyone’s focusing on the elections —when will they happen, how they will happen, will they really happen, who will win if they do happen, how big the margin will be.

Zafar was hardly the only one who thought that way about politics as usual.  Across the ideological and political spectrum, there was a general agreement that politics-as-usual would end in the spring and summer of 2013 —the debate really was about what would replace it.  Well, in the autumn of 2013, politics-as-usual is back with vengeance.  And this post is all about politics-as-usual.

I have nothing to say about the when and how or whether of the coming election.  Instead, let me focus on what the polls imply about the results of a hypothetical election held this winter.  Some simple calculations – details over the fold – suggest that while such an election will likely result in an unprecedented comfortable BNP landslide.  victory, AL is still very much in the race.

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Time for Atiur Rahman to deliver

Posted in economics, elections, macro, political economy, politics by jrahman on February 7, 2013

As far as I know, this blog is the only place that publicly criticised the appointment of Dr Atiur Rahman as the Governor of Bangladesh.  How has he performed in the last few years as the central banker?  Given the share market bubble and crash and several controversial developments — scams, ‘political’ banks, l’affaire Yunus — in the banking sector, it’s reasonably straighforward that he has failed in his task of maintaining financial stability.  On the other hand, Bangladeshi economy has shown remarkable resilience — growth has been steady around the 6% mark despite shocks such as the share market crash or the fiscal strains related to the rental power plants.  Inflation has been much higher than the Bank’s target picked up during most of the governor’s term, but has subsided recently to be within the Bank’s target (see the chart of inflation through the year, actual vs Bangladesh Bank target — source: CEIC Asia and BB). 

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So, on balance, a mixed record for the Governor so far.  And over the next few months, his record can swing either way.  Unfortunately, the latest monetary policy statement suggests that there is a high risk that my fears about him will yet come true. 

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On the new opinion polls

Posted in AL, BNP, democracy, elections, media, politics by jrahman on January 8, 2013

I was in Dhaka during the 2008 election.  The day before the election, I told Asif Saleh that BNP was making a remarkable comeback and the election would be very tight.  I was, of course, way off.  Turns out so were pundits like Nayeemul Islam Khan, Asif Nazrul, Mahmudur Rahman and Nazim Kamran Chowdhury — who all noticed a massive momentum towards BNP.  I was reminded of this episode last November, when Republican spinmeister Karl Rove refused to accept election results as they were coming in — apparently it wasn’t consistent with the momentum (Mittmentum) he had observed. 

I (and more famous Deshi pundits) had an excuse.  We didn’t have any proper opinion poll or survey data to guide our thinking.  One pundit who did see such data — Zafar Sobhan — did predict an Awami landslide, and he was proved right.  Of course, Rove and his ilk didn’t have such excuse.  In America, people like Nate Silver looked at the polls and other relevant information and predicted the final election outcome quite accurately. 

Compared with America (and other advanced democracies), opinion polls are still few and far between in Bangladesh.  But compared with 2008, we now have regular polls by Daily Star and Prothom Alo.  Good luck to anyone who believes they know the public pulse and don’t care for polls.  Personally, I have no idea what the public believes, so I find these polls very interesting. 

Here is the Daily Star survey, done by Centre for Strategic Research.  Here are detailed results of Prothom Alo survey, conducted by ORG Quest (here is its news report, here is the methodology).  As far as I can tell, these polls are done in the same way similar polls are done elsewhere.  There are margins of error, and the polls are indicative of public opinion, not an exact predictor of anything. 

With those caveats in mind, I think these polls should make BNP and Ershad supporters optimistic, while AL should be quite worried.  The polls also hold interesting results for third force enthusiasts.

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