Political economy in the time of Corona

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on March 29, 2020

I had just come out of local pharmacy with half a dozen or so travel sized hand sanitisers when the text came — trip cancelled, call TA to arrange refund, let’s discuss what can be delivered remotely.  I was few hours from a long journey across the world, and the sanitisers were standard travel precaution to the tropics, not something that was needed at home.

How life has changed in a month!  Now the sanitisers, and toilet papers, are scarce commodities that might be available in the dark web or lawless alleys of the night, except of course, even criminals might be maintaining social distance.  Now we work from home unless absolutely needed.  And I don’t even live in a country that is under official lock down.

I have refrained from writing about the pandemic.  This is a subject on which I knew very little about a month ago.  And as a matter of habit, I try not to write about things of which I know little.  Partly related to the lack of knowledge was the fact that I had no clear thoughts on the matter that I wanted to share.

So I spent the month reading, and listening, partly out of professional necessity, but also, as they say in Bangladesh — bachtey holey jante hobey.  I wouldn’t presume to know much, however.  Definitely not enough to tell what people should do, individually or collectively, at home here in my small town, or back there in the Desi megacity.  Rather, inspired by Shafiqur Rahman, over the fold is, as Lalmohan Babu might tell Feluda — No questions, shudhui jiggasha.


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2020 wishes

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 31, 2019

I write this under a blanket of thick smoke, as the country, no the continent, outside burns, literally.  Apocalyptic is the word to describe scenes across this red southern land, but the end of time it is not.  The fire will burn, consume all before it, but eventually a hard rain will fall.

No, that’s not just mindless optimism on my part.  The empirical evidence is quite clear.  Whether it is how to raise a child, how to look after our health, or manage the economy — we don’t really know much about how to make things better, we know a lot of ways to muck things up, and in most cases, problems actually resolve themselves.

In most cases, but not in all.  You get sick, then you get better, most of the time, except there is that one time when you don’t, and — Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie / Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!

Well, there is only one thing we say to death — not today!  And not this year.  And not this decade.  Wish for the 2020s is then to make the most of what we yet may spend / Before we too into the Dust descend….. 



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Perfomance anxiety

Posted in economics, institutions, macro, micro, political economy, Uncategorized by jrahman on December 21, 2019

Under Article IV of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement, a team of Fund staff visits each member country once a year, collects economic and financial information, and holds extensive discussions with officials on policy matters.  This is then published in its website.  The latest Article IV report for Bangladesh came out in September, stating that Failure to effectively address the problems in the banking system, including high non-performing loans pose a medium likelihood risk to the economy, with a medium-to-high impact in the near term if it hit — High and increasing non-performing loans and low capital adequacy would hamper the banking sector’s ability to finance business investment, add fiscal burden, and hamper growth.

Let’s unpack this.  In doing so, we are going to look at official data.  Yes, there is considerable scepticism about the veracity of official figures.  But official data is all there is to go on, and nihilism of trust nothing but one’s gut instincts is not analysis. As it happens, even official data tell a potentially scary story.


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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?


A time to write 3

Posted in activism, blogging, Uncategorized by jrahman on October 28, 2019

Yes, we have to write.  And we need to be cautious and sensible, which is easier said than done.  The question, however, still remains — where to write?

Back in December, an editor friend told me in December 2018 to write in Facebook — you’ll get many more readers there!  He is still right, insofaras numbers are concerned.  Facebook would easily garner a large readership.  And size does matter if the primary objective is to shape the daily news cycle.

However, the longer term impact of the running-commentary-on-the-news-of-the-day is about as high as the bitter personality feuds that pervade the social media.  For any kind of longer form writing, Facebook is simply not all that useful.  If nothing else, as Zia Hassan experienced recently, it is quite easy for the regime’s trolls to disable or delete or erase the analysis posted in Facebook.

Ideally, there would be a multi-media platform where:

  • short, rapid-fire posts from Facebook are archived;
  • videos — including live ones — are posted or streamed;
  • long form writings are published and followed up with contrasting views;
  • TED-talk style videos are shared on relevant topics; and
  • all of these are publicized.

Incidentally, that was roughly the vision I had for the Unheard Voices blog in about a decade ago.  And I had suggested something similar to the editors of Nuraldeen blog in 2013-14.  If anything, there is perhaps a greater need / appetite for such a platform now.

Of course, just because there is demand does not necessarily mean supply is forthcoming, because this is not a well-functioning market.  You have to be incredibly idealistic (to the point of perhaps being naïve!) and energetic to try something like this in today’s Bangladesh.

The point about idealism is perhaps self-evident.  Let me stress the bit about hard work.  Running a platform like above is a full-time job — three people put 20-25 hours each a week on average on UV back in the day.  And much of the work is unglamorous chore — chasing people to meet deadline, proof reading, managing ego clashes and such like.  This is not for someone who treats writing as a glorified hobby.

I have been following two individuals with tremendous potential — Anupam Debashis Roy and Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan.  The former has started a platform that shares with this blog not just the name, but also a commitment to liberal democracy.  The latter’s experiments on youtube and publications on Islam show that a liberal future is still possible.

In solidarity with both.


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A Song of Chaos and Power

Posted in action, Drama, TV, Uncategorized by jrahman on April 14, 2019

Only a few more hours to go before the final season of Game of Thrones begins, and over the following six weeks life will be quite annoying for people who do not partake. A fellow Deshi political junkie friend who had never watched the show once asked me why I would recommend it — I know it’s got dragons and stuff. But that’s not my thing. Doubt you watch it for that. So, what’s the deal?

I replied that it’s a show about Bangladesh.

No really, I am not kidding. Think about it.

Once upon a time there was a legitimate, but inept, king whose misrule brought the realm to ruins. The king was killed by his own guard, and the rebels massacred most of his family. The usurper, however, proved just as unfit to rule, and before long he too was gone, triggering a vicious power struggle. Behind the scene, a shrewd, master strategist consolidated power, forging alliances of convenience. But he too was killed, along with most of the contenders for the throne. His capricious heir ascended to power, while a challenger emerged from beyond the border — the old king’s surviving daughter had assembled, in exile, a coalition of discontents and foreigners that was about to reclaim the throne.

Wait, you telling me Hasina is Khaleesi and Khaleda is Cersei? Bhai ki deshe ferot jaben?

What about he White Walkers?  They are the mullahs?

And who’s Jon Snow?

Questions followed from friends who clearly had watched the show.

Of course, I was being facetious.  But only just.  No, the show is not about Bangladesh, even though the parallels are quite uncanny.  More profound, however, is the fact that I couldn’t think of any Jon Snow, or Tyrion for that matter, parallel. None of this makes sense to anyone who hasn’t watched the show, or read the books.  Therefore, if I were to convince my friend to watch the show, or make any political points about Bangladesh, I would need to elaborate a bit more.

Ultimately, Game of Thrones, and the book series whence it’s based — A Song of Ice and Fire — is a meditation on political philosophy, political economy, and moral philosophy.  And there is sex, violence, and yes, dragons, and ice zombies.  Over the next few weeks, as winter comes to my town and the show ends, I plan to elaborate on these themes, posting here and in Facebook.

Oh, I will end the series well before the show is over.  How do I think it will end?  To quote one of the characters — If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.

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2019 wishes

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 31, 2018

The nearly-nine will be going for a brown belt in taekwondo in 2019.  A few months ago, he graded for the brown tip.  I asked him if he was sure, because he had missed several weeks of training in the winter.  He said he felt confident.  So he tried.  Unsuccessfully.  He was distraught.  Massive waterworks.  Then he trained his heart out for the next few weeks, and got the tip before the end year break.  But he was still quiet on the drive home.  A number of kids who started after him has passed him to get black belt.  Did it upset him?  No.  They are better.  Well, yes.  I am not that good, am I?  Meanwhile, the nearly-seven got a C in maths and was upset.  It’s not fair.  I do my homework all the time, and listen to my teacher all the time, and work hard!  It’s true, she does.

We tell them that we are proud of them because they work hard, and whether it is teakwondo or maths, they give it a full shot.  I guess they are learning that the game of life may not always be fair, but it’s alright as long as we can look into the mirror and say — I gave it all I had.

Here is to giving it all in 2019.

The choice is clear

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 29, 2018

K Anis Ahmed’s New York Times op ed is half-right, and therefore is all wrong. Bangladesh indeed does face a choice, and on one side stands authoritarianism.  The other side, however, is not extremism as he alleges.  On 30 Dec, Bangladesh faces a choice between continuing a brutal authoritarianism and the beginning of liberal democracy.  This blog stands for liberal democracy, and urges all its readers who are eligible to do so to go out and vote for Jatiya Oikya Front.


Summer of ’77

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 15, 2018

Abu’l Fazl, the Grand Vizier of Akbar, didn’t like Bengal much.  Since he wrote in the 16th century that the country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising, Bengal delta had been part of Empires, a monarchy and a republic, all of which extending beyond the current borders of Bangladesh.  In all these years, only three Mughal Governors — Shah Shuja, Shaista Khan, and Azim-ush-Shan — and Nawab Alivardi Khan had ruled this for a longer period than Prime Minister Hasina Wajed has.  One cannot be in power for this long without having certain leadership qualities.  And one admirable quality of Mrs Wajed is her ability to learn from experience.

Take for example her loss in the 1991 election.  While rejecting the result in a knee-jerk fashion — shukkho karchupi — she accepted that merely asserting the Awami League’s claim to power on its pre-1971 leadership role or the tragedies of 1975 would not be sufficient.  The party needed to appeal to the majoritarian sentiment to win votes.  At the same time, there was a need to assuage the urban, educated, increasingly affluent section of the society that the party had broken decisively from Bakshal-style socialism.  By donning a hijab and downplaying secular credentials, she achieved the former.  To manage the latter, she brought into the fold acclaimed professionals like SAMS Kibria.  Similarly, from her loss in 2001 election she learnt the importance of alliance and electoral arithmetic, which paid dividend in 2006-08.  Also from that election and the aborted 2007 one, she learnt the difficulty of remote control management of the caretakers — so she did away with the caretaker system altogether.

What will happen in Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months will depend crucially on what lessons the Prime Minister learnt from two elections of the summer of 1977.


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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