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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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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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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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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Street failures, and successes

Posted in AL, Bangladesh, BNP, democracy, history, politics, South Asia, uprisings by jrahman on March 2, 2014

The party’s undisputed supremo has given an iron clad ultimatum to the all powerful government, while an unequivocal promise has been made to the party rank and file that victory is imminent.  Political temper is reaching an unprecedented level.  Violence has spread to even the remotest village, and the government repression is just as fierce.  Ultimately, with the economy on the verge of disintegration, the urban and moneyed classes prevail upon the leader to call off the protests.  The andolon has failed.

Mrs Khaleda Zia.  BNP.  Awami League.  2013-14.

MK Gandhi.  Indian National Congress.  The Raj.  1921-22.

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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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Looking at Cairo, thinking about Dhaka

Posted in Bangladesh, democracy, history, politics by jrahman on December 12, 2012

There is a tendency in Bangladesh to compare local politics with the latest development overseas. Thus the comparisons in 2008 between the Awami League and Obama election victories, or the calls for ‘OWS by the Buriganga’, or both AL-ers and BNP-wallahs claiming to be ‘Bangla’r Thaksin’. Such comparisons are likely to miss important nuances. I find it more useful to think about Bangladeshi conditions — something I am likely to know more about than, say, Thailand — and suggest factors that may matter elsewhere.

That’s how I started a post on the lessons our history could provide to emerging Arab democracies.  That was a year ago.  In the year since, democratisation process in Egypt — the most important country in the region — has been much more messy than anything we saw in Bangladesh.  As Bangladesh walks into the next political crisis, it may be a good idea to revisit our own transition from military rule to electoral democracy, and ponder where we went wrong.

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সাতকাহন

Posted in Bangladesh, development, dynasties, economics, history, labour, macro, Muslim world, people, politics by jrahman on October 5, 2012

Seven trashes collected by the senses.

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Breaking the curse

Posted in army, democracy, politics by jrahman on September 23, 2012

We’re talking about a South Asian country where the government is under pressure from several corruption scandals and not-so-good economic news.  The ruling party led the country’s independence, and supposedly stands for secularism and pluralist democracy.  In reality, the party is a dynastic fiefdom of the country’s founding leader, and once the current matriarch passes, the future looks uncertain for the dynasty.  The opposition is no better.  It supposedly reflects a more authentic nationalism than the one espoused by the ruling party, but in reality it has often fueled communal bigotry and violence.  It used to attract professionals and businessmen a generation ago, but not any more.  The country has a strong tradition of community and grass root activism and media tradition.  Dissatisfied with both the main parties, these civil society groups are clamouring for a third force.  Meanwhile, violent extremism that was once thought effectively suppressed may be biding time in remote rural areas.

I could be talking about either Bangladesh or India.  Everything in the above paragraph describes both countries.  But there is one crucial difference.  When people talk about the third force in India, they mean a coalition of parties that will reject both Congress and the BJP.  Any potential third force in India will be based on electoral politics.  In Bangladesh, the most plausible third force, on the other hand, is a military coup.

As I argued here, our history has made us vulnerable to military interventions in politics, right from the beginning of the country.  As we get close the next general election, there will be a lot of talk of yet another coup of some form.  Is there no end to this cycle?

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