Mukti

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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Scenario analysis

Posted in army, democracy, politics by jrahman on March 18, 2015

Forecasting is a bit like urinating against the wind, you feel the heat, while everyone else laughs at your expense.  Okay, that’s not my original.  I heard it from a former boss, who, being an Antipodean, used to express it in rather more colourful terms.  But anyone involved in any kind of forecasting will tell you that it’s a mug’s game.  Scenario analysis, however, is not forecasting.  Rather than saying X will happen, scenario analysis is about what if X happens.

I have no idea what will happen in Bangladesh.  Anyone who tells you that they know what will happen in Bangladesh is either pushing an agenda, or is delusional, or both.  However, it is possible to make an informed commentary on plausible scenarios.  And it’s even easier to comment on scenarios laid out by someone else.  Fortunately for me, Arild Engelsen Ruud has already described five possible scenarios for Bangladesh.  Over the fold is my take on these.

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A way out of this mess

Posted in democracy, politics by jrahman on February 3, 2015

Guest post by Tacit.  First posted at Rumi Ahmed’s.

The current political problem in Bangladesh is primarily one of imagination. Obviously, neither Khaleda Zia nor Sheikh Hasina will accept an option that is total defeat for them. However, a study of the priority of the two leaders may allow us to glimpse what s solution to the current, bloody impasse may look like.

If Sheikh Hasina currently allows an election, she will lose. She will hand over the government to BNP for the next five years. She will certainly face many uncomfortable cases and inquiries about the BDR massacre, the Padma Bridge controversy, the atrocities committed by RAB in the days leading to and the aftermath of the 2014 election, the Share Market scam, and so forth. Moreover, given the age of both these individuals, it is highly likely that this would be the last time they would face off. Hasina understandably does not want to end with a defeat.

On the other hand, even if hypothetically an election were to take place tomorrow, and BNP was to win the expected 250+ seats, it would very quickly find itself in a world of hurt. BNP has always been composed of two wings: the governance wing and the AL-lite wing. Ever since 2006, the governance wing has been badly worn down. The Chairperson’s faith in Rafiqul Islam Mian, Jamiruddin Sircar, M K Anwar, et al isn’t what it used to be. And there are too few Shamsher Mobin Chowdhurys and Salahuddin/Sabihuddin Ahmeds to fill the void. This is understandable, because BNP has now been in continuous war footing for the 9th year running. If we take Ershad’s ascension as the formal start of his dalliance with Awami League, then this is the longest stretch that a party has been in the role of the “Opposition”, faced with the full brunt of state savagery. It’ll take a while to reset from this to governance mode.

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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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A time for grown ups?

Posted in activism, politics by jrahman on February 23, 2013

Something curious has been happening in Bangladesh in the past 24 hours.  After the jumma prayers yesterday, groups belonging to a dozen or so small Islamist parties took out processions against ‘atheists’ and ‘apostates’ of Shahbagh.  Apparently these defenders of Islam were joined by Jamaat as well.  There were scuffles with police.  Shaheed Minar was attacked in Sylhet, and the national flag was burnt.  And then there were some counterattacks against Jamaat-owned businesses.  By nightfall, things were under control.

That’s what I get from the mainstream media (or the parts I can access — Prothom Alo and Daily Star aren’t safe for my iPad), and that’s not the curious thing.  If that’s all there was to it, it would be hardly different from the occasional rampage some of the more ‘pious’  and excitable fellows get up to every time any government wants to give women equal rights of inheritance.

The curious thing is what I see in facebook and blogs.  Judging by their account, Bangladesh stood on the brink of civil war.  Religious fanatics had openly declared war on the country as it exists.  On the other side, a large crowd had returned to Shahbagh in the evening, demanding that unless the government acts, there will be a revolution.

As explained earlier, on Shahbagh I’ve preferred to keep my mouth shut and eyes open.  That remains my general approach.  I have little factual understanding of what exactly is happening in Bangladesh.  It may be that my facebook friends are an alarmist bunch (bloggers of all types in all countries are usually a hyperventilating lot — Andrew Sullivan felt suicidal when Obama did poorly in a debate!), and the mainstream media had it right: nothing of consequence happened yesterday.  Or, it may be that there are complicated games at play — not being privy to any palace intrigues, I’ll leave conspiracy theorising to others.

If those scenarios happen, then what follows should be discarded.  But as long as there is a non-trivial probability that the more alarmist version is right — that Bangladesh was/is close to civil war — then I believe it’s time for the grown ups to calm things down. (more…)

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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On BNP’s new India policy

Posted in BNP, Border killings, economics, foreign policy, India, labour, politics, Rights by jrahman on November 12, 2012

I was very happy with the US election result, not just because Barack Obama was re-elected — though that too, but because the result vindicated people like Nate Silver.  Silver and others like him predicted the election result very accurately, based on a detailed reading of polls and ‘fundamentals’ data.  And according to them, the contours of the election remained pretty constant throughout the year.  But they were pilloried by pundits and bloviators who saw gamechangers and momentums every week.  As a ‘facts and figures’ guy, I was firmly in Mr Silver’s camp, and I am glad that he won.

Yes, if it’s not obvious, I try to be as much about facts and figures as possible.  This doesn’t mean my analysis is free of judgment or bias — not only is that impossible, but also, hopefully, the readers care about my opinion.  But I feel strongly that those opinions should be based on something solid.  In economic analysis, that means looking at the data.  In the realm of politics, that means looking at what the players publicly promise or do.

I don’t have access to the corridors of power.  Nor do I know the high and the mighty.  So I cannot rely on the inside story from anyone, or base my analysis on the atmospherics.  But most of the time, the detachment actually helps with the analysis.  For example, back in January 2010, when most people were either ecstatic or apoplectic about the Bangladeshi Prime Minister trip to India, I parsed the Indo-Bangla joint communique and decided to ignore the hype.

I’ll let the reader judge how my analysis of Hasina Wajed’s India trip played out.  Instead, let me talk about Khaleda Zia’s India trip.  For those of you affected by the Hurricane Sandy or too busy following the US election, Bangladesh’s leader of the opposition visited India between 27 October and 3 November.  The trip has got the Bangladeshi chattering classes talking.  For a big picture analysis of what it means for our politics, I refer you to Zafar Sobhan, with whom I fully agree on this occasion.  In a personal correspondence, he adds:

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t think India’s support for this government is that deep. If push comes to shove, they won’t bail them out, and perhaps that is all that BNP can ask for.

No wonder the government is throwing tantrums.

Okay, all that is good, but what about the fact-based analysis, you ask?  Well, it’s a bit hard because opposition politicians don’t get to write communiques.  But turns out, we can still analyse BNP’s India policy by parsing some publicly available documents.

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How soon is now?

Posted in AL, BNP, democracy, dynasties, elections, music, politics, rock by jrahman on June 5, 2012

It’s an iconic 1980s song, played in the stereo systems of many a nerdy college kid over the past decades.  Along with Hanif Kureishi’s work, apprently it’s among the best commentary on the Thatcher era England.  It was also one of the themes of this classic Aaron Spelling drama.  And now, it seems to be a great commentary on Bangladeshi political scene. Reading the Economist’s recent editorial and news story on Bangladesh, I kept recalling Morrissey’s matter-of-fact statement:  when you say it’s gonna happen “now”, well, when exactly do you mean? see I’ve already waited too long, and all my hope is gone.

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Peaceful co-existence or 2/11?

Posted in AL, army, BNP, elections, politics by jrahman on April 22, 2012

That’s a shot of Farmgate during today’s hartal (from the Daily Star).  Bangladesh seems to be heading towards another spate of political violence.  For over a year now, I’ve heard speculations of 2/11.  Now I am beginning to believe this might be a real threat.

Is there no way out of this cycle of election-andolon-coup?

Five years and five days ago, I posted my first piece on Bangladeshi politics.  Over the fold is that UV piece reposted.

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