Mukti

What to expect if you are expecting?

Posted in economics, elections, institutions, politics by jrahman on December 23, 2018

In just a few days, Bangladeshis might have a chance to vote.  I have no idea whether the election will be free and fair.  Nor can I venture a guess about the winner.  For all we know, the government will follow the path of Pakistan over India — that is, it will rig the election following ZA Bhutto’s 1977 example, and not accept defeat in a free and fair election like Indira Gandhi did the same summer.  However, one can always hope, and expect.  If you were to expect a Jatiya Oikya Front victory on 30 December, what should you expect for the economy for the next five years?

As with anything to do with economy, the answer is mixed.

On the one hand, even if Mrs Hasina Wajed allows a free and fair election, accepts defeat, and peacefully hands over power, there is a significant risk that she will still have left the new government with a Pakistan-like situation.

Pakistan too had an election earlier this year.  The previous government claimed, with some justification, to have tackled the country’s electricity and other infrastructure problems.  Pakistan economy seemed to have turned a corner.  However, the government’s books were a mess, and there was a risk that the country couldn’t meet its external liabilities.  The incoming government had won the election promising good governance on a whole raft of fronts.  But the new prime minister Imran Khan and his finance minister have spent most of their time travelling the Washington DC, Beijing and Riyadh with a begging bowl.  And all the grand promises seem to be melting into thin air.  If you are expecting a triumph of democracy on 30 December, you would do well prepare for a Pakistan-style crisis in 2019.

On the other hand, if they can avoid a crisis that would be Mrs Wajed’s parting gift, there is much to look forward to a Oikya Front government for.  And a crisis is not a fait accompli.  A train wreck can be avoided if you see the locomotive rushing towards you.  The thing about expectations is, if you know what to expect, you could adjust your actions to avoid the worst possible outcome, and temper your expectations to face the situation in a stoic manner.  I suspect the would be econocrats of the Oikya Front are well aware of the mess they might inherit.  They will need to take a few steps to diffuse any looming disaster before launching their longer term tasks.  And if they can get to it, judging by its manifesto, and BNP’s Vision 2030, a new government will attempt an ambitious but realistic programme.

Let’s unpack these step by step.

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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.

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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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Ghosts of Shapla Chattar

Posted in Bangladesh, history, Islamists, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on November 4, 2018

What is the current status of Jamaat politics in Bangladesh?  The country’s largest Islamist party — at least in terms of parliamentary representation over the past few decades — is denied registration by the Election Commission.  So it can’t participate in the next election under its own name.  Its members can, of course, participate as independent candidates, or under some other party’s ticket.  In either case, they won’t be able to use the party’s traditional electoral symbol of scale.

But Jamaat is not officially banned.  The party still exists.  And is used as a cudgel by every Awami hack to beat up, literally all too often, any opposition voice.

Ironically, the legal status of Jamaat in today’s Bangladesh seems to be pretty much what it was under the bette noir of the current regime.  As Rumi Ahmed describes in detail, Jamaat was denied electoral registration when Ziaur Rahman restored multi-party politics.   ‘Zia rehabilitated Jamaat’ is one of the commonest lie in Bangladesh, and is so successful as a propaganda that even BNPwallahs don’t tend to refute it.  The fact of the matter is, to quote Rumi bhai:

Ziaur Rahman’s assessment was that after their direct opposition to Bangladesh in 1971 and their atrocities – Jamaat brand politics is too toxic and unsuitable for Bangladesh. He was also very aware of Jamaat’s organizational base and 5-10% vote base which he wanted to be used in the joint moderate IDL platform.

To elaborate on this, Zia was acutely aware of the risk of disenfranchising a part of the country that was capable of ruthless, organised violence.  In that regard, allowing a parliamentary party that explicitly drew its politics from Islam was an act of far-sighted statesmanship in 1978 — that is, before the Muslim world was rocked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran, Soviet tanks in Kabul, and the bloodbath in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

Anyway, this post is not about Zia’s legacy.  Instead, I want to think through some issues around Islamist politics in Bangladesh as we head to what might be another politically charged winter.

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On the edge of order and chaos

Posted in democracy, governance, politics by jrahman on January 27, 2014

It seems that every man, woman, child, their pets, even their Apple devices seem to have an opinion on what BNP should have done.  Well, I am not going to add to that volume.  I don’t presume to lecture politicians who have been practising their craft since before I was a twinkling in my parent’s eyes on what they should have done.  I can, however, revisit what I wrote exactly halfway through the Awami League’s last term, and make an educated guess about how things could unfold from here on.

… there are good reasons to expect an AL win in 2013 election.  What happens then?

… AL may well win the 2013 election, but its ability to hold on to power and govern successfully will depend on four key powerbrokers in Bangladesh: the bureaucracy, the army, foreign powers, and the business sector.

That’s what I wrote in July 2011.  To be sure, I got a lot of things wrong.  Follow through the links and you’ll find that I was fearing that a fragmented BNP would hand Awami League a narrow victory in a flawed election.  The reality is that while BNP was more united than at any time in its history — not a single member of any standing left the party to join the 5 January election — and might have won any semi-decent election in a landslide, Mrs Wajed decided to hold an election that surpassed the 1996 or 1988 farces to rival the 1971 ‘by elections’ held under Lt Gen Niazi.

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No foreigners needed

Posted in democracy, politics by mehomaan on January 26, 2014

(Guest post by Tacit.  A version posted at Rumi Ahmed’s blog.)

BNP has made a mistake! BNP has missed the election train! Khaleda Zia must repent now! I keep hearing versions of this argument from various quarters, including individuals in whom I have a great deal of faith and whose judgment I usually regard as sound.

 

What would have happened had BNP participated, and hypothetically, won the election? Would Sheikh Hasina have handed over power to Khaleda Zia and meekly left Ganabhaban?

 

I can tell you that Sheikh Hasina will not hand over power. It can only happen over our dead bodies. —  Was Mr Wazed speaking only in the context of coups, or was it a general statement, encompassing all foreseeable future possibilities?

 

 

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Politics is hard work — are we willing?

Posted in democracy, politics by jrahman on December 7, 2013

Will future historians think of 2013 as a pivotal year for Bangladesh?  If they were to do so, it will not be because of anything that happened in the first half of this eventful year.  The Shahbag Awakening, violence following the verdict in Delwar Hossain Sayedee’s war crimes case, peaceful and violent rallies by Hefazot-e-Islam, the Rana Plaza tragedy — none of these will rate alongside even 1975 or 1990, let alone 1947 or 1971.

All those events, and yet, as the year draws to a close, we are seeing replays of a drama we witnessed in Decembers past, where a government wants to hold an election come what may, citing the Holy Constitution, while the opposition wants to resist it at any cost, citing the fear of rigging.  The political gridlock leads to violent images like this.

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Things I’ll look out for ( in 2013 and beyond)

Posted in AL, BNP, politics by jrahman on January 3, 2013

In one of my previous day jobs involving forecasting, a colleague used to say that it was like urinating against the wind — you think it’s hot, while everyone else laughs at you.  However, the pundits at Financial Times seem to have gotten most of the things right about 2012.  Their 2013 predictions include possible evidence of life in Mars and Istanbul winning the 2020 Olympics.

Just as well that I don’t write for them, because I don’t really have anything profound or foolish to say about the thing most Bangladeshi political animals care about — the result of the 2013 election (which, incidentally, the outside world Guardian pundits don’t much care about).

Instead, let me imitate two of my favourite bloggers , and write about what I will be looking out for.

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