On the edge of order and chaos

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.

Clearly, I did not see this coming.  But then again, very few did.

As such, the Prime Minister’s ability to push the envelop should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, it might still be instructive to think about how the four bastions of power needed to govern Bangladesh are likely to behave from here on.

The analysis is most straightforward with the army.  As I’ve argued in a number of places (for example, here), the only likely scenario under which a military coup is plausible is during a political crisis where the army is asked to crack down on civilian population.  And let me stress the ‘crack down’ — not mere deployment, not a specific operation by a select unit in a faraway place like Satkhira, but a general order to kill hundreds if not thousands of people.  The Awami government has thus far managed to keep the army away from any such conflagration.  With the opposition’s street protests essentially ending, at least for now, the army is not expected to be asked to crack down on anyone.  Hence, at least for now, Mrs Wajed is probably not fearing any coup.

It’s slightly trickier to analyse the civilian bureaucracy, whose active co-operation is needed to govern the country.  Let me reproduce what I said in July 2011:

The people who make up mid-to-senior ranks of the bureaucracy have spent most of their working lives during the post-1990 era.  Like everything else in the country, these officers are directly or indirectly categorised (by themselves, their peers, and their bosses) along partisan lines.  And most officers have learnt to live with the system — if your party is out of power, you cover your head, put up with the situation, and survive for five years, after which your party will be back, and you’ll make up for the lost time with accelerated promotions and foreign trips.

The two years of 1/11 rule had slightly upset this balance.  But because both Awami/pro-71 types and nationalist/Islam-pasands were hurt equally, it was a wash overall.  If all of a sudden it appears that there is no prospect of a non-AL government beyond 2013, a significant part of the bureaucracy will reassess the situation.

One possible scenario is that anyone who lacks the strongest Awami credential (family from Gopalganj, elected into some student council in the 1980s with a Mujibist BCL ticket, suffered under BNP) will become extremely risk averse.  The result, implementation of various programmes and policies will become even more lacklustre than is already the case.

But beyond worsening the quality of governance, it’s not clear whether the bureaucracy will actively precipitate a political crisis, let alone recreate a civilian coup like 1996.

One reading of the new cabinet line up — whereby the political nobodies like Dipu Moni and Rezaul Karim Heera are out and stalwarts like Tofail-Amu-Naseem are back — is that the Prime Minister is well aware of bureaucratic lethargy undermining her government.  And nowhere would a seasoned, experienced minister be needed more than in the ministry that deals with the big end of the town.

In this government, after the Prime Minister herself, the most important person is the Commerce Minister.  He is the man who has to ensure that major business houses (and NGOs such as BRAC) are not hostile to the government.  For the most important industry that matters for the economy — the readymade garments — Minister Tofail Ahmed is already working to to ensure that the international buyers come back quickly and stick around (the outlook for the industry is much rosier than some would have you believe — subject of a different post).  For other products, Minister Tofail will have to work with the businessmen to ensure that Dhaka markets are well supplied so that the cityfolks are content.

As long as the Prime Minister can maintain overall stability, it’s quite likely that the Commerce Minister will keep the business sector content — after all, what matters most to the businessmen is certainty and stability.

Stability is also the thing that foreigners ultimately want in Bangladesh.  India-China-America, everyone has their agenda, and these agendas may not align.  But no one wants instability in a country of 150 million Muslims.  Given the distrust — justified or otherwise — of Tarique Rahman and Jamaat-e-Islami, and the BNP chairperson’s practical difficulties in dissociating with them, the Prime Minister appears to have convinced the interested foreigners that she is better placed to provide stability and certainty.

Thus, it appears that powers-that-be needed to govern Bangladesh are willing to stick with a Prime Minister who promises order.  And at least for now, it’s hard to see what BNP can do alter this.  But perhaps BNP doesn’t need to do anything.

One cannot stress enough that the Prime Minister’s grip on the pillars-of-power rests on one and only one claim: she can provide stability.  Not the spirit of 1971.  Not development records.  Not Digital Bangladesh.  Nothing like that.  All she has is the promise — seemingly justified at this stage — that she can provide order, while her rival invites the risk of chaos.

What can make lie of this promise?  Why, events, my dear reader, events.  Just consider if something like two events from the Prime Minister’s last term were to occur now.

Just imagine that there is a sudden and violent mutiny in the head quarters of RAB, killing dozens of majors and colonels, while the Prime Minister dithered.  In 2009, when this happened at the BDR head quarters, the government wasn’t even two-months old, and frankly, even people like Farhad Mazhar and Nurul Kabir propagated the downtrodden-BDR-vs-fat-cat-army line.  If something like this happened now, the reaction from all quarters would be very, very different.

Alternatively, just imagine that a Bangla translation of this book is associated with Hassanul Huq Inu or some other leftist minister of the current government, the word is spread around the Bangla cyberspace rapidly, and a hitherto little-known group of Islamists, based in the capital’s major education institutions, organise a million-strong march in the heart of the capital?  You see, in the specific circumstances of early 2013, the government had gotten away with the events of 5 May 2013.  But 2014 and beyond will be very different.

The Prime Minister has told the powers-that-be that she will keep order.  The reality, however, is that she stands on the precipice of chaos, for the simple reason that Bangladesh — a super-densely populated humid swamp — is always at the edge of chaos.  Usually, mandate from a democratic election, or the prospect of the next one, keeps us from falling over the cliff.  By taking away the option of a democratic election, the Prime Minister has effectively put a ticking time bomb on herself.

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