Something for everyone

Jyoti Rahman

Voters of Dhaka and Chittagong are supposed to exercise their democratic right on 28 April.  These elections are hardly going to change the political status quo that is Mrs Wajed’s one-person rule over Bangladesh.  And yet, there is something for everyone in these elections.

In Dhaka North — where yours truly spent a part of his life — there really is a choice.  Towards the end of this post, you will find the preference of this blog.

To begin with an obvious statement — these elections ended BNP’s andolon.  Arguably, BNP was going nowhere in the streets.  A post-mortem really deserves its own post (and I hesitate to even signal one might be in the offing).  For now, there is no argument that this round went to the League.

Okay, so here is a contentious point — with these elections, the Prime Minister has given Mrs Zia an exit.

Pause, and think about this.

There is no denying that she can be brutally ruthless when she chooses to, and there must have been huge temptation to go for the opposition’s jugular.  So, why did the PM hold back?

I’d argue that by holding back, and allowing her much weakened opponent a way out, the PM strengthens her hold over the establishment — the business sector, the civil-military bureaucracy, and foreign powers.  Remember, the Awami-establishment bargain is based on stability.  Mrs Wajed’s best and only real selling point is that she alone can provide stability.  For a few weeks in January, that proposition was tested.  Driving BNP underground isn’t going to do anything for stability.  Allowing BNP a breathing space through local government election, on the other hand, does help with stabilisation.

Now, make no mistake that BNP is much weakened.  Scores of its grass root activists (and indeed mid-level leadership) have been abducted or killed, and much of its senior leadership is in either jail or exile.  Also, make no mistake that the elections are on a level playing field.  But for BNP, it’s hard to see an alternative to taking the exit offered.  It gives the party a chance to live for another day — there is nothing else.  And even if it doesn’t fight another day, life is something.

I have no idea which way the voters will choose.  It’s entirely possible that BNP will lose all three, fairly or otherwise.  It’s hard to see what the ruling regime can achieve by blatant poll-day rigging (as opposed to pre-poll machinations).  Plus, I am not sure BNP actually has enough strength to get-out-the-vote or maintain adequate presence in the centres on the day.  That is, it is quite possible that BNP will lose a seemingly peaceful semi-decent election.  Should that happen, its rank-and-file will be further demoralised, limiting the chance of another winter flair-up.

But it is also entirely possible that BNP might win all three, or two, or one.

The thing is, even if BNP wins all three, and gets a morale boost, there might still be a lot for the regime.  If BNP were to win on the 28th, on the morning of the 29th, the Prime Minister will claim ‘see, fair election possible under us’, invite the mayors-elect to Ganabhaban and promise full co-operation.  The editorials on the 30th will then be full of praise for Mrs Wajed’s statesmanship, and BNP’s pettiness and idiocy.

Of course, as things stand, the mayors and their councils have no power over anything substantial.  In fact, by allowing these local government elections, the PM is following in the footsteps of the military regimes of HM Ershad or Ayub Khan, or the Raj going back a century — they too allowed elections of local bodies with limited powers to pacify restive subjects.  As such, it’s easy to think about sitting out these elections.

Such cynicism would be wrong.

For one thing, just as was the case under the Raj or the generals, these elections provide an avenue for new politicians to emerge.  Indeed, anyone who claims to be tired of the two netris or politics-as-usual must take these elections seriously.  If not through elections, how else do they propose new leadership will emerge?

Dhaka North is particularly important.  A directly elected mayor of the richest and most educated part of the country — one can think of far worse ways of nurturing new leadership.  The mayor-elect of Dhaka North might have little power on paper.  But he will have tremendous symbolic and moral authority, which may well provide seed capital for a bright political future.

Further, there really is a choice in Dhaka North.  Annisul Huq, Zonayed Saki, Mahi B Chowdhury, Tabith Awal — each of them offer different things, and you should think carefully before exercising your right (if you can) on the 28th.

Take Annisul Huq, the Prime Minister’s choice.  If you believe the PM is doing a helluva job, then clearly you should vote for Mr Huq.  And by the same token, a vote for Mr Huq would mean this is what you really think.

If you fancy yourself as one of the left, if you like railing against ‘neoliberalism’, if you went to Shahbag and then soured on Awami League, then Mr Saki is your man.  Now, my politics is decidedly not of the left.  I think Marx was right about many things but was wrong about the most important matters, and I have a very dim view of non-Marxist populism.  But this post is not a critique of the left.  Relevant thing for us is that by joining the hustings, Mr Saki is signalling that he takes the hard work of politics seriously.  That is to be commended.  If you are serious about the left, then you should vote for him, not Mr Huq.

I am not really sure I see anything commendable in Mr Chowdhury.  I understand he is media-savvy.  He portrays himself as a face of the youth.  I guess in Bangladesh a 46 year old can pass for young.  But Mr Chowdhury is not a new face.  He has been in politics for a decade and half.  He has had plenty of chance to show his acumen.  And he has delivered nought.  Nought is also what he has achieved outside politics.  A vote for him is a lazy choice, a thoughtless choice, symbolising nothing but the voter’s unwillingness to take things seriously.  As it happens, I doubt Mr Chowdhury will get far.  And just as well, for a good showing by Mr Chowdhury would mean worse for future for our politics than a resounding win for Mr Huq.

And that leaves us with Mr Awal.  At 36, he would be considered young for politics anywhere in the world.  He is a genuinely new face in politics.  The politically apathetic might dismiss him as being a parachuted candidate with a silver spoon.  Dismissing Tabith Awal out of such cynicism, however, would be a bad mistake.  Mr Awal is no more a parachuted candidate than Mr Huq.  He is far less a dynastic scion than Mr Chowdhury.  And at least by one measure, he has shown greater commitment to people’s rights than Mr Saki — in late 2013, when the most fundamental of democratic rights, the right to choose one’s government, was being snatched, Mr Awal courted arrest.  Indeed, by that measure, Tabith Awal has shown greater political courage than any of his opponents.

There is a lot of things wrong with BNP.  But endorsing Mr Awal’s candidacy is not one of them.  If you take your rights seriously, if you want the 6% growth and associated social development to continue, if you want to heal the fissure of Shahbag and Shapla Chattar, you must welcome men and women like Mr Awal into politics.

Tabith Awal may be the youngest candidate in Dhaka North, but a vote for him is the mature thing to do.

First Published at

A Lear’s Fool to King Tarique

There is no shortage of punditry along the line of BNP-is-in-trouble, most being pretty vacuous like this.  Shuvo Kibria had a better attempt a few weeks ago:

সরকার ….. নিজের আস্থাহীনতার সঙ্কট আছে।….. জনব্যালটে তার ভরসা নেই। …..সরকার চাইবে রাজনৈতিক শক্তি হিসেবে বিএনপিকে সমূলে উৎপাটিত করতে। বিএনপির চ্যালেঞ্জ হচ্ছে, রাজনৈতিক শক্তি হিসেবে নিজেকে পুনঃপ্রতিষ্ঠা করা।  (The government has its own crisis of confidence…. It doesn’t rely on public ballot…. The governent will want to uproot BNP as a political force.  BNP’s challenge is to re-establish itself as a political force).

I think the above is in on the whole correct.  And there may be a degree of validity in this as well:

বিএনপির প্রথম সারির নেতাকর্মীদের মাঠে নেমে প্রমাণ করতে হবে দলের স্বার্থে তারা যেকোনো ঝুঁকি নিতে প্রস্তুত।  (BNP’s front row leaders and workers will need to prove their willingness to take any risk for the party by getting into the field).

But I think even Kibria misses some key nuances.

Let’s start with a few observations.

First, on BNP’s failure in the streets.  By all accounts, BNP rank-and-file gave it a pretty good shot this time last year.  And they came short.  They could not stop the government from ramming through a one-sided election as a result of which Hasina Wajed continues to be the prime minister.  But BNP’s failure is not qualitatively different from MK Gandhi’s in the early 1920s, or Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s in the mid-1960s.  Our history is full of failed street movements.  The historical reality is, most andolons fail, just like BNP’s did.

The past is not always an accurate guide to the future.  But I am quite skeptical of any analysis that concludes with ‘BNP must launch a vigorous andolon that will lead to a mass upsurge’.  Even if BNP could mount one, in and of itself, what would another round of street protests, blockades and hartals achieve?

Second, BNP failed to win over the bastions of power that ultimately matter Bangladesh.  Above everything else, powers-that-be want a stable Bangladesh.  And BNP failed to convince the civil-military bureaucracy, corporate sector and foreign stakeholders that it could provide stability.  Of course, in a two-horse race, one doesn’t have to be particularly good — simply being just not as bad as the other side makes one win such races.  It’s not that everyone is inspired by the Prime Minister.  It’s just that when all is said and done, sufficiently large number of key stakeholders simply didn’t respond to BNP, and accepted Mrs Wajed.

Third, from BNP leadership’s actions, we can deduce something about its self-assessment.  Recall, we can summarise BNP’s travails as one of either marketing or management or product.  By making it abundantly clear that Tarique Rahman is the party’s future, BNP is signalling that it believes the problem is not management.  Therefore, it must believe the focus should either be marketing or product or a combination.

As would be clear by the end of the piece, I do not necessarily agree with BNP’s choice (and that’s putting it mildly).  But it matters little what I think.  Leaving my views aside, let’s accept for now that BNP has got it right — Mr Rahman is the best it has got.  Fine.  So, how should he try to win over the powers-that-be?

If we assume that BNP’s middle-of-the-road, don’t-rock-the-boat pragmatic Burkean conservatism is the appropriate ‘product’ for Bangladesh — full disclosure: I personally do — then the challenge before Mr Rahman is simple: he needs to establish himself as acceptable to the establishment.  Currently, he patently is not.  Believing that the establishment will choose him over the Prime Minister is like claiming the earth is flat.  Railing against the establishment for its alleged hypocrisy on this count is futile.  Bottomline: senior state functionaries, big shot businessmen, and interested foreigners don’t think much of Mr Rahman.

They didn’t think much of him last winter.  And since then, sporadic forays in our pathetic history wars have done nothing to improve his standing.  They create media buzz, senior Awami League leaders end up looking quite stupid, and BNP rank-and-file feel fired up for a while.  But what do they do to alleviate Mr Rahman’s extremely negative image?

To ask is to answer.

Right.  So, what should Tarique Rahman do?

In the first instance, he should stop appearing in silly videos with stupid titles like Deshnayak, or never, ever, indulge in the circus of cutting supersized birthday cakes.  As it happens, it is quite rational for even a sensible and erudite person like Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir to engage in these acts.  After all, in a party that is by design bereft of any strong ideological mooring but the politics of synthesis of centrist, pragmatic nationalism, if there is no internal organisational rejuvenation, how else are the party workers and leaders to signal their allegiance but to foster a personality cult?  Of course, by doubling down with Mr Rahman, organisation rejuvenation has been made just that much harder.

That is, BNP — or rather, Tarique Rahman — has created a vicious cycle. Its current senior leaders — and note the word senior, these are old men and women — have no alternative to engaging in obscene Tarique-mania, which puts off otherwise sympathetic elements of the establishment, which compounds BNP’s problems, which creates further distrust among its leaders, who must then engage in further sycophancy, and so it goes.

If Tarique Rahman ever wants to govern Bangladesh, he must end this now.  If he doesn’t get the irony of being called a deshnayak while living in bidesh, if he thinks he is the embodiment of youth at 50 — an age by which his father had been president for nearly four years, or Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was already hailed as Bangabandhu — he will never make it.

Dramatically cutting off the circus would be a good first step, and a low hanging fruit.  Mr Rahman will need to follow that up with more speeches and public appearances, and not just to the choir in East London about Sheikh Mujib’s Pakistani passport (do we really need to replace Hasina Wajed with someone who seriously thinks Mujib needed a passport in Heathrow airport in January 1972?).

This is not to say he should shy away from hitting hard on the haloed Mujib myth.   Like it or not, history wars is a key part of our politics that BNP cannot shy away from.  Apparently Tarique paid respect at Mujib’s grave several times when BNP was in power.  Why on earth did they keep that a secret?  Why not talk about it now?  And then, the respect for Mujib-the-nationalist-hero notwithstanding, draw the parallel between 1974-75 and the present day, maybe in a frank series of interviews with Zafar Sobhan — now, wouldn’t that be something?

And yet, that would not be enough.  Even if he is humanised and shown to be a normal, decent person, to the establishment there are grave doubts about his associates.  The establishment wants to feel comfortable that Tarique Rahman’s associates are their own.  On this, Mr Rahman will do well to learn from, wait-for-it, Mrs Wajed.

Yes, believe it or not, once upon a not too distant past, the establishment did not trust the Prime Minister and her party.  Even in the early 1990s, the stereotype was that those few Awami Leaguers qualified enough to govern were unreconstructed socialists, while most AL-ers were simply not fit for office.  This changed in the lead up to 1996 election, when Mrs Wajed made it clear that people like the late SAMS Kibria or AHSK Sadeq were in her inner sanctum.  This paved the way for a rapprochement between the League and the establishment.

Tarique Rahman needs to do something similar for his party.  Appointing a fresh-faced PhD in marketing, I’m afraid, simply doesn’t do that.

Therein lies the rub.  Mr Rahman needs people who are already established in their fields — business, professions, academia, at home and abroad — by his side.  But such people simply don’t like him much.  Why would they put their trust in someone whose only claim to fame is his parents (and infamy from his lifelong friends)?  Dynasty didn’t do it for a dud like Rahul Gandhi.  Why should Tarique be any different?

Mr Rahman has odds stacked against him.  Therefore, it follows that he has to shake things up.

Two acts come to mind, neither easy, and one carry high risks.

Firstly, Tarique Rahman must produce a game-changing idea.  Not nice ideas like how to improve agricultural yield as he did in an early London speech in 2013 — that kind of stuff can go well with his little chinwag with Mr Sobhan.  But that won’t shake things up.  No, he needs to do what Mujib did in 1966 by presenting Six-Points.

Back then, Ayub Khan dominated over Pakistan.  Grand old men like HS Suhrawardy were either dead or marginalised.  Younger, leftist firebrands were beginning to turn on each other, taking their cue from Beijing and Moscow.  Mujib’s peers like Ataur Rahman Khan looked tired with their calls for restoration of democracy.  Ayub could simply ignore them.  But Mujib with his Six-Points was different.  Here was a paradigm shift.  Fiscal autonomy.  Monetary autonomy.  East Pakistan’s own oreign trade missions and paramilitary.  Mujib called for an end to not just Ayub regime, but Pakistan-as-it-existed.  Ayub knew he had to use the ‘language of weapon’.  So he did.  Mujib went to jail, and came out after the regime collapsed.

It’s very important to understand that the 1968-69 uprising that led to Ayub’s fall was not a step-by-step escalation of any andolon programme by Mujib or his party.  An urban uprising started in West Pakistan from a clash between students and army jawans in the beginning of winter 1968, and by the end of the winter, both wings of erstwhile Pakistan was aflame.  At the centre of the uprising was Maolana Bhashani.  But not only was Bhashani without a party, he was also a man without any compelling ideas for the post-Ayub world, and zero support among the establishment.  When the Pakistani establishment had turned on Ayub, the emergent East Bengali establishment squarely stood with Mujib.

That’s the act Tarique has to emulate.  He has to produce a coherent vision that the current Bangladeshi establishment could rally behind when, rather than if, Mrs Wajed’s regime unravels.  And unravel the current regime will, sooner or later — let me quote myself from January:

….. 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.

Tarique has to make sure that when the time comes, he is not brushed aside like the old Maolana.  And for that, a compelling vision for a post-Hasina Bangladesh — hard as that might be to conjure — is not necessary, but not sufficient for Tarique.  He still needs to demonstrate that he as an individual has what it takes.  He must demonstrate his grit.  His sickly, elderly mother does that every time she goes out to one of those rallies.  Mrs Wajed did that in 2007 when she defied the 1/11 regime and returned home, or in 2004 as the subject of an assassination attempt, or in 1988 when police open fired on her rally.  His father demonstrated grit in the battlefields in 1965 and 1971, and every day between 3 November 1975 and 30 May 1981.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman demonstrated grit by never compromising with the Pakistanis despite spending much of the 1950s and 1960s in jail.

That’s the standard Tarique Rahman has to live up to.  A London exile simply doesn’t cut it.  He has to return home, embrace a prison sentence, and possible threat to his life.

That’s the bottomline for him.

As things stand, with Tarique Rahman in his current avatar as BNP’s chosen future, I am afraid the future is bleak, and we might soon be discussing BNP’s past.

How to lose the history wars

by Jyoti Rahman

I said in the previous post:

They didn’t think much of him last winter. And since then, sporadic forays in our pathetic history wars have done nothing to improve his standing. They create media buzz, senior Awami League leaders end up looking quite stupid, and BNP rank-and-file feel fired up for a while. But what do they do to alleviate Mr Rahman’s extremely negative image?

Obviously, I don’t approve of the way Tarique Rahman is engaging in the ‘history wars’.  It occurs to me that I should elaborate and clarify.  Hence this post.  I don’t agree with Mr Rahman’s interpretation of history.  More importantly, from a partisan political perspective, I think they cause more harm than good for BNP.  And most frustratingly, a few solid points that BNP could make very usefully are utterly wasted.

Let’s start with the claim made about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — that he was a Pakistani collaborator who compromised with the Yahya regime because he was after personal power.  I paraphrase, but this is the gist.  And this is about as sensible as the claim that Ziaur Rahman was a Pakistani spy.

Let me refer to GW Chowdhury, Abul Mansur Ahmed, and Moudud Ahmed.  Hardly disciples of the cult of Mujib, any of these men.  And yet, all three write how Mujib might have compromised on the Six Points at any time between the winter of 1968-69 and the summer of 1971, and become Pakistan’s prime minister.  Ayub and Yahya offered him the job in February 1969.  There was a general expectation that the Six Points were Mujib’s ambit claim, and he would compromise after the election.  ZA Bhutto calculated that.  Yahya Khan calculated that.

But Mujib did not.

In fact, by officiating a public ceremony where he led the Awami League legislators-elect to swear an oath on the Quran to never compromise on the Six Points, Mujib left himself little wiggle room to compromise even if he had wanted to.  What Mujib stood for in 1970 elections was abundantly clear, and he did not compromise from that.

Mujib wanted to compromise for personal gain — is Tarique Rahman trying to become the jatiyatabadi Omi Rahman Pial?

Of course, it gets worse.  What does one make of the claim that Mujib traveled on a Pakistani passport in January 1972?  I am sure Shafiq Rehman can conjure a brilliant political satire about the Heathrow immigration officer asking ‘Right, Sheikh eh, since when Pakis had Sheikhs’.  But the joke here is at the expense of anyone who believes Mujib would have needed a passport to pass through Heathrow that January.

And in this comedy, BNP loses a chance to score a sound political point.  No, Mujib wasn’t a Pakistani collaborator.  That’s nonsense.  What’s not nonsense, what’s undeniable, is that he did not prepare for an armed resistance, that he was absent from the war.  Now, it is possible to argue that Mujib did not want to lead a war of national liberation, and he had good reasons for taking the course he did — I have made that argument myself, and I stand by it.

But that’s just my interpretation of events.  And even if I am right, it’s legitimate to say that Mujib got it wrong big time.  Politically, the potent argument here is — the nation trusted Mujib with its future, and Mujib failed the nation in the dark night of 25 March 1971, not because Mujib was a bad guy, not because he was a collaborator, not because he was greedy or coward or anything, but far worse, he made the wrong judgment.

Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury once (in)famously made that point.  Repeatedly made, that would be a killer punch against the haloed Mujib myth.  What Tarique Rahman offers is not worth more than infantile facebook banter.

So, why does he do it?

Perhaps this passage from 2012 would provide some method behind this madness:

A blogger friend sounds a pessimistic note: ‘Our countrymen are maybe more blatant about it than most, but there is no “true” history anywhere in the world. It’s all air-brushed, covered with pancake makeup, and then dipped into rosewater.’ He suggests that these history wars are just a form of dialectic struggle, perhaps a healthy one at that.

That discussion was had at a time when Awami League cabinet ministers all the way to people like Muntassir Mamoon would routinely call Ziaur Rahman a Pakistani spy or sleeper agent.  Here is the full quote:

What will happen when BNP returns to power? Maybe what MM is doing is in anticipation of BNP returning to power. I mean, let’s face it, our countrymen are maybe more blatant about it than most, butthere is notruehistory anywhere in the world. It’s all airbrushed, covered with pancake makeup, andthen dipped into rosewater. Think of these “history wars” as a dialectic struggle, and whatever emerges out of this is what Bangladeshi children, fifty years on, will learn. And they won’t be any worse off for it.

Additionally, remember, when BNP comes to power, where MM leaves off is where BNP has to start. So the more AL-oriented the history is, the more effort BNP will have to put in to revert just back to the mid-point state, let alone make it pro-BNP.

So, calling Mujib a collaborator is perhaps the dialectic tat for the tit of Zia being a Pakistani spy.

Maybe.  And maybe in the long run this will all be washed out.  But right now, this isn’t doing Tarique Rahman any good.  Maybe if BNP ever came to power, it could start its version of history.  But right now, Tarique should remember what happened to Hasina Wajed in February 1991.

In the lead up to the parliamentary election of that month — the first one held after the fall of the Ershad regime — Mrs Wajed repeatedly launched personal attack on Zia, calling him a murderer and drunkard, including in her nationally televised (this was when there was nothing but the BTV) campaign speech.  Mr Rahman is old enough to remember how aghast the chattering classes were at Mrs Wajed.  This was a time when Zia was fondly remembered by our establishment.

Over the past quarter century, Zia’s image has faded, and Mujib’s has been given a new gloss.  Right now, the establishment reaction to Tarique is similar to the visceral reaction the Awami chief caused in 1991.

Mr Rahman seems to be learning the wrong lesson from Mrs Wajed.

So, what do I suggest?

Let me answer that with reference to why and how I believe BNP must engage in history wars:

BNP needs to win back today’s and tomorrow’s Saifur-Oli-Huda.  Without professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals, BNP’s future will be dominated by the likes of Lutfuzzaman Babar. Winning the history wars is essential for avoiding that dark future.


our history of political-social-economic struggles that predates 1971 and continues to our time.  This would not mean ignoring 1971, but to put that seminal year in its proper context.  …. our founding leaders like Fazlul Huq and HS Suhrawardy who came before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, putting these men in their proper historical context.

….. we have struggled for a democratic polity, or social justice, from the time of British Raj.  Sometimes these struggles have been violent, at other times we had peaceful ‘ballot revolutions’.  Sometimes the leaders betrayed the trust people put on them.  Sometimes they made mistakes.  But overall, we have been making progress.  And ….. make the case for BNP in the context of that march of history.

That’s BNP’s overall challenge for the history wars.  And I do not suggest Mr Rahman has to fight a solo battle.  But if he must engage in political dog fight about dead presidents, I would suggest leaving Mujib alone, and focusing on restoring Zia.

Arguably, Tarique’s initial foray at the history wars was an attempt at this.  Unfortunately, he seems to have made a hash of it, losing the forest for the trees.

For a long time, BNP has tried to establish Zia as the one who declared independence.  In the process, the argument got to a minutae of who got to the radio station and held the mike first, completely missing the historical significance of Zia’s multiple radio speeches.  What was the significance?  The significance was that a serving major in Pakistani army publicly, in English, severed ties with Pakistan and called for an armed resistance.  The significance was not that it was a declaration of independence.  The significance was that it was a declaration of war.  That significance was completely lost.

Now the claim is that Zia was Bangladesh’s first president.  Well, in his first speech, Zia claimed that he was the head of the provisional government.  In the next version, he dropped that bit.  So, is he or isn’t he the first president?

Well, the founding legal document of the country is the Mujibnagar Proclamation, and that says:

We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh whose will is supreme duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice,

Declare and constitute Bangladesh to be sovereign Peoples’ Republic and thereby confirm the declaration of independence already made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,


do hereby affirm and resolve that till such time as a Constitution is framed, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shall be the President of the Republic and that Syed Nazrul Islam shall be the Vice President of the Republic

So we can have a nice legal argument that tries to make Zia the first president, and in the process lose a very important aspect of Zia’s action — something that is directly relevant in today’s Bangladesh.

Because Tarique said so, it’s now becoming BNP’s holy truth that Zia was the first president.  In the process, the fact that Major Zia swore allegiance and subservience to a democratically elected civilian political leadership is completely lost.  Zia’s bravery is March 1971 is to be lauded.  But for BNP, it’s also important to highlight his political maturity, and dedication to civilian, constitutional rule.  And that is exactly what he displayed on 15 August 1975, when he reminded Major General Shafiullah that the president might be dead, there was still a constitution and a vice president.  Whether in 1971 or 1975, Zia deferred to the civilian leadership and constitutionalism.   The relevance for an eventual post-AL Bangladesh is self-evident.

As it happens, Tarique Rahman was not the first person to claim that Zia is our first president.  In November-December 1987, Dhaka was rocked by a series of hartals that nearly brought down the Ershad regime.  Emergency had to be declared, and most opposition politicians were arrested.  Then, on 15-16 December, posters emerged around the city.  One had Mujib’s wireless message to Chittagong declaring independence, apparently sent before the midnight crackdown.  The other claimed Zia as the first president.

Oh, Ershad stayed in power for three more years.  How much more time is BNP’s history wars giving the current regime?

Des(h)i progressives’ nightmare

“But see, I don’t want to vote for AL. I do not think AL should return to power. We need checks and balances. BNP should come. But how can I vote for BNP when they are in an alliance with JI.”

That’s what a friend told me in December.  I have the deepest respect for this person’s sincerity.  She is a genuine progressive.  She wants a democratic Bangladesh — of this I have no doubt.  And I understand her reasons for aversion to Jamaat — never mind 1971, Jamaat categorically rejects some liberal-progressive tenets such as equal citizenship rights.  Had she said “I will not vote for Jamaat”, I would have accepted it.

But that’s not what she said.  She implicitly rejected BNP for its electoral alliance with Jamaat.

I didn’t engage in a prolonged conversation with her.  She is hardly the only person I know who made that leap about conflating Jamaat and BNP.  Bangladesh is full of self-proclaimed progressives who choose to reject democracy,never mind the facts.  I just don’t have the mental energy to engage in fruitless debates these days.  At least my friend had the decency to not engage in that kind of sophistry.

I didn’t engage in a political discussion with her, but was reminded of her comment after the Indian election.  You see, I had heard similar stuff from my Indian progressive friends.  Way back in the early 2000s, I heard people say “don’t want to vote for Congress, don’t like the sycophancy/dynasty, and the Vajpayee government isn’t so bad, but you know, how can BJP be supported when they have someone like Modi”.

And now Modi is the prime minister.

My Indian friends could have supported Vajpayee or other moderates in BJP/NDA government.  They could have provided the left flank of a genuinely centrist alternative to Congress.  But their self-inflicted intellectual blind spot meant that they couldn’t even contemplate such a course — never mind that such an alternative would have served India well.

A lot of things contributed to Mr Modi’s rise to power.  The progressives’ blind spot is just one factor, and probably not even an important one.  But to the extent that he represents a lot of things progressives loath, they have no one but themselves to blame.

I fear whether someday my Bangladeshi progressive friend will wake up to her political nightmare.  Jamaat’s importance in Bangladesh is constantly over-rated, and BNP’s strength under-rated, by everyone.  Of course, Jamaat benefits from the inflated power projection.  And the Jamaat bogey suits the Awamis fine.  The thing is, as the centrist opposition is systematically denied any political space, and as the ruling party degenerates into an orgy of violence (google Narayanganj / Feni murders), Islamists (Jamaat or otherwise) may well emerge as the only alternative.

My friend is genuine progressive, not a closet Awami fascist.  Will people like her act to prevent their own worst nightmare?

Major Zia’s war

A few years ago, I noted how the typical discourse on Ziaur Rahman is full of lies. An (Awami League supporting) old friend asked me to write a positive account of Zia’s politics: instead of rebutting X, write about Y, he told me. This (painfully slowly progressing) series is an attempt at that. Meanwhile, a regular reader asked me to write about Zia’s role during the war — not to refute the preposterous propaganda about him being a Pakistani spy, but about what Zia actually did after the radio declarations of March.

Interestingly, not much is readily available on the matter. While it is well known that Major Abu Taher or Major Khaled Mosharraf were injured in the battles of Kamalpur and Kasba respectively, even the typical BNP supporter wouldn’t be able to name a battle Zia was associated with. According to Muyeedul Hassan’s Muldhara ’71 (among other sources), Zia wanted Osmani to establish a war council. I have also heard from a number of freedom fighters that Zia worked hard to build a regular army. But these weren’t exactly the stuff of ‘battlefield valor’.

This well-researched post by the nationalist blogger দাসত্ব shows that Zia was actually quite intricately involved with a number of battles in 1971. I highlight some key points from the post over the fold. All the photos are from his post as well.

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Reviving BNP — what are we talking about?

If there is one constant refrain in Bangladeshi political punditry, it is that BNP as a political party has no future, it is broken beyond repair, it really stands for nothing, why, BNP means Basically No Party.  But defying these pundits, BNP keeps bouncing back.  And yet, some pundits keep ignoring the facts of BNP’s resilience, and continue to harp on about BNP’s imminent demise.

The thing is, cacophony of these pundits actually drown out some very legitimate critical analysis of BNP, analysis that BNP leaders and supporters would do well to dwell on at length.  This post provides a framework to think about these critical analyses.

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Street failures

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.

images (14)


Like on most other things historical, there is no consensus on the life and work of the Mahatma, except perhaps on one thing — there is a wide agreement that he was the father of mass politics as we know it, the politics of andolon, the street politics of rallies and processions, of hartal and bandh, of  gherao and oborodh, of civil disobedience and boycotts in the subcontinent.  Before him, politics happened in the palaces and among the elites.  He brought it to the streets and masses.  And the 1921-22 non-cooperation movement was the first time our part of the world saw this mass politics.  That was the first andolon to shake the entire South Asia.

And it was a failure, if by failure we mean it failed to meet its declared goal.  Swaraj in one year — that’s what Gandhi called for.  India would not be free for another quarter century.  The andolon failed to achieve what it called for.

Not just that andolon, but most andolons of that kind — where the opposition party announces a clear set of demand and deadline and makes its case in the street — fails.  I’ll keep to the examples from our part of the world for brevity.  In August 1942, Congress under Gandhi called the Raj to Quit India.  The Raj didn’t oblige.  A quarter century later, in June 1966, the Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, called an andolon to achieve maximum regional autonomy for the then East Pakistan.  Ayub Khan, the Pakistani president, threatened to use the language of weapon against Mujib and his party.  Within weeks, the streets were quiet.


Fast forward another two decades to 1987.  Awami League, BNP, leftists, and Jamaat-e-Islami were united in demanding that HM Ershad, in power since a March 1982 coup, steps down and allows free and fair election.  The opposition parties called for a siege of Dhaka on 10 November to achieve their objective.  The opposition failed.  Ershad would be in power for another three years.


There is a consensus in Bangladesh that the opposition BNP’s andolon in the last winter failed.  Of course, BNP failed to prevent the 5 January election, or to unseat the government of Mrs Hasina Wajed.  But then again, andolons usually fail.

Wait a minute here, this is selective history, all the successful andolons are being left out — I hear you say.  Let’s think through these successful andolons carefully.

The two andolons most comparable with the BNP’s failed one are those AL launched against past BNP governments.  And to the extent that the BNP governments were unseated in 1996 and 2007, it would seem that AL andolons were successful.

It would seem so, but the reality was a bit more nuanced in both cases.  In 1995-96, Mrs Zia finished her term and did hold a one party election — street protests could not prevent that.  The short-lived government she formed in February 1996 amended the constitution that ushered in the caretaker system.  It is quite possible to argue that BNP left office on its own term, and was not forced out.  It’s not so straightforward that AL’s andolon succeeded.  And in 2007, BNP had rigged the caretaker system and was on course to push through a sham election much like the one held on 5 January 2014, until it was toppled by a coup.  To the extent that the AL and allies were not demanding  a coup, is it straightforward that the andolon succeeded?


Arguably, the difference between 2007 and 2014 is that in the first case, AL had convinced Bangladesh’spowerbroker establishment to ditch BNP, while in the latter case AL had convinced the same group to let it ram through its agenda.  In both cases, AL was successful not out there in the streets, but behind the scene in halls of power.  Interestingly, AL did not always have such a strong grip on the bastions of power.  Even in the 2001 election, these powerbrokers refused to back AL’s designs, and openly or covertly endorsed BNP.  Obviously, since then BNP has fallen out with the establishment.

That falling out is BNP’s real political failure, not anything that has happened in the streets.

Wait, we’re still missing the seminal events in our history — what about 1952, 1969, 1990?  Let’s think through those events.  In each case, there were youth-led urban protests that quickly escalated and changed power dynamics.  These were indeed events when the street trumped the palace.  But in each of these cases, the organised political parties came let to the game.  And in each cases, the most organised of the parties (and other political players) ultimately reaped the benefit.

The kind of andolon that happened in 1952 or 1969 or 1990 cannot be predicted in advance, but after they happen, they almost inevitable — these are the proverbial black swan events.  And while some of them succeed, not all do.  Students of Dhaka University and elsewhere rose up against military regimes in 1962, 1983 and 2007 — but the regime survived in each case.  Meanwhile, there are other andolons, at local levels, that sometime succeed in achieving their aims — examples from recent past include Kansat and Arial Bil.

The andolons opposition parties launch against the government are usually thwarted because the government can see them coming, and take appropriate actions.  And surely opposition parties know that too.  Politicians from Tofail Ahmed to Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir have been in the game for long enough to know that street protests and hartals don’t bring down the government.

So why do the opposition parties continue to do this?

Instead of lazily pronouncing judgment about BNP’s failed andolon, pundits should focus on answering that question.

(Cross-posted in ND).

I want to believe

(First published in the Daily Star on 8 March 2009.  I still want to believe, though it is becoming ever-so-hard).


On that day, no soul shall be wronged; and you shall not be rewarded aught but that which you did. (The Quran, 36: 54).

Surah Yasin is usually recited in Muslim households when someone passes away. The above-quoted ayaat from the surah has been in my mind lately. I want to believe those words, not just in the promised day of reckoning, but here and now, in this People’s Republic of ours.

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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.

Flying with broken wings

Jyoti Rahman

Pakistani voters queue outside a polling

A magical realist masterpiece, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has weird and improbable events and people juxtaposed against the history of the 20th century South Asia up to the late 1970s. One such improbable fact was that at the time of writing, and thus the story’s culmination, military rulers of the erstwhile two wings of Pakistan had the same first name.

This is not the only parallel between the political history of Bangladesh and post-1971 Pakistan.

Both successor states of United Pakistan started with larger-than-life charismatic leaders, whose rules ended in tragic denouement inconceivable in 1972.  Both giants found governance to be much harder than populist rhetoric, both resorted to un-democracy, and both ended up meeting cruel ends at the hand of their trusted guards.  Both countries succumbed to dictatorships in the 1980s, although the extent and mechanism varied.  In both countries democratic opposition developed.  In both countries, some form of democratic politics came into practice by the 1990s.

But democracy has failed to take root in either, with military interventions or threats thereof, remaining a constant feature.  In both countries, electoral democracy has meant two mutually antagonistic parties/coalitions who differ little on policy, but much on personality and the thirst for power over patronage and privilege.  Both countries have experienced increasing religious extremism. More recently, in both countries, judiciary and media are experimenting with new found powers, not always to the best effect.

Throw in the political economy of NGO-led development in Bangladesh, or the misfortune of being next to a theatre of the Great Game for Pakistan, and it’s easier to see why democracy may have had such a hard time in these countries. Indeed, with increasing NGO activities in Pakistan and the Great Game coming to Myanmar — a theatre closer to Bangladesh — both countries have much to learn from each other’s misfortunes.


Of course, in Bangladesh, the discourse around Pakistan is so full of vitriolic jingoism that any suggestion of learning something from the Pakistani experience is likely to be met with scorn.  But even outside Bangladesh, there is not much by way of comparative studies of Bangladesh and Pakistan.

William B Milam’s Bangladesh and Pakistan: flirting with failure in South Asia is a rare exception.  This slender —276 pages including reference and index —volume begins with a brief history of the erstwhile united Pakistan, and then tracks the military-civilian back-and-forth in the two countries up to 2008.  The author, a former American Ambassador to both countries, can bring unique perspective to the subject matter.  And the book’s conclusion —the tipping points between real democracy and more of the same in Bangladesh and Pakistan are yet to be reached—is something one can hardly quibble with.

One does not read a retired career diplomat for facts and figures.  And this book is not full of facts and figures.  However, one might expect a lot of interesting anecdotes from someone who served in Bangladesh as the Ershad regime ended and in Pakistan when the Musharraf regime started.  Sadly, Milam does not give us such tidbits.

Instead, he opens up a range of questions that could be, ought to be, explored in depth.  Truth be told, it’s a tad disappointing that Milam does not push any of these issues further.  But then again, at least Milam has written a book.  Surely there are others who can add to the literature.

What are these questions?  One is about the role of India in the two country’s politics.  Another is Islam.  I am going to skirt over these two, not because they are unimportant, but because these are fairly well trodden grounds.

Instead, let me pick up the issue of military involvement, and withdrawal, from politics in the two countries.

From the vantage point of December 1971, one might have expected some form of military involvement in Bangladeshi politics.  The nucleus of the Bangladesh army was the victorious Mukti Bahini, and its commanders like Ziaur Rahman might have expected some say in the new country’s affairs — historically, states founded by guns tend to give armed men some (if not all) power.

However, it should have been a different matter in what was left of Pakistan.  If there was a state where the army rule, directly or otherwise, should have been thoroughly repudiated, it should have been Pakistan after December 1971.  Army rule had lost half the country.  A quarter of the army itself was taken prisoner-of-war by the ‘hated enemy’.  The country was bankrupt, with its major port severely damaged.  The idea that generals could save Pakistan should have died in the swamps of Bengal.

Of course, it didn’t.

ZA Bhutto used the army to silence legitimate dissent in Balochistan. And then, in 1977, he tried to rig an election that he might have won anyway, resulting in months of street violence and political gridlock, which paved the way for Gen Zia-ul-Huq’s grim rule.

That’s the most straightforward reading of things.  Writers as diverse as Tariq Ali or Anatol Lieven agree that Mr Bhutto deserves to be blamed, if not solely or in whole measure, then at least substantially, for the remilitarisation in Pakistan.  So, the question then is, was Pakistan just unlucky to have Bhutto, or was there something about Pakistan that made his power grabs more likely?

Let’s look at the issue from a different perspective.  Milam ends his book with the observation that the prospect of democracy, indeed the very survival of the state, was bleaker in Pakistan than Bangladesh.

As of 2008, Bangladesh army —not formally in charge in the first place — was in the process of handing over power to a democratically elected government.  In Pakistan, on the other hand, there was a shaky coalition facing jihadi violence, with everyone assuming that it was the clean-shaved general and not the mustached civilian who had the ultimate power.

As of 2008, hardly anyone doubted that the incoming Awami League government would finish its five year term.  After all, three previous elected governments had finished their full terms, something no elected government (with possible exception of Mr Bhutto, depends on how one sees things) in Pakistan had done until then.  In Pakistan, at the time, hardly anyone expected Asif Ali Zardari to finish his term peacefully and hold an election in five years’ time.

As it happens, the Awami League did finish its five year term, and has just elected itself —not sure how else to put it politely —for another five years.  But surprising everyone, Mr Zardari also lasted five years in office, as did the Pakistani parliament that was elected in 2008.  For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a democratically elected civilian government handed over power to another such government last year.

So, did Pakistan get lucky with Zardari (or Nawaz Sharif, or Gen Ashfaq Kayani)?  Or did something about Pakistan change between the 1970s, or even the 1990s, to now?

Bangladesh army has shown little interest in running the country in recent years.  Had it wanted to, there were many occasions in the past year where the army could have toppled the government, with a large section of the civil society and opinionmaking class fully cheering on any coup.  But by all accounts, the army has chosen to remain out of politics.  Even its 2007 not-quite-formally-a-coup was at best a half-hearted affair, with full insistence of constitutional fig leaves, no matter how muslin-thin the leaves might have been.

What had changed about Bangladesh army from its coup-prone past?

Why do armies intervene, or not intervene?  Let’s go through a few conjectures.

At the simplest level, perhaps it’s all about the base, corporate interest.  Pay them well, and the armies will be happily in the barracks?  This may well be a major story in Bangladesh.  After all, dal-bhaat grievances were a major (though by no means the only) factor in soldiers’ mutinies of 1975 and 2009.  However, considering the lavishes spent on the forces by the current government, money should not matter for any would be Bangladeshi coupmaker.  And to the extent that no one —not even Bhutto le pere—tried to clip the army’s economic interests in Pakistan, it’s hard to argue that this has been a deciding factor there.

Perhaps the story is a bit more highbrow?

As is widely accepted, Pakistan army sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of that country’s foreign and defense policies, particularly when it comes to relations with India. As long as these domains are untouched, perhaps the generals are content to let the civilians govern.  In that respect, perhaps Pakistan army is similar to the ‘guardian’ armies of Turkey or various Arab republics or Thailand, where the army decides, for whatever historical reasons, that certain areas are no-go for civilian politicians, and they enforce the no‑go-zones through coups if necessary.

Does Bangladesh army see itself in such a guardian role?  When a crisis hits, does it see its role as the national saviour?  In the blood-soaked 1970s, individual officers saw themselves as potential national heroes—call it the curse of the majors.  But from the 1980s onwards, as a collective, perhaps Bangladesh army waits for orders rather than marching to their own bit?  After all, in February 2009, the entire brass held fire and waited for orders that never came.

Of course, this is exactly how it should be.  Armies are meant to be guards, not guardians.  On balance, it’s a good thing that the army has not intervened during Bangladesh’s latest political drama.

But can that remain the case indefinitely?  After all, it was Bhutto’s hubris that allowed Zia’s power grab in 1977.  Could something like that happen yet again?

Even if it doesn’t, it’s important to understand that military rule is not the only obstacle to democracy in Bangladesh and Pakistan —a theme that runs through Milam’s book, and one that needs to be explored further.  After all, it was Mr Bhutto who opened the door for the generals to march back in.  So, the question again, was Pakistan unlucky with Mr Bhutto, or was there something about Pakistan?  And more recently, did it get lucky with Messrs Zardari and Sharif, or has something changed there?

Here is another conjecture —for all their personal genius, foibles and shortcomings, it wasn’t the individuals, rather, something did change in Pakistan between the time of Bhutto and Zardari.  In the intervening years, multiple centres of power —not just the army-bureaucracy and a towering politician, but also political parties representing different provinces and ethnicities and constituencies, as well as media, judiciary and other civil society organisations —developed in Pakistan.  While this fragmentation of authority may hamper its policy deliberations, it probably has driven home to Pakistani politicians the need to coexist and tolerate each other.  Papa Bhutto stood above everyone, and couldn’t countenance anyone else’s existence.  Sharif brothers had learnt to live with others.  Perhaps that’s what has saved Pakistan, at least for now.

What about Bangladesh?

This is what Milam says in the penultimate page: Perhaps there is more hope that a real, sustainable democratic culture can develop in Bangladesh, but old habits die hard.

And thus we come to today’s Bangladesh, on which, Milam observes:

…a government which, because of the perverted institutions of the state, is in a position to eliminate the opposition as a force to be reckoned with, and move towards a one-party state. This election, instead of deja vu all over again, could be the tipping point to something entirely new on the subcontinent.

Bangladesh may well have come a full circle in the past four and half decades.  At the beginning of the 1970s, with the left fractious and the right discredited for its role in the country’s freedom struggle, Awami League was the only major organised political force in Bangladesh.  Whatever we have, it’s not democracy.

And, Sheikh la fille may well prove to be more successful than her father.  Again, over to Milam:

But politics aside, it is 2014 in Bangladesh. The chronic instability and near-anarchy, as well as the abject poverty that prevailed in 1975, have long since disappeared. Bangladesh, while still poor and in the stage of economic development where gains can easily be reversed, is now wired into the global economy with its vibrant garment and other export industries. Growth has been strong for most of the past two decades, and the country as a whole is much more prosperous. More importantly, it has a much more literate and healthy population because of the strides that have been made in mass education and in reducing gender disparity.

In Shame, his novel on not-quite-Pakistan, Rushdie calls the country Peccavistan. Peccavi in Latin means I have sinned.  This is the message Sind’s English conqueror sent back to the John Company after he took the country by deception and ‘rascality’.  Pakistan used to be governed by deception and rascality, hence the name Peccavistan.

When the results of Pakistan’s first general election became known 37 years ago, a western journalist quipped that Pakistan would soon be replaced by Mujibdesh and Bhuttostan.  As things stand, we should rename our country East Peccavistan.

And things will remain as they are unless we choose democratic politics.  Make no mistake, that’s hard work.  But that’s what it comes down to.  A bird cannot fly with broken wings.  Our democracy is broken.  People governing the country are doing so not with democratic mandate.  Choosing democracy means opposing this deception and rascality.  Only by joining and fixing the opposition, so that when the table turns it lives and lets live, can we end East Peccavistan.

Dear reader, the choice is yours, will you choose Bangladesh?

Flying with broken wings

A magical realist masterpiece, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has weird and improbable events and people juxtaposed against the history of the 20th century South Asia up to the late 1970s. One such improbable fact was that at the time of writing, and thus the story’s culmination, military rulers of the erstwhile two wings of Pakistan had the same first name.

This is not the only parallel between the political history of Bangladesh and post-1971 Pakistan.

Both successor states of United Pakistan started with larger-than-life charismatic leaders, whose rules ended in tragic denouement inconceivable in 1972.  Both giants found governance to be much harder than populist rhetoric, both resorted to un-democracy, and both ended up meeting cruel ends at the hand of their trusted guards.  Both countries succumbed to dictatorships in the 1980s, although the extent and mechanism varied.  In both countries democratic opposition developed.  In both countries, some form of democratic politics came into practice by the 1990s.

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The real record — inflation (continued)

For those coming in late, even though inflation has risen under the current government (Chart 1), real GDP per capita has grown by around 4½ per cent a year under successive governments over the past decade.

c1 (2)

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had a bit of correspondence about inflation. This post answers some of the questions.

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On fascism


I wrote in October that if trends in recent opinion polls continue, BNP could get 47% votes against AL’s 39% in the coming election.  Based on the past elections, the two parties vote shares may imply BNP getting around 220 seats, against AL’s likely tally of 60.


There is another way to translate vote shares to seat numbers.  The polls suggest there is a 10 point swing against AL (from 49% to 39%).  Even if BNP had not gained any popularity, such a swing, if applied uniformly across the country, would have cost AL nearly 80 seats where the 2008 winning margin was less than 10%.  Add to that the 14 point swing to BNP (from 33% to 47%), and potentially AL could be reduced to less than 30 seats.

Of course, we have already seen 154 people, from AL and allies, elected unopposed.

I wonder if it would be a stretch to compare this election with the one held in the occupied Bangladesh in 1971.  In 1971, when the Al-Badr and Al-Shams were carrying out their atrocities, their Pakistani masters also held elections in the seats vacated by the ‘outlawed’ Awami League. That by-election saw 55 people elected unopposed to East Pakistan provincial assembly and Pakistan national assembly.

People who flock to Shahbag probably don’t have time to read up on history.  They are busy with online discussions about those dastardly Pakistanis who were questioning our quest for justice in their parliament.

Is it ironic that the Pakistani parliament is actually a genuinely elected one?

‘It’s a fascist regime’ is a common refrain in Bangladesh. Every opposition party in our history has accused the government of being fascist. And every opposition in the past has been wrong. Until now.

Fascism doesn’t mean any odd dictatorship or undemocratic regime. Mere intolerance of the opposition is not enough to be fascist. To be a fascist regime, a government needs a large enough popular base, a cult of personality, and a dogma/ideology which is going to invoked by academics and intelligentsia to support the regime.

The 1/11 or Ershad regimes were not fascist — they had none of these ingredients.

Bakshal had the cult of personality, ideology and intellectual cheerleaders. Had Sheikh Mujib instituted Bakshal in 1972, he would also have had massive popular support. But by 1975, it was too late.

BNP in 2001 had the popular support to become fascist, but for all its manifold mistakes, it wasn’t fascist because there was no ideology or intellectual support.

The AL is still popular enough, has a sufficiently coherent ideology and a cult of personality, and a very strong intellectual support base.

When Ershad or BNP stepped over the line in terms of censorship or rigged election or sheer decency (think about Mrs Zia’s birthday celebration), there were massive outcries. Nothing like that has happened under the current government because those who are supposed to protest are all on the same side as the government.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing —said Edmund Burke.  As I write this, for far too many otherwise sensible intelligent people, what Imran Khan says in an elected parliament in Pakistan causes more anger than the lack of an elected parliament in Bangladesh.

And that’s why, dear reader, for the first time in our history, fascism appears to be imminent in Bangladesh.

Mujib, December 1970

December is the month of victory.  Tomorrow, we will mark — I choose not to use the word celebrate quite intentionally — Victory Day, which marks the military defeat of the Pakistani occupation forces in 1971.  But December is also the month of election — in December 1970, people of this land used their right to vote, for the first time in history.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s overwhelming victory in that election marks the political defeat of the idea of Pakistan.  Ironic then that this December, the very right to vote is under threat in Bangladesh.

I’ll leave it to better informed people to discuss today’s crisis.  Allow me the indulgence of some historical curiosity today.  Over the fold is the speech by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that was broadcast on PTV and Radio Pakistan before the December 1970 elections.  This speech is notable for a number of reasons.  It was delivered in English, and Mujib was addressing the West Pakistani ruling junta and the local and foreign establishment.  It was Mujib’s chance to tell the powers-that-be what a Mujibist government in Dhaka would mean.  This was the closest thing the outside world had to judge Mujib.

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Politics is hard work — are we willing?


by Jyoti Rahman

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.

That image is from 28 October 2006.  The December of that year was much like this December, and the one from 1995, and that of 1987.  And as in every such December, our opinionmaking, chattering, urban bhadralok class is up in arms about how our politicians are yet again failing us, how Bangladeshis are held hostage to the two feuding leaders, how the people are victims who don’t care about either parties and vote for them because there is no choice.

Are the people really victims who lack any alternative, hostages to the whims of the two sides?  Nearly a quarter century, four national elections and dozens of local ones —how long does it take for an alternative to emerge?  And it’s not like no one has tried to break through —leftists, Islamists, NGOwallahs, army officers, barristers, doctors, businessmen, HM Ershad, Kamal Hossain, Salman F Rahman, Kader Siddiqui, Badruddoza Chowdhury, Oli Ahmed, Mohammad Yunus, Moeen U Ahmed, Mannan Bhuiyan, there haven’t been any shortage of third force aspirants.

Chances are that when, rather than if, an election is held, four out of five voters will vote for the same parties and candidates who won the last four elections.  Even if there is a military coup, and the generals successfully send the two ladies packing, they will still rely on the same individuals who make up the two largest parties.

Perhaps it’s time the chattering bhadraloks finally accept that politics is hard work, and the politicians actually do cater, albeit in a haphazard and less-than-satisfactory ways, to the people.


Politics is hard work.  Not just in Bangladesh, but everywhere.  It’s tedious, unglamorous.  Quite boring really.  In fact, the exciting stuff, the kind that gets you in the cover of the Time magazine, that stuff is usually all tip, and little iceberg.

The cover of the Time Magazine?  Let’s go back a few years, to 2011.  That year, the Time Magazine named ‘the protester’ the person of the year.  That year begun with popular uprisings that toppled long standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.  In Libya, the uprising turned into an insurgency that, with the help of NATO airpower, brought down the Qaddafi regime.  Massive protests rocked depression affected economies of southern Europe.  Closer to home, India saw large rallies against corruption.  In America, the Occupy movement captured a lot of media attention.

It would be quite unfair to say that the protests achieved nothing.  Arguably, Tunisia is a better place today for the protests.  Arguably, President Obama would not be talking about inequality had it not been for the Occupy movement.  But the contemporaneous commentaries about the protests seem quite hyperbolic with the benefit of hindsight.  These were not quite earth shattering, world changing events.  President Obama can have a dozen speeches about inequality, but it’s unlikely to change a single thing in the Capitol Hill.

And whatever gains have been made in Tunis is clearly off set by the setbacks in Cairo.  In the largest Arab country, secular liberal urbanites —at the risk of oversimplifying, the kind of people who flocked to Shahbag —could not organise themselves into a credible political party, lost terribly to the Islamists at the polling booth, went back to the street again to bring down a democratically elected president, and handed the country back to the generals who rule by decree, much like Hosni Mobarak did for three decades.

Politics is hard work.  Protesting this, demanding that, marching in the street, singing rousing anthems —that’s not politics.

Even if they get you in the cover of the Time Magazine, that stuff, without any organisation, will matter naught.

Did the Shahbag revelers really believe that they were changing the course of history?  Their naivete might be forgiven, but what excuse did their elder cheerleaders have?  How could those who lived through the 1968-69 uprising that brought down the Ayub regime —across the political aisle this includes everyone from Motia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid, Rashed Khan Menon to Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Tariqul Islam —ever believe that nonsense?  Did they forget that despite taking a leading role in that uprising, the leftists lost the political advantage to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League?

Did the leftist cheerleaders of Shahbag learn nothing from their lived experience, never mind the histories of other uprisings in Tehran and St Petersburg and Paris?

Did they forget that politics is hard work, that one needed an organisation, a clear manifesto, and some strategies to attain power?

Those pundits who are now braying for some messiah to deliver us from the two battling begums — do they understand politics is hard work?


Faham Abdus Salam writes about the bhadralok mentality here:

বাংলাদেশের এক নাম করা ইংরেজি কলামিস্টের সাথে আলোচনায় টিপিকাল সুশীল মানসিকতার পরিচয় পেলাম – এটাআলোচনা করা দরকার। বিএনপি ও আওয়ামী লীগ প্রসঙ্গে তার মত হোলো Why doesn’t the two hire a place and fight it out and leave us alone. ….  তোমারা লীগ, বিএনপি মারপিট করো – আমাদেরকে দু দণ্ড শান্তি দাও।

I agree with Faham’s thesis:

এই দেশটা শেখ হাসিনা কিংবা খালেদা জিয়ার কোনো সম্পত্তি না – এই কথাটা সবাই বিশ্বাস করে কিন্তু যা বিশ্বাস করে না তাহলো – এই দেশটা আমার, আমি ওন করি এবং আমার দায় আছে পরবর্তী প্রজন্মকে একটা বাসযোগ্য দেশ উপহার দেয়ার।তাই আমাদের সবার দায় আছে এটা নিশ্চিত করার যে কোনো মানুষই যেন এই দেশটাকে তার ইচ্ছার পুতুল বানিয়ে না ফেলে।বিএনপি, আওয়ামী লীগ বাংলাদেশের রিয়ালিটি – আপনার কাজ শুধু ভোট দেয়া না, এই দুটো দলে যেন কখনোই কোনোহাসিনা কেউ হয়ে উঠতে না পারে, সেদিকে নিশ্চিত না করলে নিশ্চিত থাকুন: আপনি আপনার নিজের শান্তিটুকু খোয়াবেন।

He ends by asking:

আপনি জিজ্ঞেস করুন নিজেকে সততার সাথে – আপনার সন্তান যদি কখনো প্রশ্ন করে, সে উত্তর দিতে যতোটুকু সততা লাগেততোটুকু সততার সাথে, দেশটাকে যখন হাসিনা ক্ষমতা টিকিয়ে রাখার জন্য তার খেলনা ঘর বানিয়ে ফেলছিলেন আপনি কিআপনার সাধ্যমতো চেষ্টা করেছিলেন তাকে থামাতে?

The thing is, I am not sure any amount of trying by any bhadralok pundit would have mattered.  For one thing, on a number of issues, Awami-leaning elders such as ABM Musa or Rehman Sobhan did caution the Prime Minister.  And she snubbed them.

Why wouldn’t she?  Try seeing things from her perspective.  Politics in Bangladesh is winner-takes-all.  The rules of the game —unitary state, unicameral legislature, first-past-the-post voting, the Article 70 —were not set by Hasina Wajed.  She is not the first one to try to win at any cost.  She has merely taken things further than her predecessor.  We don’t know if the BNP chief would have been quite as ruthless —I personally doubt that she would have—but what the Prime Minister is doing is hardly madness, there is in fact a lot of method in it.

The Prime Minister is playing a high stake game, one that has been entirely predictable, and was indeed predicted:

The prime minister knows she can count on the millions of AL voters, in every moholla and para of every city, town and village. If BNP leadership can be neutralised, that will be sufficient for a re-election. If not, in the lead up to the election, in 30,000 centres around the country, many anti-AL voters could be disenfranchised through targeted violence and intimidation. Essentially, what many Hindu voters in southern Bangladesh experienced in previous elections could happen to the anti-AL voters across the country.

And all these could happen days and weeks before the actual election day, with the state machinery playing an active role in it. Indeed, the election day could well be very peaceful, even festive.

Even if they tried, what difference could a Zafar Sobhan or an Afsan Chowdhury have made to the Prime Minister’s high stake gambit?

Politics is had.  Hasina Wajed knows it, even if the bhadraloks don’t.

Perhaps these bhadraloks had a better shot trying to shape BNP’s thinking?  I personally think so.  But I doubt most of the chattering class feels that way.

Here is how Shayan S Khan has put things recently in his facebook wall:

খালেদা জিয়া বলেন, “একদিকে বিরোধী দলের নেতাদের বিরুদ্ধে সন্ত্রাসের মিথ্যা অভিযোগে মামলা হচ্ছে, অন্যদিকে এক মন্ত্রীবলেছেন যে, সরকারের সঙ্গে সমঝোতা করে ফেললে তাদের ছেড়ে দেয়া হবে। এসব থেকে পরিষ্কার হয় যে, বিরোধী দলেরনেতাদের বিরুদ্ধে মিথ্যা অভিযোগে মামলা করে তাদের গ্রেফতার করা হচ্ছে।”

When Khaleda Zia makes a point like the one above, instead of holding on to the offer as a political card, it signals an essential difference between herself and Sheikh Hasina, whose every pronouncement seems aimed at scraping whatever political advantage she can for herself out of any situation.

Thanks to a media and cultural environment historically more saddled in its disposition towards Awami League politics, for a very long time now, an impression has been cemented in the collective psyche of a certain segment of the population (largely confined to the chattering classes of the capital) that Bangabandhu’s daughter, riding the good ship Joy Bangla that her father built, was obviously more preferable to Zia’s widow. I know within my social and familial setting it was as if axiomatic. It was hard to realise this “truth” seemed erected on a strange, untouchable pedestal bereft of any objective analysis, or evidence emerging to support it. To be fair, one didn’t really come across much overwhelming evidence to the contrary either.

But it lasted only until I learned to think for myself, and became open to the idea that supposed “truths” we’d been fed before developing a way to think could be overturned. And if more of us could affect the same, and carry out a fair assessment of the two women’s words and deeds over the last 12 years in particular, the least we would realise is this: at no point did Khaleda Zia take any prerogative to assume this country’s fate was subservient to her own will to power, or that the essence of its 140-50-60 million people, its raison d’être, hers to fashion.

Sad but true.


So, instead of trying to shape the mainstream politics, our chattering class —with one important exception —is either willing or unwitting accomplice to possible dictatorship.

The exception is, of course, Mahmudur Rahman.

He might not consider himself a bhadralok.  And others of his class might not want to treat him as one of their own.  But make no mistake, a graduate of the country’s two best educational institutions, a successful executive in both private and public sector, Mahmudur Rahman is every bit bhadralok as Mahfuz Anam or Abed Khan.  And more than any other bhadralok of our time, Mr Rahman has thrown himself whole heartedly into politics, embracing lengthy prison terms for his cause.

Politics is hard work, and hard work is not something Mahmudur Rahman shies away from.  He is willing.

And yet, he has failed.

He single handedly took on the mighty Shahbag, broke it, and then, then nothing.

Politics is hard work, and merely willing is not enough.

Again, let’s go back to Egypt.  Muslim Brotherhood won decisively at the ballot box.  They had been waiting for eight decades.  Here was an organisation with a clear manifesto that finally attained power, and lost it before they could implement anything.

A different example perhaps, from an established democracy.  The American Tea Party movement has gained control of one of their two mainstream parties.  This faction controls the agenda in the American Congress.  In October, they tried to break the Obama presidency, risking US sovereign default and a possible global economic meltdown in the process.  And they lost.

Politics is hard work.  It’s more than just protest.  Even grabbing power is not enough.  One needs to exercise that power to achieve one’s ends.

Mahmudur Rahman, of course, did not even attain power.  But one must ask, what would he have done had the government fallen in the first week of May?

And if toppling the government was not the main point of Hefazot, then what was it he was trying to achieve?  Of course, there was brutality on 5 May.  Of course, AL’s hands are bloody.  But Mahmudur Rahman’s aren’t clean either.


And that brings us to today’s crisis.  One way or other, the current gridlock will be resolved before long.  Something will give.  In fact, we can with some confidence predict how things will end.  There are really three options.

It is quite possible that there will be some compromise — perhaps the prime minister will step down, or BNP will agree to join even with the PM at the end — followed by an election, which if the polls are any guide, BNP wins comfortably.  That’s the optimistic scenario.

More pessimistically, there will not be any compromise, and we will be looking at either a neo-Bakshal regime or a good old fashioned military coup.

Many of our pundit classes are already braying for the last outcome.  Let me put it to these folks as bluntly as possible: stop think of the army as the deus ex machina; the situation currently playing out was perfectly predictable years ago; your silence and passive acceptance at that time also implies acceptance of the current state of crisis.

We just can’t live like this, lurching from crisis to crisis every five years, and then acting all surprised and puzzled when things fall apart.  Our political culture will never mature until we stop expecting army interventions anytime things go south.  I always hear the common lament that democracy in this country is limited to voting every five years.  Well, our bhadraloks need to start participating in the hard work of politics more frequently than once every five years.

And if a neo-Bakshali dictatorship is a necessary step in that process, so be it.

(First posted in Mukti- ).

The not-so-quiet Americans

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was published in 1955, after the Dien Bien Phu, but years before America bumbled into Vietnam.  A film version was released in 2002, after Tora Bora, but before America bumbled into Iraq.  Without giving away the story, anymore than you can discern from the trailer above, this is one of the best work on the unintended consequences of American intervention.

Americans are, of course, interested in Bangladesh too.  They have been for a while.  In the post-9/11 world, how can they be not interested in one of the largest Muslim countries in the world?  And their interest has been registered not as quietly as was the case in Greene’s Saigon.  In 2007, as in now, their interest was expressed vocally.  Nonetheless, the plot went awry in 2007.  Will this time be different?

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The real record — inflation

In the previous post in this series comparing various governments’ economic and development records, we saw that when it comes to growth in average income, there hasn’t been much difference between the three latest governments. The increase in average income in that post is real, that is, after allowing for inflation. However, inflation is an important economic indicator in its own right.

In fact, as far as average person is concerned, real GDP per capita is an abstract construct, whereas prices of everyday commodities is, for the lack of a better word, much more real! Arguably, more than the war crimes trial or Digital Bangladesh, it was the promise in the video below that brought Awami League its 2008 landslide. And arguably, more than India or Islam factors, it’s the failure to meet this promise that’s behind AL’s sagging popularity.

Politics in Bangladesh, as the saying goes, is price of rice.

This post looks at the recent governments’ record when it comes to inflation.  However, we need to begin with a bit of wonkery because when evaluating different governments on inflation, we need to keep some basic economics in mind, some of which may be counter intuitive

Once we go beyond the wonkery, three charts will show that the current government performs poorly compared with the last BNP government as far as inflation is concerned.

First, there is a strong empirical relationship between price level and the standard of living — things are more expensive in the rich, developed countries. Of course, people in rich, developed countries are richer, and thus can afford the more expensive stuff. But if you are looking at the level of price of anything, you will likely find that it costs more in Bangalore than Barisal, and more in Beijing than Bangalore, and more in Boston than Beijing.

The reasons for this are well outside the scope of this post — the interested reader can start here. The relevance for us is that in any economy where the standard of living is rising over time, prices will rise too.  That means, you should never take a politician seriously if they promise cheap stuff —promises are cheap, stuff, not always so.  While prices of some goods —electronics for example —may fall over time, in a growing economy, overall price level usually rises over time.

Recall, our economy has been growing over time —per capita income has risen by about 4½ per cent a year(after adjusting for inflation) over the past decade, under successive governments.  Therefore, we should expect some inflation under recent governments.

No economics lesson is needed to know that inflation is undesirable to most people.  However, given that some inflation is to be expected in a growing economy, how should we judge the performance of different governments?

Or, conversely, since under all three latest governments, inflation-adjusted income has risen at around 4½ per cent a year, should we care if these governments’ inflation records are different?

We should care about inflation, and we should use two criteria to judge governments’ performance.  First, low inflation is preferable over high ones.  And second, steady inflation is preferred over variable rates of inflation.

The first criteria is self-explanatory —if prices are to rise, it’s better that they rise at a modest pace than at fast pace.  The second one takes a bit of explaining.  If inflation has been, and expected to remain, steady at, say, 5 per cent a year —that is, prices of everything is on average 5 per cent higher this year than last year, and this has been the case for a while and you expect this will be so into future—then you can plan your savings, investment and other economic activities accordingly.  But if inflation is 2 per cent one year, 10 per cent the next, and then 5 per cent the year after, it is hard to plan economic activities.  And that causes inefficiencies and frictions, which are bad for long term economic prospects.

Also, variable inflation rates mean that the government is not managing the macroeconomy very well, indicating one or a combination of chronic budget deficits, fluctuations in the exchange rate, and an incompetent central bank.  An economy can grow despite poor governance, but if inflation is high and volatile, it’s very likely the government’s fault.

Before going into the evidence, the final piece of wonkery —inflation is a macroeconomic issue, not a microeconomic one.  All the stories you heard about corrupt syndicates and so on?  Forget them.  That stuff has little, if anything to do with inflation —see here for detail.

Okay, that’s enough free economics lesson.  What does the record show?  Let’s go to the videotape, by which I mean the charts.

The first one shows growth in GDP deflator, which is a measure of prices of everything produced in an economy.  Just as GDP, BBS has new series for inflation (both GDP deflator and CPI —see below).  However, these series don’t go back far enough to make comparisons between different governments.  So, like GDP per capita, we are using data estimated on the 1995-96 basis.

In Chart 1, the columns are annual growth in GDP deflator, while the lines are annual average growth under various governments going back to the 1980s.  Pretty clearly, 1980s was more inflationary than the subsequent decades.  Also clear that both the 1990s governments maintained low and steady inflation.  Inflation started rising under the BNP government in the 2000s.  But at less than 5 per cent a year, BNP’s record was better than the nearly 7½ per cent a year seen under the two latest governments.  More worryingly, inflation has tended to become more volatile under the current and immediate past government.

c1 (1)

While GDP deflator measures prices of everything that is produced, people actually care more about prices of what they consume.  Consumer Price Index, CPI, measures this.  We also have monthly data for CPI going back to 2000.  The squiggly blue line in Chart 2 shows the yearly CPI inflation (how much CPI has grown since the same month a year earlier).  The flat lines represent annual average inflation under the three latest governments.

The pattern appears to be pretty similar to GDP deflator series above.  Under the BNP government of early 200os, CPI inflation averaged at less than 6% a year, compared with around 8½ per cent a year under the two more recent governments.  And again, worryingly, under the latest government, inflation has been quite volatile, reaching as high as 12 per cent in the year to September 2011.


We have seen trends in inflation —that is, growth in prices —in the two charts above.  But the PM’s promise in the video above was about the level of a price of a specific commodity —that of rice.  Chart 3 shows the retail price of a kg of coarse rice in Dhaka.  The squiggly red line is the average retail price over the preceding three months.  The flat lines are the average under the past four governments.

Remarkably, the AL government of the late 1990s actually did manage to keep a lid on rice prices.  In the first half of 1996, price of a kg of coarse rice averaged around 14.50 taka, compared with 13.50 taka in the first half of 2001.  The price shot up to over 17 taka per kg in early 1999, in the aftermath of the devastating flood of 1998.  But then it came down.  By contrast, the price rose steadily under the BNP government, to average 19 taka in the second half of 2006.

Recall, prices are expected to rise over time in a growing economy.  So the mere fact that prices are higher than was the case under a previous government, by itself, is not indicative of poor performance.  Regardless, comparing the two governments, public perception in 2006-07 was rightly that AL performed better in terms of keeping rice prices low.

The recent years have put paid to that notion.  After BNP left office, under the 1/11 regime, rice prices shot up to 35 taka per kg in mid-2008.  Then, over the following year, the price came down steadily, to be around 24 taka in the late summer of 2009.  Both the spike and the fall in the price was primarily caused by global factor —but the 1/11 regime paid a political price and the AL government benefited politically from it (as noted here, AL’s popularity was very high in 2009).

Then look at what happened.  Rice price shot up again in 2010, reaching 40 taka a kg in February 2011.  And unlike in 2008, there was no global spike in prices.  This was homegrown, and it was caused by the macroeconomic mismanagement of the current government (see here for details).


To sum up then, whereas the first Hasina Wajed government performed very well as far as inflation was concerned, the current government has been quite a failure.  The BNP government of the early 2000s, in contrast,  did significantly better than the  more recent governments.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, coup-maker


The country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising – so said the Mughal court chronicler Abul Fazl in the 16th century. Four hundred years later, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been a country where the dust of dissension has repeatedly risen among the men armed to guard the republic.

The country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed with most of his family in a brutal coup in 1975. Within a decade of the country’s 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan, much of the political and military leadership of the war were either killed or politically delegitimized by successive coups. And the coups of the 1970s reverberate even today, as Humayun Ahmed found out shortly before his death — his last novel, set in 1975, has been effectively banned because his depiction of history doesn’t suit the version favoured by Bangladesh’s current political dispensation. The politicised quest for what Naeem Mohaiemen calls shothik itihash stifles the freedom of speech and thought, and sets back academia and creativity.

Of course, what actually happened in the 1970s, and beyond, should be subject to serious debate. History isn’t, after all, mere recount of dates and facts. History should be about understanding what happened and why they happened. Needless to say, one’s understanding depends on one’s own political biases.

Over the folder, I summarise major mutinies/coups/rebellions of the past four decades, and the narrative reflects my own biases and ideological prisms – just as one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so is one’s mutiny someone else’s revolution. For the interested reader, a reading list is provided at the end.

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The real record —real GDP per capita



In a previous post, I showed how the AL claim/promise of ‘doubling per capita income’ is problematic. That post foreshadowed a series comparing macroeconomic and development performances under successive governments — a more detailed and updated version of this exercise. This is the first part of that series, focussing on real GDP per capita — an oft-used proxy for economic and social welfare of a country.

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Credibility and the campaigns

From Facebook status writers to TV talking heads via op ed columnists, everyone is talking about the BNP chief’s speech.  Unsurprisingly, the BNP supporters are positive about it, while AL-ers find the speech not-so-positive, focussing on the number of former caretaker government advisors still alive in good health and with interest to serve in a potential new caretaker government.

All that minutiae discussion completely misses the forest for the trees.  The best take on Mrs Zia’s speech that I have come across is David Bergman’s.  His title sums it up —Smart with an eye on the international community.

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