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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading