Politics is hard work — are we willing?

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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-http://jrahman.wordpress.com/ ).

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.

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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).

rice

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

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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

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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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Doing it the French-style

That’s from the the French comedy OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus. It’s set in the late 1960s. Agent 117 — a French super spy (double one — got it?) — sent to Brazil to track down a en escaped Nazi who has a microfilm of French collaborators and Nazi sympathisers. Our hero successfully concludes the mission, only to find that his boss — the head of the French secret service — is named in the list. The spy chief says something about ‘the war being a difficult, confusing time’ and ‘the need to move forward without opening past wounds’ and appeals to French nationalism, before pinning a medal on the Agent 117.

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