Legitimate vs. Authoritarian Policy Making

Published in the Forum (January 2011)

Bangladesh’s experience with public policy making over the past four decades has been perplexed by an awkward political dilemma. On one hand, democratic and legitimate reform initiatives have endured barriers to implementation; while on the other, many successful reform initiatives have suffered from lack of legitimacy.

Lack of authority has always been a barrier to policy reform, while public support and legitimacy has been the most essential feature of public policy. Balancing the two is difficult and remains as a litmus test for any policy maker. Ironically, our policy makers have always preferred the easier option — acquiring authority and ignoring legitimacy. Though authoritarian governments may seem more successful in implementing reforms, authoritarianism often leads to autocracy and reforms achieved through this process are not beneficial for the country.

This article briefly explores the dilemma between legitimate and authoritarian policy making in Bangladesh. For that, it also analyses the changing roles and relationships of four most influential policy makers of the country — the politician, the military, the donor and the bureaucrat. Read more of this post

Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Uncertain

Published in the Forum (July 2010)

Typically an optimist will say the glass is half-full and the pessimist, half-empty. But when it comes to national budget, an optimist sees the vacant potentials, calls the budget inadequate; and the pessimist sees the implementation barriers and thus calls the budget oversized. Only a realist would say both sides have a point.

In the abundance of optimistic and pessimistic post-budget reactions, my two favourite realist comments come from the opposition and from the government. An opposition BNP-leader has precisely labelled this year’s budget as inadequate in terms of people’s need, and highly ambitious in terms of implementation capacity. The finance minister also echoed this confused sentiment by admitting the implementation challenges while advocating the need for a bigger budget.

Every coin has two sides and a budget has three — the good, the bad, and the uncertain. The budget for fiscal year 2010-11 (FY2011) has encouraged us with a number of initiatives such as crop insurance, investment fund, and with its increased focus on gender-balance. At the same time, we were disappointed with some crouching schemes in hidden texts — which were not explicitly announced in the budget speech but were made available through government orders — such as the black money provisioning. Then there were subjective cases which can appear good in intention and face value, but might disappoint us at the end if not implemented correctly. This article talks about these good, bad and uncertain issues of this year’s budget. Read more of this post

The Curious Case of the 195 War Criminals

Published in the Forum (May 2010)

As soon as the trial of war criminals began, questions were raised from different quarters as to how and why the 195 Pakistani soldiers were released in 1974 without any trial. It has also been argued that those 195 Pakistanis were the main war criminals and their release questions the merit of the current trial process.1

This article investigates the news reports that were published in international media from December 16, 1971 to April 15, 1974 to understand how and why those 195 Pakistanis were accused and released. It also explores the avenues the post-1971 Bangladesh government pursued to put Pakistani and local war criminals on trial.

To remain true to the fact, the article mostly cites news reports and avoids opinion pieces. Also, to remain consistent, the article mainly cites the New York Times, though similar news was published in other newspapers.

Relocation of POWs to India
Saving the Pakistani soldiers from the resentment of the Bangladeshis, who endured the most horrific genocide of that time,2 became a major challenge once Pakistan’s defeat was imminent. Though it was argued that “given a few more months the Bangladesh guerrillas might well have won on their own,”3 India’s direct involvement not only reduced Bangladesh’s sufferings, but also came as a saviour for the failing Pakistanis. India being a signatory of the Geneva Convention had an obligation to treat the Pakistani POWs lawfully.

Hence, in the second week of December, Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi sent a request to the Indian high command for ceasefire. On December 15, 1971 Gen. Sam Manekshaw, Indian chief of staff, rejected Niazi’s call and asked him to surrender by the next day. He however assured that safety of Pakistan’s military and para-military forces would be guaranteed.4 Read more of this post

Chronicle of Tragedy and the Pendulum of Sentiment


Published in the Forum (April 2009)


Comment is free, but facts are sacred
-CP Scott

It was appalling to witness the fast swinging of the “sentiment pendulum” during the course of the BDR mutiny. When the first news of the mutiny broke, the sentiment pendulum decisively swung towards the mutineers, partly owing to their socio-economic background but mainly due to the stories of deprivation they managed to deliver to the public.

We saw people gathering around the BDR gates shouting solidarity, media focusing on the deprivation of soldiers, and some pundits even going as far as portraying it a “class revolt.”

After the mass graveyards were discovered, however, the sentiment pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction. People were shocked with the brutality of the massacre. Media switched from “mutiny” to “carnage” in referring to the incident. Around the world people took part in spontaneous candle light vigils. Read more of this post

Why AL Won

Published in the Forum (January 2009)

The Awami League has won the National Election 2008 by a stunning landslide for many solid forum_breasons including some indefensible faults of its opponent. In a pre-election analysis Jyoti Rahman and I identified five decisive factors which were likely to determine the results of this election.1

In the absence of a credible exit-poll, this article revaluates those determinants and correlates them with the final election results to see exactly what happened on December 29, 2008.

These are the five reasons, all of them reinforcing, which together created the conducive environment for AL’s massive win.

In western democracies, election result always goes against the incumbent when 50 percent of the voters think that the country is not on the right trajectory. Evidently, Bangladesh is no different either. Read more of this post

Entry strategies

Jyoti Rahman and Syeed Ahamed discuss options for the next political government

In his article “Exit strategies: Some lessons from history” in the August edition of Forum, Professor Rehman Sobhan noted: “The exit strategy for the caretaker government (CTG) may turn out to be its most challenging task.” Eventually, each exit creates the opportunity for an entry as well. As the current non-political government exits, a political government will enter. The entry strategies of different factions vying for power after the current government exits may well turn out be the most important determinants of the course the nation’s politics will take for years to come. Read more of this post

The argumentative oligarchs

Published on the Forum on July 2007

Exploring the historical relationship between the three prongs of Bangladesh’s ruling oligarchy…

It is only where political parties seriously challenge [the] relative autonomy and, along with it, the mediatory role of the bureaucratic-military oligarchy that conflicts arise in which, so far, the latter have prevailed.” Hamza Alavi (1972)

The ruling power in Bangladesh, when viewed in its historical context, essentially rested with three intermingling oligarchies: politicians, civil bureaucrats, and the military. While the first exhibited a disputed liaison with the others, the other two have demonstrated a reasonably steady companionship.

The oligarchs that emerged during different epochs have now appeared at a critical crossroad where the destiny of Bangladesh will be chosen for many years to come. In this vital juncture, this piece re-examines the evolution and inter-relations of these oligarchs in Bangladesh’s internal power politics. Read more of this post