where are you going?

one of the primary problems with trying to be an political economy analyst in this country is that it is fundamentally almost impossible.

let me attempt to explain. my job (and the analytical lobe of my brain, whichever side it’s on) both require me to have some semblance of an idea of what might happen in the future. proactively identifying and mitigating political risk is a big part of my job responsibility, and so i am expected to have some sort of an idea of what is going to happen. like Nate Silver, just without any data or models, operating on a hunch based on interviews, understanding the political climate and listening to the faint and subtle signals that pulse through the nation.

these days, though, it’s gotten nigh impossible to figure out just what the hell is happening now, let alone extrapolating to a point several months in the future when, in theory, a new government will be in power. in the past, these scenarios were relatively easy to predict. a new government rides to power with the promise of a better future, which they promptly forget after a convenient interlude, and the government and the party then disintegrate into focusing on making as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. in the meantime, the people grow weary and fed up with broken promises, and then express their frustrations by promptly voting the opposition into power. fundamentally speaking, that has been the essence of the anti-incumbency thus far.

this time, it’s different. this time, there a bunch more variables in the mix – nationalism, fundamentalism, fanaticism – a whole cocktail of complicated isms that have recently reared their heads to show how divided we truly are. the events of the past six months – and the passions they have stirred up and inflamed in all of us – make me wonder how all of us became united for the cause of independence in the first place. the rifts have appeared in our society, and it is futile to pretend that they do not exist.

this complicated mix of isms have, to a certain extent, neutralized the more easily predictable anti-incumbency effect. and, in an effort to sort through this complex set of emotions, people have begun to focus their attentions on what they perceive as the lesser of two evils.

but that is no longer as simple a calculation as before either. as the elections draw nearer, the rifts and cracks have begun to appear within the parties themselves. new leaders emerge, while older ones struggle to maintain a facade of power and influence. behind the scenes, the posturing, flattery and lobbying have begun, as various sub-groups try to align themselves with whomever they think is a good bet for a leader in the future. this game of dynamic and shifting loyalties has just begun, but, as the election draws nearer, will only intensify.

so where does that leave the common man, the ones who drive the eventual electoral victory in the first place? in the past, the pre-elections considerations used to be much simpler: has the incumbent been able to protect my basic rights to food, shelter, services and safety. if yes, they vote for the incumbent; the more likely case, though, is that the incumbent fails miserably to do any of that, which is why he loses soundly. in some cases, this is a gross generalization, as in these cases, there are political or religious imperatives to vote for one party over the other. this time, though, people are being forced to look into their own deeper selves, and examine their own belief systems and values. what that means, though, is that when they compare these value systems to that of their neighbors and tight-knit rural communities, with whom they have coexisted peacefully for decades, they find glaring differences emerging. it is these differences that gave rise to the tremendous violence we have witnessed in 2013, and these differences that can drive the eventual election results.

and these differences are giving rise to complex mathematics to determine the winner of the next election – it isn’t the candidate’s virtues or promises or performance that drives my voting decision, but rather it is the party’s stance on a number of issues that determines who i support. and, given the confrontational nature that has evolved in politics, more often than not, both of the major parties took opposing stances on several recent moral issues. digesting all these issues, what they mean to one’s own value system, and the stance each party took in the case of each issue means that the voting decision is now much more complex, more multivariate if you will, to fit into the simple model of anti-incumbency that prevailed in the past.

a brief letter

hello there, old friend.

it’s been a while since i last saw you.

actually, that might not be the whole truth. i thought i caught a glimpse of you today, just briefly, almost hidden between an under-construction skyscraper and a large garments factory. i could have been mistaken – the traffic had just let up, and my cng was trying its best to squeeze through impossibly tiny gaps between a wall of cars. i thought i saw you from the corner of my eye, but by the time i realized what i was seeing, we’d zoomed through already, and you were gone again.

how have you been? i wonder whether you look the same. do you still turn dark gray just before you weep? do you still let flashes of rage rumble across your countenance when you are angry? do you still glow in the light of the sun when it’s pleasant outside?

most of what i remember of you are stolen glances, incidental memories of you etched in my mind. in these pictures you’re hidden in the background of some significant life event – a picnic, perhaps, or a day at the beach. i still have a few actual pictures of you stored in my laptop as well – though when i look at them, you’re seldom the first thing i notice. you have this amazing ability to be in the background, just hanging there, as inconspicuous as ever, while i tried to capture other more significant moments in time or more significant people. but when i turn off the laptop, i realize just how important you really are.

i’m sure you know i miss you. how? just look at the number of pictures i took on vacations in which you appear. maybe that’s why, whenever i do go on these vacations, all i can take pictures of is you.

i really wish i could see you more often, you know? until recently, i could sit on my verandah in the evenings, gazing out towards you, catching a brief glimpse when you lit up in joy or anger. now a thirteen-storied monolith rises from the ground in front of the verandah, and cuts off my view. i’ve tried to find some other angle from which to drink you in, but alas, you’re nowhere to be found.

you used to seem so close, so near, once upon a time. are you still the same? our meetings are so few and far in between, generally only when i leave the country, that every single time i do see you in all your glory, you seem farther and farther away. is it true? are you really pulling away from me? is it because i don’t get to see you as often as i used to?

i can’t control the walls that are rising up between us. i wish i could tear them down, start all over again with a fresh, clean slate, and admire you the way i once did – but maybe that’s the problem! maybe you’re angry that i – heck, nobody – valued you while you were still around. is that why you’ve been weeping almost continuously these past few days?

you know that i’ve never forgotten one thing: our own little secret place – the roof? remember those foggy winter afternoons, when you kept watch over me while i played? or how about those quiet evenings when i sat there, basking in your glow? back in those days, we’d spend hours with each other, with me admiring every single facet of your face. i know i haven’t been up there in years – maybe it’s time i went up there again. after all, that’s where these walls we’ve put up between us cease to tower, and there are no monoliths that can prevent me from drinking you in.

i’m off to europe next month for a week. i’m looking forward to seeing you then, spending days and nights with you, basking in your cold embrace, admiring every single facet of you, until i’m once again wrenched back to this state of forced separation and this compulsory distance we must maintain.

i’m sick of hiding behind these walls, sick of being prevented from watching you. i’m sick of your absence – it doesn’t make our hearts grow stronger, rather it weakens our resolve and determination. i’m angrier, unhappier and sadder because i don’t get to see you as much as i would like. and so are the people around me. please shine your light back in to my life, and forgive me for my veiled and hidden existence.

i can’t wait till i get to see you again.


your friend

Dreaming in Digital

Six months ago, we, in the midst of recovering from the delirium of Obama’s victory and promises of change, let ourselves be seduced by another changemonger’s campaign slogan. So what if “Digital Bangladesh” is nothing like “Yes We Can”? It was still just enough to make a disillusioned populace start to dream again.

And so, enraptured by this dream of change, like millions of Americans in early November, we swept a new government into power. “Digital Bangladesh” spoke to our hearts and souls, even if we had no idea what exactly it is that it meant.

Six months later, we still have no clue. And, even more worryingly, neither do the politicians who dreamt it up in the first place, it seems.

Let’s face it: Digital Bangladesh makes a great vision statement. Although it isn’t time-bound in any sense, it ranks up there with those tired old visions we’ve heard our politicians espouse so frequently – middle income country blah blah blah. At least it’s a newer, cooler vision, and is something that can appeal to the youth.

However, one would expect that, six months down the line, someone would at least have come up with a few accompanying mission statements, to articulate or explain what all this hype is about. But nobody’s done anything about it – the phrase remains just as ambiguous as it was six months ago. The longer it remains ambiguous, the more it will lose its allure.

We’ve seen this before – politicians hooking on to a concept or idea, then selling it to the people as the miracle cure for all societal or economic ills, and then beat that particular horse to death until nobody cares anymore.

So, in the absence of a proper explanation of Digital Bangladesh, I’m forced to create one myself. I see Digital Bangladesh as being the junction of two different dimensions – at least from the government’s point of view.

First, there’s the issue of service delivery. The e-governance train has long been a popular one for politicians, bureaucrats and civil society alike to jump aboard, but badly done e-governance is just as bad – if not worse – than none at all. What does this mean?

The government delivers services to its clients, whether they are civilians, businesses or institutions. We’ve all been through at least one such service delivery process: most readers have a passport, I’m sure. There are lots more we could potentially go through, but we tend to avoid them like the plague – they are all long, slow and terribly bureaucratic, not to mention cesspools of corruption and nepotism.

Transferring these inefficient processes to a computerized system won’t do any good for anyone – the delays will continue, and there will still be opportunities for corruption. What therefore needs to happen is that the government, prior to computerizing, needs to look at the entire process and find the steps that are unnecessary, or pose the greatest opportunity for corruption or harassment, and cut off these links in the chain. This will ensure government service delivery is simple, smooth and transparent, both online and offline.

The second dimension is the issue of infrastructure, which itself requires action on two fronts. The issue of physical infrastructure seems most challenging, but it can be easier than it looks: the government should let the private sector handle this entirely. GrameenPhone advertises its Community Information Centers, with computer access for all, and there are now computers on boats traversing our rivers. These days, you can buy a simple plug in device that turns your SIM card into a portable modem. Giving tax breaks to mobile companies who operate such free information centers would spur them to set up many more, since the marginal cost of an extra mobile intranet user is very low. The cost of the centers could easily be offset by the savings from the tax break; plus, it looks great from a CSR perspective.

Human infrastructure, however, is inherently more difficult. The government should help ensure that there is sufficient ability to use computers and online systems. These days, this is simpler and cheaper than ever – just the other day, I saw advertisements for computer training for 300 taka. What the government needs to do is provide this training for free to whoever wants it, or they can incentivize the private sector and NGOs to provide it on their behalf.

In the meantime, there are clearly lots of unemployed youth who are computer-literate who could help others use computers – a year or so ago, they were helping the Army build the new voter list. Reemploying them to help out in, or even run, Community Information Centers should be easy enough. Mobile companies can even franchise out these centers, like the way they’ve franchised FlexiLoad services.

Tying all of these dimensions together is a set of policies and regulations that enable and protect all these activities. We need tons of them – for data security, data integrity, data backup, system compatibility, online fraud prevention, electronic payments – the list is endless. All of these need to be in place before anything else can happen. At least by now, one would have expected the government to have assigned someone to start working on all of this. But nothing’s happened yet.

I’m writing this blog on a BlackBerry while listening to music on an iPod and texting on my mobile – clearly there’s no way I could become any more digital without becoming some sort of android. But for millions of Bangladeshis, Digital Bangladesh can make a massive difference in the way they live their lives. All they are waiting for is for the government to transform this vague vision into reality.