Sometime in the early hours of the 3rd of August, as the city slept in the holy month of Ramadan, a well prepared army of billboard hangers must have descended upon the Bangladeshi capital and executed the final task of putting up thousands of posters with self-proclaimed achievements of the ruling Awami League. It was no mean task to diligently collect, collate and colourfully portray, print and drape them over existing commercials — many up-to 40 feet tall or higher. The poster designers know who provided them with the statistical data; the printers know who paid for the printing; the workers know who instructed them to carry out this stunt. This was clearly something that has been in the works for weeks — if not months.
The very next day, on the 4th of August, a few newspapers attempted to investigate and file reports on their pages; the opposition made their not-so-unexpected attempts to harvest maximum mileage of this stunning publicity campaign. Ruling party and the civil servants pointed fingers at each other — perhaps unwittingly admitting guilt for this embarrassing faux pas — when asked to shoulder responsibility. Ruling party spokesmen seemed to say it was the “Government” that was highlighting its achievements — only to be rebuffed by the ever so clever, astute, yet fundamentally timid bureaucrats (who are amazingly well versed at shedding responsibility of any kind at the drop of hat) that the tell-tale seal of the Government of the Republic is missing from these posters.
The general feeling on the street — at the looming conclusion of this Awami League led government — is that indeed more development work was undertaken by the incumbents than their BNP predecessors. Various flyovers in Dhaka have been completed while others are work in progress; Mr Obaidul Quader deserves to be singled out for his hard-work and sincerity. As for all the other claims on these billboards, they’ve had very little impact – if any – on my simple distracted mind – even when I’ve cared to look up and read them.
That a political party should feel the need to advertise their achievements to the electorate on the eve of a general election — especially after conceding damning defeats in numerous significant mayoral elections — is itself totally understandable. I would even go a step further to say that in the context of cyclical dynastic rule for the last two decades in Bangladesh, the electorate should be grateful that their leaders – soon to be candidates – even to think it is important to publicise achievements out of a sense of accountability! The electorate should thank the lord for small mercies that their political leaders consider the former to be worthy of this gigantic publicity effort — even if this empowerment is destined to be short-lived. This sense of obligation to the electorate even as a fleeting thought in the minds of the powerful and the mighty of the political leadership is indeed a positive trend.
While the principle of this gesture is laudable, its execution has had a damning and negating effect on the very audience it was supposed to have impressed. This in the heels of repeated episodes of disconcerting turmoil of degenerating political violence, insecurity of life and limb in the notorious garments industry, the financial scandals, allegations of corruption by the World Bank etc., has not helped precipitate the intended positive impact. Whether this was a miscalculation, a tactical error or an inability to read the pulse of the public on part of the brains behind this campaign is hard to tell. But that it was a confounding and absurd act of arrogance, there is no doubt.
From what I’m told, the billboard spaces and structures on public land are owned and managed by the city corporation authorities who rent these out to various private agencies for a significantly less price than what the end customer – the advertiser – has to pay for them. Newspaper reports suggest that neither the fee paying customer nor the retail agents were given any prior notice of what has effectively and simply been a breach of contract. A former president has aptly termed it an act of “billboard hijacking”. The thriving private sector — the wealth generators of the country — comprising of traders, manufacturers, service providers who want to advertise their product have been deprived of their purchased rights. I don’t imagine they are too happy about this slap in the face. As they say, it is often not what one does but how they do it that ultimately matters.
Why then stoop to this childish level in the first place? Given that most of these billboard spaces cost up-to tens of millions of taka per year, where is the sense of fairness and moral responsibility on part of those who planned and executed this brazen act in such a precise and military fashion? Why this game of hide and seek between the spineless bureaucrats and the party publicists when harm has been done, legal rental contracts have been breached and a sense of aggression is being spread? Will someone stand up and take responsibility or will they remain silent in the hope that all of this fuss will go away and this gross infraction will be forgotten and forgiven? Perhaps many feel that they have a right to do whatever they want — and that is something many have come to accept in these lands over the last two decades; any disquiet may very well be dealt with by violent reprisals. Then the essence of the laudable gesture of humility behind this publicity campaign vanishes into smoke.
Bangladesh needs to take ownership of its due responsibility and patch disrepairs in time before they become infamous human tragedies like the Rana Plaza; persistent finger pointing and claiming ignorance will only create another national comical and embarrassing Amanpour moment in the international media. If sense were to prevail, someone who is someone in the thrones of power would effect the return of the billboard spaces to their rightful fee paying customers — quickly and tactfully. It can only be done by an astute and master politician. As for the Awami League, they should know that whoever is responsible for hijacking the billboards is only making their entire party look arrogant at best — not something any candidate or party would want right before an election.
The proof is in the pudding — no matter how glitzy the icing may be. As always, time will tell.
Shabbir A. Bashar is an electrical engineer by training and is currently a Director at a leading transformer and sub-station manufacturing company in Bangladesh.