Just before Eid-ul-Fitr, the citizens of Bangladesh encountered a new form of publicity and campaign in and around Dhaka City by the ruling party Awami League although neither any government official nor any party spokesman has yet to claim who did this. This has provided very interesting gossips and, a political topic for the talk show hosts and guests, columnists, reporters, political analysts and critiques. It has been apprehended that huge pressure from the unutilised think tanks, intellectuals and well-wishers of the AL rendered the party to initiate such billboard campaign. Three major criticisms around the topic include whether a party like Awami League (AL) needs such a campaign style and whether the AL becomes bankrupt that it requires its marketing using bill-board kind ‘cheap’ selling strategy; whether the AL followed the principles, especially related to rents, of using billboard commercials as set by the Dhaka City Corporation and whether the ruling party grabbed the billboards from the legal owners forcibly. No doubt, the story of bill-board politics has raised an important debate, which I, as an optimist, believe in turn will improve the political culture, governance and transparency of Bangladesh on the whole.
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People having knowledge about the modern worlds and having interest in politics must agree that political campaigns and publicities have changed enormously given that revolutionary changes occurred in technology. Billboard campaign is surely a modern form, and it is not uncommon among the political leaders in the West. In 2010 when I was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada I actively volunteered the Calgary Mayoral election for Mr. Bob Hawkesworth, a Mayoral candidate backed by the social democrats. As an active participant, I had an opportunity to observe the election campaigns closely and I later observed that the winning of a 42-year-second generation immigrant Naheed Nenshi, the first elected Muslim Mayor in the major North American cities, hanged on, among other things, the billboard campaigns organised by his volunteers. Initially, when I saw the mammoth size billboards of Nenshi, it seemed weird and I thought that the strategy was cheap and vulgar. But finally I concluded that it was the billboard campaigns of an almost unknown Nenshi that attracted the Calgarians most. Like Nenshi, many US politicians frequently use bill-board campaigns along with many exuberant forms as their sources of political campaigns. In addition to billboard campaigning, the US politicians frequently use media ads, social media i.e., Facebook, YouTube, twitter, etc. as their election campaign medium. Unlike the West, the use of billboards as a form of political campaigns is rarely seen in the third world countries, though not uncommon.
In 2011, when I visited Colombo city I was surprised seeing the monumental size billboards of the current president Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. I saw many billboards in and around Colombo City with full of data and information about the achievements of the government, being similar to what we have encountered in Dhaka recently. From the modern point of view I think the AL did nothing wrong, rather the party introduced a modern approach in political campaigns in terms of a new form (i.e., billboard) and of the use of number (i.e., statistics or data). I am sure the statisticians will be happy seeing the use, though not abuse, of number! An orthodox Marxist might resonate commenting on the issue from the monotonous capitalist ghost approach while an ardent anti Awami League supporter might see it as the bankruptcy of the AL, which is another matter.
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The second criticism related to money is that who sponsored the billboard campaigns, the government or the AL? People criticise because in the campaign texts the sponsor’s name is concealed. I think the critics has rightly criticised the financial transparency of the ruling party though neglecting the existing political culture in Bangladesh — how the past governments used the state money handing out books, leaflets and other versions in the name of propagating the governments’ successes through different ministries. Past records show that both the military and semi military governments in Bangladesh spent huge money propagating their success in the name of 19 points or 18 points saga through books, leaflets, posters and other means and became champion in this regard.
We encountered that the tradition continued and the ministry of information and ministry of foreign affair did the same tasks in the subsequent regimes. We perhaps also did not forget how the state paid the restaurant bills for the so-called Kings Party members during the 1/11 regime as mentioned by some politicians. Some of my friends might not like my arguments considering all these as monotonous and the relics of the past. But the fact is fact; existing political culture and practices cannot be denied, even though we don’t want it. And my argument is that we should root out the fundamental causes and hence, fundamentally our goal should be how to change the existing political cultures rather than being one-eyed and criticise a party alone. Talking from the ideal state would not solve any problem, I think. And change is always welcome through constructive criticism.
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The criticism related to grabbing the billboards seems also valid as the owners of the billboards on the one hand became loser financially; on the other hand the state was deprived from getting revenue. However, I am rather happy that the issue has been raised considering the system of displaying billboards seems contaminated. How many billboards are legally displayed in Dhaka City? How much money is being grabbed by the corrupt officials? Hence, I think the critiques should have focused on the system rather than criticising the AL only. I don’t know whether the critiques raised their voice against such corrupt practices before. As a researcher on urbanisation and city, I always think about the haphazard and disorganised billboard displaying system that has been increased day by day. Through such process, Dhaka city has become worse in terms of its beautification project while an unholy alliance between the corrupt parties destroyed the social environments every day. Nonetheless, I think the criticisms unveil the existing disorganised system and thereby contribute a lot in minimising the anomalies.
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From the functional perspective, I as a student of Sociology, think that the AL got the benefit from the billboard campaigning, despite all harsh criticisms. The urban educated middle class and the anti-AL supporters will always criticise, I guess, as the mentioned parties have diverge and subtle views and opinions. I also think that the people who criticise are mainly, though not all, inclined to pro-BNP and anti-AL politics. But the other groups, mainly working class and petty middle class will be definitely attracted by the billboard campaigning, I believe. For a long time the intellectuals and the ardent well-wishers of the party have repeatedly argued that the party is very weak in disseminating its activities, thoughts and achievements. I am sure that the party concerned mentioned above will be energised by such activities. Although the AL introduced a modern and telling campaign using billboards, the big question is why a big political party like AL is yet to develop its fund through a modern fund raising system? Why doesn’t the party have a proper and organised planning by its think tank like the West? Why does the party office still look like a shack neglecting the arrangement of modern facilities? I think the absence of a strong think tank that can be consisted of academics and experts is the main weakness of the AL. The parties like AL and BNP should adopt all such modern thinking, rationality and transparency so that the country will be free from all the feudal and traditional social systems. The acrimonious criticisms against the billboard politics seem valid although I think these criticisms in turn uncover the improvements of political culture and of transparency in the country. In a same fashion, these criticisms rendered more constructive criticisms in connection with the missing criticisms of the existing governance system of the City Corporation and the nature of urbanisation in Bangladesh on the whole.
Zia Rahman is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Dhaka.