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Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

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.

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Zia Rahman is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Dhaka.

11 Responses to “Billboard campaigning, transparency and urban governance”

  1. Tauhid

    “…how the state paid the restaurant bills for the so-called Kings Party members during the 1/11 regime…”

    literary and scholarly ,tomb packed statement … i do agree …i liked most….

    i realized that campaign is dominating building block of political culture ….

    this write up hints to the political parties to be concentrated on the changing political culture ….thereby campaign must be culturally sensitive and generation oriented , albeit this writing focused upon only urban aspect , we have to rethink regarding rural areas in this regard because we all know that how much our rural societies complex in this regard….

    • Selina Perveen

      I liked the positive approach of marketing the achievements of AL.Now the AL leaders should carry on this approach by using right means to sell thier good deeds and continue their further services to the Bangladeshi Nationals. Good Luck to AL.

  2. arefin fidel

    “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.”

    I completely agree with the argument that these info-techno spaces are very much potential and provoking catalysts in shaping the scenario of our political culture. And every political party has the right to make best use of these spaces.
    Most importantly, this write-up contains some significant directions towards our upcoming transparent way of political campaigns and digital information politics.

  3. M.Mozammel Haque

    A good writeup in the right time in a write way.
    The question is budget of these bill boards.
    Though there are many many “Should”s one should is its budget should be from the party fund or any party supporter.Now in this time of digital and computer civilization the profile of the supporter can be visualized on the display.Its budget from the government will open the chance for the opportunists to make 5 fifty or five hundred.After all our politics teaches it.
    It can be monitored by the ACC or national revenue board.
    But it needs only sincerity.

  4. bangalee

    Dear Professor,

    You are wrong about Calgary mayoral election. It is not the billboard which won the election by Nenshi, it was the social media (may a Billboard inside a computer)revolution among youth and his no-nonsense approach to civic problem won him the landslide victory.

    It will be in the future to see whether this action benefitted AL or not in Bangladesh.

  5. Aziz Rahman

    I liked the article, so far the first one I saw from an academician along with few published few focusing the recent surprise political campaigning through billboards in Dhaka City. Three criticisms which have been uttered by many journalists, intellectuals and politicians are grounded strongly in your article. It has for a while been argued by the AL leaders including the Party Chief Sheikh Hasina that the current government’s achievements have not much been known to the general public, and the media is also blamed for not disseminating adequately. In fact, this is true, the present AL government has made a lot of developments in different sectors, and to display such successes, billboard campaigning may be considered an appropriate and effective advertising strategy as expressed by some political leaders of AL with the media or in the public meetings. We have seen the impacts of such advertisements for the consumer goods and services in the modern capitalist high tech society. You rightly pointed out that why a party like AL needs such surprise campaigning strategy to attract the public to catch their attention despite successes in many areas which are supposedly displayed in the bill boards. Some of the party- patronized actions or malpractices by the ministers/leaders, MPs, and its wings including youth and students might have changed the mindset of many voters, at least among the 4 city corporations that reflected in the recently-held local government elections. The BNP government did many wrongs in the past which has not been much known to the public. One reason could be the role of the print and electronic media, and even of the social media these days that bring breaking news immediately to the viewers compared with the past. The public might not expected to see some of the recurrent wrongdoings by the partymen this time. Anyway for that there is a dire need of research, and was beyond your topic scope. However, one significant issue you correctly brought to the light is the lack of transparency in urban governance, particularly in the management of billboards. It seems there could be tons of corrupt practices underneath billboard renting by the City Corporation. I believe such corruption cannot be continued if there is strong political leadership and accountability mechanism if established at the local government level. What you could elaborate in the paper is: why there is a need to do encroach/occupy the billboards which are rented by other legal owners, why they need to do campaigns accidentally just before the EId when the city is emptying for Eid, why do they need to conceal the hosts of the campaigners, why the leaders or spokespersons of the party mentioned their unawareness of such campaigns, and why at the end there was a decision to remove such bill boards. I doubt if this campaign has happened or such encroachment of already rented or no rented bill boards is possible beyond the knowledge of local leaders or party sponsors at least. Finally I appreciate your efforts very much to look at the issue from the urban sociological perspective. Definitely the party needs to have a dedicated and hones advisors forming a think tank who will guide the party chief and the party to learn from the past and move forward.

    • Sakes Ali

      If achievements were the criterion of winning elections in our country, we would still be governed by Ayub Khan or Hussein Mohammed Ershad. These two had more notches with them for infrastructure development than anyone else that I can recall.
      Pluralist elections are not won or lost on “achievements” of incumbents. Election results are determined by popular perception of emotional issues that ignite latent sentiments !
      The Ghazipur elections show how popular sentiment was immune to development issues in determining the results.

  6. Arefin Fidel

    “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.”

    I completely agree with the argument that these info-techno spaces are very much potential and provoking catalysts in shaping the scenario of our political culture. And every political party has the right to make best use of these spaces.
    Most importantly, this write-up contains some significant directions towards our upcoming transparent way of political campaigns and digital information politics.

  7. sadeka halim

    The articles is thought provoking.Bill board politics is not new in developing countries. All political parties should stratigize to project it’s vision and mission . Thank the authour for wrting up a timely article to generate discussion on digital information politcs. Carry on !!!

  8. MD. Sazzad Hossain

    Interesting write-up! This article evokes some questions. Is this the beginning or end of Bill-board Politics? Is it a test case of smart-generation leadership? However, a political party has right to make people know about its success stories, whereas citizens have right to know about the source of expenditure in such a bill board project. What’s more, think tanks of political parties should note that make believe operations through bill board projects can be done in smarter ways just by following due process of renting/lending bill boards.

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