Monday, August 12, 2013

The billboard controversy Going to the people with achievements as election approaches

Financial Times
Published : Monday, 12 August 2013

M. Serajul Islam

The ruling party leaders were well within their rights to defend the billboards that were placed all over the city of Dhaka highlighting the successes of the government to shore up its political fortunes that are on the decline with national elections round the corner. In a democratic and market economy-oriented country, anyone or any group that can pay money can have any number of billboards at places that are earmarked for billboards. It is however the way and the manner in which these billboards were placed that has raised legitimate concerns and questions in the public mind on the legality and propriety over these billboards.

The Dhaka City authorities regulate the space and give permission for the billboards. Private ad agencies, numbering well over a hundred, hire these spaces from the city authorities and rent it to private businesses. Before these billboards highlighting the performance of the AL led government were placed, the space was occupied by businesses advertising their goods and products. These businesses and ad agencies were the first to feel the adverse consequence of the new billboards. Apparently those who put up these billboards forgot two things. First, they needed permission of the legal owners to bring down the billboards they replaced. Second, the billboards they brought down were rented from the ad companies who had paid for the space to the city authorities.

So clearly, there has been a legal violation of grave nature with these new billboards. However, there is no indication of ownership in these billboards. Nevertheless, it is only natural to assume that either the ruling party or the government or both are the owners of the new billboards that was more than obvious from the way the ruling party leaders defended the right of the AL-led government to put up these ads and the way they taunted the opposition leaders for their criticism of the billboards suggesting that they have done so out of jealousy over the Government's achievements.

Unfortunately, in their eagerness to highlight the Government's performance and taunt the opposition, those who put up the billboards flouted the law in a blatant way and behaved as if they are above the law. In fact, those whose billboards were taken down illegally were afraid even to protest fearing reprisal from the ruling party! By the way these billboards were put up, many are now openly saying the ruling party has shown the same mindset as its student and youth wings that have done literally whatever they have liked to carry out their criminal activities that have earned massive points of unpopularity for it among the people.

That the law was blatantly violated was highlighted by the organisation of the advertisement firms. Office bearers of the organisation told the media that they were not consulted when the ads were taken down to make way for the new ads. They further informed that the businesses that ordered the ads also did not know who took down their ads and why. With Eid ahead, the businesses that had ordered these ads have thus been deprived from getting advertisement for their goods and products at the most opportune time. Many ad agencies affected by the illegal take over of their legal business have said privately to the media that the businesses that had ordered these ads are now reluctant to pay their bills because there is no business there to pay for!

Thus the government that had hoped that the billboards would encourage the people to look at the AL-led government favourably and shore up its declining fortunes after the devastating failures in the city corporation elections and on a number of major issues of governance now finds itself in another damaging controversy. The billboards are outstanding examples of the digitised Bangladesh, as the billboards could be placed overnight that only massive strides in digitisation of advertisement have made it possible. Unfortunately, in the manner the issue was handled, the advancement in digitisation was exposed to the people by the most flagrant disregard for law and legality. In fact, this disregard for law and legality has affected the public mind much more seriously than what has been branded in the advertisement!

Clearly, there is a sense of desperation now gripping the minds of those in leadership position in the ruling party who are looking at the next general elections. In fact, a sense of fear is mixed with their desperation. The desperation and the fear are coming from the fact that the ruling party-backed candidates recently lost the five city corporation elections very badly despite being the better candidates, four of whom who were incumbent Mayors in four city corporations had successfully brought major positive changes in their respective cities. In case of Gazipur, the fear and desperation has been compounded by the fact that the city is considered a bastion of the ruling party in the same league as Gopalgang where the AL could not think of losing even in a nightmare. These losses have been explained as the result of the ruling party's declining fortunes nationally. 

Common sense would dictate that critical decisions are better not taken from fear and desperation. There is no doubt that the ruling party has many achievements. They should have planned their publicity much ahead and done it when they had time and were not in the desperate situation in which they now find themselves. It is not just the city corporation elections that have pushed them into a corner. There are serious questions in the minds of the people over issues of law and order, over Padma Bridge corruption, Hall-Mark, Destiny and share market scams, law and order, lawlessness of the student and youth cadres of the ruling party and failure to push relations with India. The ruling party has not cared to answer these concerns; in fact, instead of acknowledging these concerns as genuine, it has dismissed these with contempt. 

There is thus a sense of anger and frustration in a section of the population who had elected this government with great hope. It is incredible that a party with a history and tradition that it has would opt for billboards and that too in a manner in which it has shown scant respect for the law to offset the deep frustration among the people and believe it would work.

These days nothing that the ruling party is doing is working. In fact, every new act it is undertaking is getting it mired more in political quicksand to which it seems to have stepped. It is time that it took a deep breath and tried to find its way out democratically by going to the people with its achievements not through billboards but through election that would be free, fair and "inclusive". 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

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