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A surrogacy of sorts

  • Published at 05:59 pm October 31st, 2018
Is this legal?
Is this legal? / MEHEDI HASAN>

What’s behind the election posters all across the city?

Mayors late Annisul Huq and Sayeed Khokon have, by and large, succeeded in changing Dhaka’s skyline from advertising hoardings to something akin to a blue sky. 

The government takes every opportunity to extol its successes as rightfully as it can, but hoardings and billboards of the ruling Awami League’s organization have taken over. More than that, posters of prospective candidates have appeared on every imaginable surface for the upcoming, yet not declared, general elections. 

The four-coloured posters seek some form of legality with the words “promotion by local residents” on them in Bangla. Come election time, posters are only allowed in black and white.

And so, we have another vicious cycle of propaganda assailing us. Some years ago, India’s courts ruled that surrogate advertising was permissible. The ruling came as anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol groups protested attempts by the powerful lobbies to circumvent the advertising ban. 

Both tobacco and alcohol advertising are banned except at points of sale. The alcohol industry switched to using their brand names for soda water products, while tobacco giants used bravery awards and even lifestyle flagships based on well-known brands. 

It would appear that the “unofficial” electioneering is the first step of candidates to get noticed by the public. No party has, as yet, declared their nomination, with the process to be sanctioned by the Election Commission once schedules are announced. 

On one side of the argument, it can be said that private publicity isn’t banned. On the other hand, unless laws are changed, “postering” in general is illegal and a punishable offense under city corporation rules. 

Reality suggests actions can’t be taken if for nothing else but that simple clause at the end. Whether, the campaign is or not paid for by “local residents” can’t be proved or disproved, as it isn’t an entity. That leads to electioneering expenses, affixed by the Election Commission and arguably followed by no one. 

That’s because the sum so affixed is a drop in the ocean, and little mechanism prevails by which such is checked. Every contestant is supposed to submit expense details to the commission just as they’re supposed to submit their wealth statements. 

That, of course, is the least publicized side of the campaign, and as far as knowledge goes, never tallied with their income tax returns.

This is surrogacy, plain and simple, providing an advantage to those who can get away with it. From a different perspective, this may also be a way to force fence-sitters to respond by showing their hand. 

The comical part is the promotion by local residents. As it is, we have no system of declaring donations to political parties or candidates, and the concept of a bag going around for loose change might be part of our culture, but it says little for our democracy. 

In the meantime, good money is being paid, and a section of the printing industry, whether self-owned by the prospective candidates or otherwise, is managing to keep their machines trundling.

Another group is being paid to paste the posters, and there are the other obvious costs related to cartage and carrying. 

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.