Level playing field” was the most popular phrase before the 11th national parliamentary elections, and after. My first objection is to the word “playing”. Politics is no sport. It is a serious matter on which hinges the welfare and wellbeing of the people. Secondly, good sports fields are never level. There is always a gradient, even if ever so slight, for the purpose of drainage; in politics for the foul components to roll off. Whereas the members would sit indoors in the plenary chamber of the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, what the relevance is to “field” is not clear. But, then politics has remained obscure to the so-claimed source of its power—the people.
In the just concluded national elections, there were insinuations that foul was played with posters. Before the elections, some people were concerned that they had not seen a single poster of the opposition, and so the field was topsy-turvy. That's an exaggeration in terms of numbers. I did see several “sheaf of paddy” posters in Dhanmondi as well as many more of haatpankha, but the numbers were embarrassingly outnumbered by “boat”. There were thousands of black-and-white nouka posters lining the streets soon after the Election Commission allotted symbols to the participating parties, but very few or none at all of the others.
In a country where conspiracy theories are readily accepted as the truth, the reason for the disproportionate number of party-wise posters could be many. The truth could be far from what is apparent.
In the mid-1970s, a politician from Sylhet revealed candidly the myth behind chika (wall writing) that is credited to the elakabashi. In the depth of the night, he explained, shrouded in a shawl for anonymity, tar and brush in hand, he and a handful of trusted lackeys moved surreptitiously from wall to wall inking on someone else's property that “his character was indeed as pure as a flower” (read phuler moto pobitro, omuk bhaiyer chitro).
On freshly-painted walls that said “stick no bills” or disfiguring one was a dandoniyo offence, our “flower” would occasionally write a few good words about his rivals to aggravate the owner of the wall and other conscientious neighbours. Whether the praise put his opponent in trouble with the landlord or helped his cause is for the election observers to unearth.
In search of the truth, it was natural that there would be contrasting views. Awami League supporters claimed that the opposition camp was out to reap controversy in the run-up to the polls and so did not bother to launch a serious campaign. Those supporting the Kamal Hossain led alliance, spearheaded by BNP's sheaf of paddy, were adamant that there was no congenial situation to either print or display posters.
Do posters or the number of posters really matter for that matter? We dwell at a time where television rules, and I must commend that every channel (save perhaps BTV) did their part to give all parties, heroes and villains alike, a fair share of coverage. Newspapers also played the neutral card. Flaws in governance of the incumbent were even overplayed in the dissemination and broadcast of some media networks.
The insistence of BNP and those who, in mid-October, formed the Jatiya Oikyafront that election under a political government will not be free and fair, had been well publicised. Albeit reluctant late starters in the election fray, there could not have been more effective a poster to make credible their claim than the publicity and sympathy they got by not having any posters. If it was a deliberate plan, those opposed to the ruling party had been incredibly successful.
Again, going by their claim of oppression by the party in power, we may presume that all those presses were guarded by police. So, where was their will to contest the election and change the government?
Those in the Awami League camp who believe in the conspiracy theory are of the belief that those opposing the government may not have printed enough posters to embarrass the government and the Election Commission. In fact, their interpretation is that anti-Awami League elements may have printed thousands of posters of the incumbent government party, that is nouka, to press home their point of ruling party domination.
Likewise, for the other band of “schemers” (BNP, Gono Forum, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Krishak Sramik Janata League and Nagorik Oikya), the few we saw of the opposition parties must have been printed by government sympathisers to demonstrate equilibrium.
It is important for television to reach every home, when pro, anti and those on the fence will be able to speak directly to the people. Street posters will then become redundant. In the US, UK and EU, politicians hand out flyers with a smile when they move door to door, shop to shop. The rest they see on TV.
Till then we will never know the truth about who did and who did not, for they work stealthily in the darkness of the night. Come the morning, they are as holy as the flower.
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.