Vol. 4 Num 61 Sat. July 26, 2003  

Government's role in image politics

The government, as the most dominant institutions, has a longstanding tradition of projecting an image of the country. Unfortunately though, in Bangladesh the government practice of image building is extremely flawed and problematic contravening the nuances of image politics and creating more holes in the process than solving. As a result the concept of image politics elicits a negative response from us; because we are all too familiar with the government tendency to say all is good all the time. For example, the standard practice of showing 'normal' goings-on during hartal days on government controlled media is well known to us. (While it is true that strikes have become virtually non-effective these days, there were time when they were effective, although not because of bona fide public participation). The institution's intent to engage in image politics is thus apparent in its continuous and conscious effort to project a heartening picture of the country as with the hartal days but in effect it also demonstrates how misguided and misconstrued its policy regarding image politics actually is.

At the cost of sounding cliched, in today's increasingly interconnected world it is not without consequence what the others think of and its own citizens feel about Bangladesh. As a result, image is important and we should actively and continuously work out a positive portrayal of the country that is, at the same time, rooted in actual accomplishments. And as a representative institution as well as the sole decision and policy maker of the country, with a reach so pervasive and a scope so wide, the government's role in that process is crucial. That means it must engage in a well thought-out process of image politics, a process that calls for two roles, one proactive and the other reactive, that the government must perform judiciously and seriously. The proactive role is to project a positive image of the country without overlooking the problems we face, and the reactive role is to respond to negative publicity maturely without trying to deny the issue altogether.

We must remember that as it is important to portray an image that is reflective of realities, it is equally, if not more, important to systematically promote an image that not only highlights our achievements but also sends out the message that we are dealing with our problems. And it is important to do so for two reasons: one is for the citizens to institute confidence in the government and by extension on the future of the country. The second reason lies with our relationship with outsiders -- from the outsiders' perspective we will be judged on the confidence they invest on us based on the government's image and in a world where we are more often than not a small player. At the receiving end of things our bargaining power depends on that image [on issues such as dictating terms of trade, negotiating Bangladeshi immigrants' rights and aid policy, attracting foreign direct investment, etc]. Yet here exactly lies the biggest challenge for the government because that requires not only prudence but also a major attitude and behaviour change on how the government chooses to conduct and promote itself.

First, let's examine what it means for the institution to project a positive image. The answer lies with the role of the government and the political culture of the country whereby any and all success stories are somewhat hijacked by the government of the day as its own and unique achievement. For example, the recognition of February 21st as the International Mother Language Day by the UN was the result of a persistent campaign by two expatriate Bangladeshis yet the previous government was unashamed in claiming the achievement as a success of its own design. The problem with government policy of image politics is that highlighting and promoting a positive portrayal means self-promotion and unnecessary exaggerations while dealing with the negative things translates into wholesale denial without any critical self-assessment.

The government's policy of self-congratulation, unfortunately, is a philosophy singularly nurtured to wipe out criticism and dissent that attributes all ills to opposition or outside conspiracy; it is a philosophy based upon complacency and sometimes even prevarication of facts. In the recently organised South Asian Free Media Conference the prime minister claimed credit for her government for growth of the communications sector, empowerment of women and so on without forgetting to mention the "sad episodes" of the history of the country when press freedom was restricted, conveniently and obviously referring to periods in history when it was the opposition that was the propagator of the crime. Customary of the self-congratulating streak present in all governments, the PM went on to say, "Wipe out the picture of suffering, afflicted and distressed Bangladesh, and supplant it with the picture of an active, enterprising Bangladesh full of potential" (The Daily Star, 5.27.03). May I point out that it is certainly not the responsibility of the media to supplant one picture with another, nor is it the government's job to do so without actually changing the so-called picture on the ground.

The ground reality of Bangladesh lies somewhere between the PM's spectrum -- in many ways Bangladesh is a place full of potential yet it is not also free of the sufferings and afflictions of a poor country. As a result any effort to wipe out that picture without changing the actual reality amounts to blatant distortion. While this government can certainly claim credit for many achievements, such as establishing macro economic stability, trying to reduce air pollution in Dhaka city and clamping down on cheating during examinations, there are feats that are the result of years of contribution from successive governments. Still there are other developments that were opposition achievements while it was in power. And in reality this government or any other has not yet achieved a degree of success that can really wipe out the picture afflicted with our problems. As a result, the government must understand that positive portrayal should not be blatant self-promotion but rather a systematic practice that promotes actual achievements by giving credit where it is due. Second comes the more delicate task of actually responding to negative publicity. And nowhere has the institution been so inept whereby the knee jerk reactions of it can be at best described as imprudent laced by customary rhetoric and wholesale denial of the issue at hand. Instead of critical analysis and a subsequent response based on facts the governments resort to finger pointing and mind-numbing conspiracy theories justifying their position as an effort to protect the country's image. A normal practice for the government is to ban books, films, magazine, etc. that criticise the institution or at least are perceived to be threatening to the country's image. The common line taken by the government in such an event is that particular item is damaging to the country's image, that it has hurt the sentiment of the people and/or that piece is without any factual basis. What the institution fails to understand is that there is no alternative to openness regardless of the content and intention of a negative publicity. The practice of sweeping any and all criticism under the carpet on the above pretexts is a sad remnant of the past that only undermines the credibility of the institution. Besides, why this excuse of public sentiment? The public or for that matter the government [and even any other institution or an individual if it comes down to that] should be able to handle criticism more professionally and maturely. The merit should be left to open and rational discussion and debate and ultimately judged by those standards only.

To better understand this practice let us examine the more recent negative publicities that have come our way and the way they were handled by the governing institution. Clearly the Far Eastern Economic Review and Time reports and the subsequent ill fated escapades by two Channel 4 journalists (who lost all moral authority the moment they chose to conceal their real identities and purpose of mission in the visa application) produced or aimed to produce unfounded accusations and were motivated by malevolence and a preconceived agenda. And as a result the government as well as the public had all the right reasons to feel vexed and wronged. In the face of such besmirching campaigns it was only normal that the government would respond in an equally rational manner for which it had the moral high ground from the beginning. Yet the government acted in the same predictable manner emblematic of its attitude towards such issues. The government decision to haul up the Channel 4 journalists along with their local associates and then freeing the foreigners while still detaining the locals is evidence of a very confused policy. Furthermore the government chose to remain quiet for some time about the fiasco and when it chose to clarify, only falsifying the visa issue came up. The government instead should have done a comprehensive investigation on their activities (examining interviews, interviewees, the context of such interviews and so on) and shared the findings with the public.

Regarding the magazines the government resorted to the same ban-culture and counter vilification. How, may I ask, has it helped us by banning the magazines? It would have been a far more prudent and pragmatic decision to analyse and expose the errors (deliberate or otherwise) of the reports down to the very cover of the FEER that was actually a picture from Gujarat protesting the atrocities against Muslims in the state. We, the people, have a right to know of the criticisms (be it mere slander or justified) that come our way and the government has an obligation to engage itself and the public in a healthy debate in such an event.

More importantly, notwithstanding the reality that all of these campaigns had a more fictional rather than a factual basis it certainly has not helped our case by wholesale denial. The fact is Bangladesh has generally been and remains a tolerant and progressive Muslim nation and to portray the country as a bastion of Islamic terrorism was a sinister attempt by dubious means. Even more questionable in this regard was the activities of some Bangladeshi quarters in abetting and promoting these campaigns. Yet, in a world rife with Islamphobia, we should tread the waters more carefully rather than a brusque denial because the burden will be on us if there are any indications otherwise. The truth is there are some Islamic radical fringe groups operating inside the country, e.g., Hizbut Tauhid and the like. It is also common knowledge that a segment of the madrassahs and other Islamic organisations endorse, encourage and indulge in fanaticism and prejudice under the guise of Islamic education and philosophy and promote a brand of Islam that is highly controversial. Although these groups are still effectively isolated from mainstream politics and do not present any imminent challenge and/or threat to the existing political status quo, their activities, nonetheless, call for close scrutiny and monitoring.

What transpires through this analysis is that to engage in image politics reflective of actual realities of Bangladesh a degree of maturity and a change of attitude are needed from the governing institution. It is time the institution understands the true meaning of image politics rather than the myopic and mindless self-promotion and glossing over of criticism that we have come to equate the concept with. The disconnect that we see between the government image of the country and the actual realities continually forces us to discount the credibility of the institution. The disconnect on the other hand exists because of a feeling of insecurity that is the result of interlinking party politics with government functions.

If the three free and fair elections we have had in the last twelve years demonstrate anything it is the people's ability to make informed and educated judgment about whom they choose to elect. It is clear that the electorate is not convinced by the mere propaganda as the focal point of an image building process but an image that is based on performance and actual realities of Bangladesh. As a result elected governments on their part should realise that five years spent by pandering and currying favours to party loyalists and strategising to stay in power indefinitely shall ultimately yield no benefit. By extricating party politics from government functions the institution can feel secure and be less threatened by criticism and can ultimately engage in image politics that is healthy as well as necessary for Bangladesh.

Parsa S Sajid is a social activist.