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     Volume 7 Issue 51 | January 2, 2009 |

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A Roman Column

Heads or Tails?

Neeman Sobhan

“Mamani! Kaarey bhot dimu? Who should I vote for?” Asks my cleaning lady, as I make her wind up her day's chores in preparation for her to go cast her vote. Sahera Khatoon is both excited and shy. “Dhaaner sheesh na Nouka? You tell me. ”

The Sheaf of Paddy or the Boat? The quintessential question of the hour, indeed. But what touches and scares me is the innocence of this voter in placing all her trust in me, her employer, and my 'educated' judgement, for a decision that will probably affect her class much more fundamentally than mine. Little does she know that no amount of education, information, late night watching of 'Road to Democracy' and other talk shows or participation in endless discussions and debates has given anyone a clear picture of what is the best of a bad scenario.

Sahera is not unaware of the past misdeeds and murky moral record of the two major political parties. But her main preoccupations as a working widow and only breadwinner of her family are food prices, her personal security and freedom of movement as a woman, and the future of her orphaned children. I give her a short political overview about the agendas and the pros and cons of the two main parties, as well as the excess baggage each is bringing along this time.

I also gear up to explain to her the importance and intricacies of the 'no-vote' option in the easiest way possible, but she already knows it. “Haw, kono prarthirey upojukto na money hoiley NA-BHOT koron jaaye.” I burst out laughing at the fluency of her dialogue learnt from television in the well executed political awareness advertisements that I thought only I watched as I constantly surfed the Bnagladeshi TV channels. I marvel at how much the unlettered class learns from watching television and listening to sound bites. The importance of the electronic media and the responsibility devolving from this becomes more and more apparent as I talk to all the staff of my apartment building as well as the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Like the consumer in the advertising world, the common man is vulnerable to catchy slogans, clever words and phrases, engaging images and symbols, visualisation that canvas ideas on the television screen. The simple herd instinct also works in making up the undecided political mind.

The man in the street is not really all that street wise to being brain-washed, and can be easily manipulated, by the government, the campaigning candidates and parties, the electronic and visual media, by microphonic means, and .......even by their employers. For example, I know that Sahera would vote for whoever I asked her to. And the percentage of these easily manipulated voters is overwhelmingly larger than the discerning and educated ones.

So, we, the urban electorate are at the mercy of both the political parties and the half literate crowds it is able to generate around themselves. How to make this population more aware and responsible about its crucial role in the democratic process is the most significant issue of the day.

And this element, the voting public, the 'us' factor as against the 'them' who are trying to woo our votes is what puts a smile on my face today, election day, as I go around the streets of Dhaka absorbing the wonderfully festive mood of the city.

Under the fluttering posters and bunting a carefree seeming populace strolls on residential streets as if out visiting on Eid. Near the BIT school, which is the polling centre for my area, I spot a group of friends. As we wave and cheer, I almost feel like shouting “ Vote Mubarak!”

For the first time I don't want to worry about the outcome of the voting. What is heartening is the outpouring of the people in the streets in the true spirit of democracy, revelling in the freedom to cast our vote in a peaceful environment.

I congratulate the caretaker government for having fulfilled its last and most important duty and having created a smooth and efficient voting process and a delightful Election Day. What will be the conclusive scene in this drama will transpire not just with the result of the final vote count and announcing of the victor of the election, but in the months and years to come.

But, at least we won't be able to deny that on the 29th of December, on a lovely, sunny winter's day, in a happy and peaceful environment, we the Bangali nation were able to take part in a crucial part of the democratic process. And it is the process as much as the end result which will determine how democracy will fare in our country. I believe we have a very good chance. At least, we old timers who saw the first election of 1970's and the new generation of Bangladeshis who never saw an election, were happy to have exercised our basic and sacred democratic right.

I feel optimistic that whoever comes to power, this time around, we the people will be more self-aware. We will not allow any party or individual to easily hijack our basic privileges. If we the educated, civil society wants, by creating pressure groups and by participating more directly in the political process and by using the electronic and news media responsibly, we can protect our basic rights.

Today, as I think of boats and paddy fields, which belong not to any party but to us people, I feel we the voters and the 'No-Vote' voters, have today tossed the proverbial coin. Heads or tails? Had I been in a pessimistic mood I could have said: Heads they win; tails we lose. But today with the spirit of democracy alive and well on the street, I would like to salute us, the enfranchised and politically aware people and say:

Heads or Tails: WE must win! We Will Win---- in the end!


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