For many animal species, diversion is necessary for survival. The killdeer, for example, is famous for putting up quite a show. It will fly off her nest and pretend to be injured to divert an intruder away from her nesting ground. Once the threat has been lured away, the killdeer will take to the air, having fooled the predator—leaving it with nothing.
Human beings are both similar and not-so-similar. We, too, masterfully use the art of distraction in order to survive. But unlike the killdeer, distraction, for us, mainly serves plain sinister, selfish purposes. And no one uses diversion as a means to an end more than the politicians.
Diversions are an indispensable tool for the politicians to disrupt public attention. They are integral to shaping public opinion, silencing dissent, passing bad laws—you name it. Of course, this is a wholly subjective matter given its covert nature—what one deems to be a diversion others may not. But diversions have long been part and parcel of political life.
A little-known example of alleged political diversion is George W Bush's signing into law the HR 2417, i.e. the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, on December 13, 2003, the same day Saddam was captured. The Act, which expanded the FBI's powers to investigate terrorism, was signed into law without much media frenzy and fanfare as people were too busy celebrating Saddam's capture. The law increased the number of businesses from which the FBI and other government agencies doing intelligence work could obtain financial records without court approval, among other expansionary powers.
While the above-mentioned is one of countless examples of political diversions whereby “external enemies” are used to keep people's attention off domestic matters, here, at home, the tactics and strategies used by politicians do not amount to “diversions” per se, and tend to be less subtle and less sophisticated. The primary focus of our politicians seems to be to confuse the public by way of making unscientific comparisons or denying the problem to divert attention away from the root of the problem. Let me explain.
In Bangladesh, it is not unusual for politicians to make illogical statements on issues of national interest. These not-so-well-thought-out declarations are usually spontaneous rather than pre-planned, and are almost always a form of defence mechanism used to avoid accountability.
Comparison with other countries and/or cities is the go-to tactic for our ministers and lawmakers. Take for example the comments of the LGRD minister from two months ago regarding waterlogging in Dhaka. As water choked the capital days on end, adding to the woes of Dhaka-dwellers, the LGRD minister had a more optimistic take on the roads-turning-into-rivers situation. He was quick to point out that waterlogging was much worse in Kolkata and Mumbai, hoping it would make us feel better about the fact that we don't have a working drainage system.
Although one may wonder what purpose such analogies serve, because they don't do anything to solve the problem at hand, in reality, it is a brilliant political manoeuvre. Because now the focus of the conversation has shifted to Dhaka-versus-another-city instead of the government's next course of action and whether or not it plans to do anything at all to resolve the chronic waterlogging problem.
If you have ever wondered why ministers and lawmakers readily make statements on the impressive GDP growth but stay mum when a girl is gang-raped on a moving bus, think about what headlines they would rather have dominating the news. It's a no-brainer. And this, too, is a shrewd political strategy whereby news that promotes economic stability is always preferable to that of sexual violence against women.
Political diversions and other tactics may look and sound different but the end purpose is always the same: give people something else to think and talk about. Some methods may be more overt than others. For example, the outright denial of a problem is nowhere near as subtle as a particular event getting excessive attention so that another can easily be swept under the rug as the public remains engrossed with the “more important” news.
Speaking of lack of subtlety, let's not forget our environment and forests minister who is most famous for his comment about the tiger population in the Sundarbans having dwindled due to the tigers going on a tour to India. He had in the past also rubbished as misleading a survey report which said that only 106 tigers are left in the Sundarbans, and told activists to not be too concerned with “some trees” being cut down. Instead of talking about the large-scale poaching of tigers and the ramifications of development taking place at the edge of the Sundarbans, our environment minister refused to even acknowledge the very real threat of extinction of the tigers, all the while implying that the root of the problem lies elsewhere or that the problem doesn't exist at all.
It's easy to spot these overly used tactics—especially when we are talking about Bangladeshi politics—because some of the things we hear simply go beyond comprehension. For example, when the water resources minister held rats accountable for the destruction of embankments which led to the devastating flash floods, it seemed more like an attempt to not respond to allegations of corruption and mismanagement behind the construction of dams. To be fair, he did admit that there could have been corruption but that was accompanied by the statement that it was part of the “total system where corruption exists.”
Unlike the killdeer, for which distraction is a matter of life and death, politicians use diversions, tactics, strategies—whatever you want to call it—more than just to survive: to deflect attention to further an ulterior motive. Tools such as comparison with other countries, denial mode, etc., foil any genuine attempt by civil society and the media to have a worthwhile conversation about pressing issues that truly affect us. And while feel-good headlines conveniently hog the limelight, it becomes easy for us to remain oblivious to all the wrongdoings and injustices being carried out in plain sight.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.