While visiting Princeton University in New Jersey recently, the idea of visiting Albert Einstein's residence tickled my mind. Google Maps showed the address, 112 Mercer Street, and the journey took a 14-minute walk. It was a big surprise when we reached there on a sunny day and found no crowd around. A simple two-storey cottage bearing a sign of “private residence – no trespassing” tells us the story of housing an unparalleled genius of the last millennium for 20 years since 1935. Einstein was known for shunning publicity, and he didn't want his house turned into a museum after his death.
Even Rabindranath Tagore dismissed the idea of a grand reception following his winning the Nobel Prize. Instead, he requested the enthusiasts to let him complete his unfinished tasks at Viswabharaty in Santiniketan.
All great personalities in history have shown that true greatness lies in humility, not pride or publicity. Had our politicians had the humility to shun cheap publicity, our country would have been a much nicer place, and much hassle could be avoided. While advertisement for products is a marketing necessity, rampant publicity as evident in the millions of posters exhibiting political candidates and activists is nothing but a social disease.
Let's face it: such publicity is a problem that needs to be fixed for everyone's sake. Thankfully, the Election Commission has formulated some rules to bring the publicity trend under control. Reforms are also needed to 1) clean up the city streets, 2) reduce waste of resources, and 3) devise new sources of tax collection. The government can formulate a new Publicity Act which will be beneficial for economic, aesthetic, and environmental reasons. And this is especially needed with the national parliamentary election only about a year and so away, when posters and billboards will in all likelihood engulf our cities and towns.
I remember while travelling from Dhaka to Nalitabari, the bus carrying me would often come to a halt near the Brahmaputra Bridge in Mymensingh, thanks to traffic jam. It was painful sitting helplessly inside a bus, but it was more painful watching the roadside billboards containing the pictures of some potential candidates in some election or other. Their boastful claims about their suitability and links to well-known political figures, real or imagined, lacked basic decency and were too much to digest.
I think the National Board of Revenue (NBR) should take the matter into account and impose punitive taxes on those behind the posters and billboards, declaring them a public nuisance. Those publicity-seekers can't just punish the spectators for their own petty gains without having to pay a price for that themselves. The two mayors of Dhaka city have, on more than one occasion, talked about the disease of publicity and how it is making their job to keep the streets clean difficult. So, appropriate laws along with penalties and taxes can be an effective response to this disease.
Interestingly, those behind the publicity billboards employ clever strategies. They understand the importance of appearing to be associated with those leading the party in power, which they think can improve their chances of getting nominations or fulfilling certain demands in future.
How many faces are there following the three set photos at the top? It depends. If, say, the home minister is visiting a place, his photo will be there followed by the pictures of the local MP, Upazila chairman, the mayor, and so on. And lastly, the face of a self-proclaimed emerging leader of the locality. Local people should promptly familiarise themselves with this “respectable” face so that ordinary citizens don't hesitate to pay “subscriptions” to this “benevolent” man when he kindly knocks on their door!
Thus, a poster embodies a number of political and financial objectives. I often wonder why our government does not punish the environmental vandals who make 10 to 20 gates when a minister or an influential leader visits a place. Why do we need to tolerate the unsavoury spectacle of a hundred gates erected all over the capital city just before a politically important day? Are these signs of respect or something else?
The publicity culture must be regulated the way it is done in other countries. I live in a small American town where I have never seen the faces of the mayors. Only when the election campaign is launched, you can see their names on small display cards pasted on poles in front of some front yards. Even in Singapore, which is closer to Bangladesh, I saw no posters even before two days of the national election.
So, I think we may devise a strategy based on the good examples from other democratic countries. And under no circumstances should we allow the epidemic of publicity the way it is going on now, by wasting resources and damaging the environment.
Biru Paksha Paul is an associate professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland.