The Hero Bangladesh Deserves

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The Hero Bangladesh Deserves

What does Hero Alom’s candidacy say about the state of Bangladesh’s politics?

The Hero Bangladesh Deserves
Credit: Facebook

There’s no dearth of cringe-worthy YouTube and Facebook videos in Bengali cyberspace, but few match up to Hero Alom’s audacity.

His off-key singing, klutzy dancing, garish clothes, production values, scripts — every part of his work is a screaming sacrilege to even the most base forms of art. And everyone knows it.

Comments on his videos, for example, often say things like: “This video gave me brain cancer,” “Having watched this, I don’t want to live anymore,” “If Alom is an actor, cockroaches are birds.”

But Alom appears to be well beyond the human capacity of being shamed into stopping what he does. In fact, he thrives off an unflinching shamelessness and has produced over 300 such videos and songs; many have view counts running into several million.

In November, Alom decided to cash in on his YouTube and Facebook popularity by deciding to run for office in the upcoming Bangladeshi general elections.

His nomination was rejected by the Bangladeshi Election Commission, but here, too, there was no stopping him.

Alom took the Election Commission to court for unfairness and won his nomination back. He is now contesting the upcoming general elections on December 30, 2018.

The “Troll” Candidate

“All I can say is, you can’t turn Hero to Zero,” Alom says, opening his interview with me over the phone from his home in Bogra, Bangladesh.

It’s a practiced line — one he’s delivered at several press conferences.

His words are soft, unchallenging and there’s a quiver of uncertainty belying his trademark overconfidence. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is his first interview with a foreign journalist, or perhaps like a true troll, he doesn’t quite believe what he tells the world.

Narrating his life’s story Hero Alom, real name Ashraful Alom Hossain, says he still lives where he was born — Bogra, in the Rajshahi division of Bangladesh. He’s the sole income-earning member in his family, which consists of his wife and two pre-teenage children.

Having studied up to just grade seven, Alom had no prospect of landing a job. So he started up a DVD rental business. With the advent of Direct to Home satellite TV, he became a franchisee of Dish TV.

He would watch hours of movies — especially those of Shah Rukh Khan — he said of his journey to becoming Hero Alom.

“And then I began asking myself: why can’t I be Shah Rukh Khan? Why can’t I be a hero? The answer was, I can. I just have to believe I am a hero and I will be.”

“Alom is a common name you see,” he explained of his name’s evolution. “So people would save my name as Dish Alom in their mobile phones and that became my name. People simply attached my name to my profession and that became my identity. So when I wanted people to think of me as a Hero — and I really felt the heroism bubbling inside me — I started a Facebook with the handle Hero Alom and began posting my videos to it. See how it’s worked? Now everyone calls me Hero!”

“Who makes these videos,” I ask him.

“Myself of course!” he replies.

With a little help from friends, he began shooting his videos on handheld cameras and later mobile phones. To date, his videos remain self-produced and self-financed.

“I loved music so singing and dancing came easily to me,” he says, oblivious to his questionable talent. “What was difficult at first was to get the right kind of dancing talent. But now that I’m a success, that’s not a problem anymore. They come to me of their own.”

“Dancing talent” is a euphemism for the women who gyrate seductively around him in his videos.

“I’m a self-made man,” he declares, Donald Trump-like, ignoring my question about what made him decide to contest elections and not stick to making music videos. “And that’s my greatest strength. No matter who says what, I’ve never lost, and I won’t lose [the elections] this time either.”

This is Alom’s second go at elections. The last time he tried winning a place in the local self-government, he lost.

“I wasn’t famous then,” he brushes it off. “Nowhere near what I am now. And I lost only by 16 votes.”

For the 2018 general elections, Alom had first been backed by the Jatiya Party — a party led by the former military dictator, General Ershad. But the Jatiya Party withdrew its support and offering no explanation issued a press statement saying they never had any plans to give Alom an election ticket.

Having tasted success in the newsrooms of TV channels, Alom wasn’t turning back. He went ahead and filed his nomination as an independent candidate.

“Name one person from Bogra who is more popular than me?” he challenges. I admit to knowing no one. “See? That’s why I’ll win. I’m the face everyone knows.”

The incumbent parliamentarian from Bogra belonged to the Jatiya Somajtantri Dol (National Socialist Party). Currently, a staunch ally of the government, the National Socialists have withdrawn its candidate in favor of one from the ruling Awami League. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party, also has a candidate in the fray, but neither of Alom’s competitors has the name recognition value that he does.

If clicks and views are a metrics to go by, Alom is certainly more popular than any other politician or political party in Bangladesh.

Started in February 2018, Hero Alom’s official YouTube page — which he manages by himself — has more than 207,000 subscribers and a total of more than 25 million views. The Awami League’s official page, run with a significantly bigger stash of public funds and managed by a professional IT cell, has about 48,000 subscribers and just over 9 million views.

Other Bangladeshi parties aren’t even on YouTube.

Alongside politics, Alom has sparked a debate in Dhaka’s art circles.

“New art always upsets the old guard — Alom is no exception,” declared Uttam Kumar, a student of the Dhaka University’s celebrated and historically radical art department. Kumar made headlines by making a sculpture of Alom and installing it on campus. “Even before we ask whether a work of art is good or bad, we need to ask whether art can ever be acceptable to society?”

Dr. Dipti Datta, scholar and faculty of Fine Art refused to take a stand on this.

“Do I find Alom vulgar? Do I find it full of crass sexual objectification of women? Yes,” she says. “But my question is, given the biases I have in me as an educated, privileged person, am I even the right person to talk about it? There is ample vulgarity in high art as well. But maybe I don’t mind it that much because the practitioners of high art speak my tongue. Alom speaks the tongue of the suburban masses — so the right person to ask this question about whether or not he’s vulgar, whether or not he’s offensive, is best posed to a woman from that milieu. The last thing I want to do is be a Victorian and call him a crass native.”

To be fair, Alom isn’t alone when it comes to the kind of music videos he does or gaining sudden popularity. Not just Bangladesh, but India and Pakistan, despite being home to massive mainstream film and music industries, have given birth to such “stars.”

India’s Dhinchak Pooja, with her 437,000 followers and over 78 million views, and Pakistan’s Taher Shah, with his 4 million views, are both monuments to bad singing.

“The problem,” Datta says, “[i]s, in part, that in today’s times, we don’t anymore know the difference between what’s popular and what’s democratic. Is popularity of one kind equivalent to the popularity of any other kind? Trump was funny. Some say our military dictator General Ershad was funny too. But does that make them good enough to be our rulers? At least on these counts, Alom isn’t that bad a political persona!”

Alom has also latched onto the victimhood narrative well. He deflects most criticism of his work by saying he’s being attacked for his looks and poverty.

“If I was six feet tall and was fair and had money, would these people be asking me these questions?” Alom says of his critics. “They call me cheap because they can’t stand my success — the success of a poor man with less than perfect looks rankles them.”

“The internet is increasingly becoming a place where you have to be ridiculous to get attention,” Sharmee Hossain, singer, and professor of linguistics at the North South University. “Kim Kardashian’s butt has to be ridiculously big to break the internet. Trump has to type in all caps and add a gazillion exclamation marks in his tweets to be noticed and throw the news cycle in a tizzy.”

It’s not only the braggadocio of being a self-made man, or deflection of criticism claiming victimhood, which Alom shares with the American president. It’s also the way he went from being a side joke who couldn’t possibly be taken seriously, to a mainstream media phenomenon who TV channels brought on for prime time talk shows, on to becoming a candidate they now can’t shake off.

“He’s the perfect troll candidate,” Liton Nandi, a student leader at the Dhaka University tells me. He’s the secretary of the Chatra Union, the student wing of the Communist Party of Bangladesh.

An organizer of the recent anti-quota movement that had taken Bangla politics by storm earlier this year, Nandi says: “Alom was this curiosity that students would share around on their phones for laughs. But TV channels called him on their shows to cash in on his online popularity. As far as I can recall, it was a joke when a few people started telling him he should consider running for office. And now he is actually running for elections and is a real threat to candidates of the parties they [the TV channels] are beholden to.”

The Hero Bangladesh Deserves

“He’s nothing like Trump,” Dr. Fahmidul Haq, argues. Haq is a professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the Dhaka University and has authored scholarly analyses of social media and its interaction with Bangla politics and society.

“Trump is an elite whereas Hero Alom is [relatively] a pauper,” Haq continues. “The fact that he doesn’t look like a hero but acts like one, is what appeals so much to the middle class. When he sticks to doing what he does, despite being mocked by mainstream media, he challenges the class biases of the media elite of the country. And we [Bengalis] love the underdog. In that way, Hero Alom is the very ethos of this country’s politics.”

Haq is correct in his observation about how attacking Alom from an elitist pedestal has been counterproductive.

Ekattor TV, a leading private channel known to be pro-Awami League, invited Alom on a prime-time talk show. But the interaction turned sour when the anchor attacked Alom, calling him at best a clown who entertained people but lacking the gravitas to be a member of the national parliament.

This led to widespread condemnation on social media of both the channel and the anchor and ended up generating a sympathy wave for Alom.

“Irrespective of what he does or how he does it, he has every right to contest elections,” Abu Rayhan, an undergraduate student at the Dhaka University said. Students of the university had given Alom an impromptu reception and Q&A session the day before.

“If you change the criteria for accepting or rejecting a candidate depending on whether or not you personally like him, then is it a democracy anymore?” Rayhan said, echoing the sentiment of many of his colleagues on campus. “Who is qualified enough? How do you decide who qualifies? Bangladesh is full of people who aren’t educated in the formal sense but they’ve done really good work on the ground.”

“Yes, I studied only till grade seven because I had no money after that. And yes I have no experience in politics. But there are many in the parliament who never had political experience. Cricketers and singers are in there too. If they can dream of being politicians why can’t I?”

Alom has dreams of winning, but no formal manifesto or real plans about what he’ll do after winning. He wears that lack of plans on his political sleeves.

“Roads, water, sanitation, local health clinics,” Alom says when I ask him about his election promises. But offers no details. Instead, he says: “I’m a small man from a small town, what do I know of big things? The local people of Bogra will vote for me, and I will work locally for them.”

This lack of concrete plans seems to sit well with some sections of the middle class and certainly many online.

“There’s an ennui with leaders who talk big and deliver little,” Atiqur Rahman says. Rahman runs an NGO working for digital civil rights and is one of Alom’s main supporters. “Alom is a respite from those bogus leaders who are all talk. Besides the parliament is full of crooks who are there with no real qualification in governance or public affairs. Alom is an honest man who’s never committed one single crime. What disqualifies him? Let the people decide if he’s fit or unfit”

“You need to understand his rise in the context of how things are currently under the Awami League government,” Dr. Fahmidul Haq weighs in. “The internet in general and social media, in particular, brought about an unprecedented democratization of media in Bangladesh. It’s an arena of class conflict. The mainstream led by the elites pushing back against Alom and Alom resisting that has greater symbolic value than just he and his quest to win elections.”

Haq’s analysis sits on solid political reality.

Given the censorship and control exerted by the last military government, blogs written by non-resident Bengalis had become a rallying ground for pro-democracy sentiments. Feeding into ground movements they paved the way for the installation of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance in 2008.

Post-2008, blogs, with the new addition of Facebook, once again became the place where anti-Islamist, progressive youth found a voice.

Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest hard-line Islamist party, was heavily invested in the media business of Bangladesh and wielded an influence over public discourse that was disproportionate to their vote share. This led to an undeclared moratorium on talking about war crimes committed by Pakistan aligned Islamist militias — many of whose leaders were then in the Jamaat and held important posts.

“It would appear as if all was forgiven and forgotten and none but a few of us wanted to talk about it and create unnecessary trouble,” Baki Billah, a leader of the Shahbag movement had explained. “But when we started posting and blogging we found that no, there were hundreds, and times thousands, of people who thought like we did and wanted historical injustices to be tried and justice is given to those who had suffered.”

The blogs and microblogs with their organic and instantaneous reach operated outside the sphere of Islamist influence. These posts led to informal gatherings, the gatherings to what became the famous Shahbag Square movement, and the ensuing reopening of the War Crimes Tribunal and the banning of the Jamaat-e Islami.

But no sooner had the Awami League settled into power, they decided to reign in Bangladesh’s “unruly” social media.

“The Awami League government wants to surveil all young people — they fear the youth and their refusal to give unconditional obedience,” Haq continued.

In the summer of this year, Haq was attacked and grievously injured by thugs of the Chattra League (student wing of the ruling Awami League), for posting condemnations of brutal police action on university students.

“First they brought in section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act which said anyone can be arrested by the police for posting anything to social media if it was unilaterally deemed offensive. Then they replaced it with the Digital Security Act which gives even more sweeping powers to the government to control both individuals and legacy media outlets. See the attempts to block Hero Alom’s nomination in that context and you’ll see why he’s struck a chord with the cyberspace of Bangladesh.”

Alom has become an unlikely hero even beyond the discourse of free speech and internet regulation and has found allies among other candidates whose nominations had been rejected by the Election Commission.

“The Election Commission, which is carrying out this so-called verification of legitimacy for candidates, is itself an illegitimate entity,” a senior leader of the Bangladesh National Party said. Concerned about violent reprisals from the ruling government, he requested anonymity.

Before the transfer of power in 2008 from the caretaker (military) government to the civilian one led by Awami League supremo Sheikh Hasina and her Grand Alliance, all major parties and the armed forces had signed an agreement saying that whenever the time came for elections to be held, an interim government would be put in place and the incumbent would resign. This would ensure free and fair elections.

But citing threats to national security from Islamists, the Awami league went back on that promise and for the upcoming 2018 elections, the Election Commission remains full of partisan appointees with questionable neutrality. Opposition parties are crying foul over scores of nominations being rejected by the Commission on flimsy grounds.

“The idea that the election will be anywhere near free or fair is a joke,” the BNP leader continued. “In which democracy can you refuse to give the supreme leader of the opposition [Begum Khaleda Zia] a nomination? They aren’t even pretending neutrality anymore.”

Alom and his rejection have put him at the eye of this other storm.

“I was rejected by the Election Commission absolutely unfairly,” Alom said. “I gathered the necessary signatures and they said: I have faked 20 of them. If I can go from door to door and gather a thousand signatures, am I mad to fake 10? Also, the place I come from is full of semi-literate people like me who can’t sign even if they want to. So their signatures look like fake scribbles. But does that mean their support matters less than someone who sits in Dhaka and can read and write well?”

“There is a larger debate to be had here about the electoral process itself,” Liton Nandi, the communist student leader says. “Who came up with this rule that independent candidates must gather signatures of 1 percent of the voters and only then they can file a nomination, whereas people backed by official parties don’t need that? This is nothing but a ploy to perpetuate a sort of plutocracy within the mechanisms of democracy. It is immaterial whether or not I like Hero Alom and his music videos. He should be able to contest elections whenever he wants. It’s for the people to decide whether or not they want him as anything more than the entertainer he is.”